At the end of October, McKennah wrote this on my website: How do you know when to stop writing stuff for a certain story? I mean you could keep writing a story forever, but how do you know when enough is enough?
E.S. Ivy commented, Hmm... I get what she means because when I read a book, I always think about the story that goes on after it ends. :)
Maybe: Think in terms of an obstacle, task, or main milestone for the main character to achieve. Then your story is about how they go about getting there and the failed attempts. The story ends when the goal is obtained. I find that looking at early MG or chapter books are a great place to start picking out how to plan a story arc.
I piped in with: Just a definition for anyone who's uncertain: MG is middle grade, which would include books and stories for kids roughly in the eight-to-twelve-year-old range.
And Nikitah Luse added, Think of your over-arching story: Maybe you have such a long idea that it "may never end", but find places where you could cut a logical ending while still leaving it open for future stories. Example: Your story idea might be about a group of questers whose destiny it is to save a kingdom. Unfortunately, that can go on forever and ever with all of the side quests and problems. So you find that in your head the story has three main moments: the questers meeting, learning to work together, and fighting the bad guy at the end. That's three stories right there! Conclude the first after they have all managed to find one another and figure out what the problem to be overcome is, the second after they have bungled through many problems and are finally a team (maybe even one of their own is threatened--great cliffhanger!), and the third when the bad guy is defeated, the heroes are figuring out what to do to clean up the mess and what is next for them. And then you can keep going with another foe in your next story, but by this time your readers will know the characters and how they work together, so the hard part is done.
And Kenzi Anne contributed this: I used to have the same problem, and I felt like my stories were becoming never-ending rants. I decided to choose my endings by finding a point in the story when I could wrap up all my loose ends, especially the main problem that my story revolved around. That way I could find my ending. If I wanted to write a second book, then I could also use this method to separate the first story from the second but leave enough strings "untied" to still have an ongoing plot.
I think all these ideas are right. I’d like to highlight E. S. Ivy’s suggestion about looking at other books to help figure out how writers keep from nattering on forever.
Let’s do that together, using Peter Pan by James M. Barrie as an example. If you’ve never read it, Aaa! I don’t know what to suggest for reading this post, because it’s going to be full of spoilers. Maybe you should read it and come back. In my opinion, there’s a treat in store for you. It’s one of my favorite books.
Usually, a book introduces a problem somewhere near the beginning and solves it somewhere near the end. In Peter Pan, there are a few problems. One starts in the backstory when Peter runs away from home and becomes the enchanted character we know and love. His problem, which we pick up from hints that Barrie drops, is the conflict between his wish to stay a child and his desire for a family. Next, Wendy, Michael, and John lose their parents and their Nana (their dog) by flying away from home. And the Darlings and Nana lose their children. We’ve got three problems that are central to the plot. Important also is Captain Hook’s ambition to defeat Peter. That’s Hook’s problem; Peter doesn’t think about Hook all that much.
Peter’s problem is temporarily solved when Wendy and her brothers take up residence with him and the lost boys. He has a family and he doesn’t have to grow up. The Darlings and Nana are miserable. The story returns to them now and then but they don’t do much more than wring their hands or whimper.
The middle of the book, which isn’t very long, not long enough for me, brings the children to Neverland, introduces the island and its inhabitants, establishes a way of life there (which suggests time passing), and puts the boys and Wendy through an adventure on the lagoon. A single adventure! Unless I’m forgetting something. Maddeningly, Barrie dangles an array of adventures but chooses only one.
Then the beginning of the end begins. In the course of evening story time, Wendy’s brothers, John and Michael, reveal that they’re forgetting their original home. Wendy is alarmed, and a decision is reached to return. Then Hook attacks, which launches the book's crisis .
With Hook’s demise and the return of the children all the problems are solved, not happily for Hook. Peter remains young but alone, so the ending is mixed for him, and possibly also for the other children, who, in my interpretation, have a little lingering regret.
What an economical story it is! Barrie could have invented other adventures and threatened Peter and his merry band in myriad ways. The Darlings could have taken action, too, set out from the mainland or hired detectives or whatever else. Nana could have started swimming. Maybe Barrie did write more and cut those extra parts when he revised. The point is, he made a decision. He said, Enough!
And because he left us wanting more, stories have spun off his for a hundred years.
Let’s look at my The Two Princesses of Bamarre for a minute. It’s longer but simpler. There are two essential problems: the Gray Death and Addie’s timidity. When she sets out on her quest for the cure the middle of the book begins. There are three kinds of monsters in this world, and I wanted her to contend with each of them and with her fear. But I could have gone on longer. I could have made the disease develop more slowly so that other adventures could happen. I didn’t think it out that clearly, but I guess I felt that more would have been overload.
As we continue to write, we get better at sensing when we’ve reached a satisfying point in our story. For now, try the rule of three, which we often find in fairy tales. Cinderella goes to three balls and loses her slipper after the last one. The evil queen in “Snow White” makes two attempts on Snow White’s life before she finally seems to succeed on the third. The miller’s daughter gets three chances to guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name.
Success on the first or second try can seem too easy. On the fourth or twelfth, readers may be yawning or thinking our MC is useless. But we do want to vary the number in our stories sometimes. If we always follow the rule of three, we can become predictable.
Not all books introduce an overarching problem and then solve it. Some just cover a period of time with smaller problems along the way. I’m thinking of Little Women, for example. In the course of the book the girls face challenges and grow from little to big. Louisa May Alcott decided how many incidents to include at each stage in the lives of her MC's. When they’re big, the story ends.
Here are three prompts:
• Your characters are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by unfriendly dwarfs and fierce pirates. There's a traitor among the survivors. Staying alive is the problem. Endanger them three times before they establish themselves safely or escape.
• Your MC is at summer camp or boy or girl scout camp. The story ends when camp does. Create a series of problems as the camp experience progresses. Develop supporting characters, who can be other campers, counselors, the camp director, parents. Decide how many incidents you need to make the story feel complete.
• Cinderella and her stepsisters are just backstory. Your MC is the prince. At midnight, in the middle of the third ball, Cinderella runs out. Your MC chases her, trips on the stairs, tumbles down, hits his head, loses consciousness, and wakes up, holding one glass slipper, his memory gone. The only clue he has to his identity is the slipper. Take the story from there. He can wind up with Cinderella, or not.
Have fun, and save what you write!