How to Write Beginnings & Endings

Mirror.ReflectTomorrow is the final day to apply for the One Story Summer Workshop for Writers (July 14-19th, 2013 at the Center for Fiction in NYC)!!

Last week, One Story gave a “taste-test” of our workshop by hosting a free craft lecture, given by One Story Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti. Over fifty eager writers joined One Story in Brooklyn at our  home, the Old American Can Factory, for wine,  beer, snacks, and an engaging talk on how to write beginnings and endings.

In her lecture, Hannah started by comparing the first page of a short story to a first date. Imagine you’ve just asked out your reader. You’ll want to shower, dress up and look your best (fix that grammar & improper semi-colon). You don’t want to be boring (make something interesting happen on the first page). You don’t want to over-share (don’t over-burden the reader with too much back-story–save that for pages 2-3). You want there to be a second date (i.e.–for the reader to keep reading), so be sexy, mysterious, fun and most important: yourself. But: how can a writer make that happen on the page?

  • Write with authority–clear, confident sentences.
  • Set the stage–make the setting/place vibrant right away so the reader gets oriented.
  • Introduce the major characters–so the reader knows who the players are.
  • Start with action–early active scenes will capture the reader’s interest.
  • Establish the characters’ emotional situation–all stories are about something changing–show the reader how things look “before” this change.
  • Hint at the overall intention of the piece–what is this story going to be about?

For examples, Hannah pointed to a few opening lines from the masters:

The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station.–“Reunion” by John Cheever

In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I’m in the third checkout slot, with my back to the door, so I don’t see them until they’re over by the bread.–“A&P” by John Updike

She flicked her wrist neatly out of Doctor Harry’s pudgy careful fingers and pulled the sheet up to her chin. –“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter

A look at these first lines shows how quickly the necessary orientation can take place. The shortest is perhaps the most powerful. With just twelve words, Cheever introduces the main characters–a father and son, their relationship–tenuous at best, and setting–Midtown Manhattan. Instantly, intriguing questions pop into the reader’s mind.

Although first dates are often full of hope and excitement, nearly all break-ups are horrible. There is a big dramatic fight, or a mean text-message, or worst of all: radio silence. In this same way, Hannah explained, many short stories end badly, without the proper resolution, leaving readers unsatisfied or confused. The best endings are thoughtful and meaningful, respectful of readers and emotionally moving, right up to and even past the final page. Here’s a few tricks Hannah shared to help make this happen:

  • Slow down time on the page, by lengthening descriptions and paragraph length, as well as cutting down on dialogue.
  • Focus on the main theme of the story without being too obvious.
  • Use the five senses in the last two paragraphs to bring emotional clarity without being overly-explicit. It allows the reader to experience a situation alongside the character. To feel what they feel.
  • Like a well-written obituary, or a moving memorial service, the ending of your story should leave a resonance, an echo that continues and stays with the the reader even after they’ve put down your book.

Now let’s take a look at the last lines of our master stories:

Goodbye, Daddy,’ I said, and I went down the stairs and got my train, and that was the last time I saw my father.–“Reunion” by John Cheever

I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.– “A & P” by John Updike

Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this—I’ll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.– “The Jilting of Grannie Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter

Hannah went through all of these endings, but for time I’ll just repeat her close read of “Reunion.” Rather than finish with the father’s drunken antics, Cheever adroitly takes the first words of the story, and reuses them as the last words, creating a circular structure. This implicitly brings the reader back to the beginning of the story, reminding him of the journey taken, and underlining the words–“the last time”–which now hold greater meaning.

Like mirrors, Hannah later explained, the beginning and ending of a story should reflect everything that has happened in the story. The best writers re-write their first and last paragraphs over and over, until they gently echo each other, creating the sense of “infinity” of two mirrors, facing one-another on opposite walls (see pic above).

Wish you were there that night? Ready for more talks like this one? Then it’s time to submit to the One Story Workshop for Writers, an intensive learning experience from July 14th to 19th, where you’ll get a great lecture like this everyday, along with an intense morning workshop and evening panels with editors, agents, and MFA directors. We hope you take advantage of this opportunity and join us this summer. The deadline to apply is April 30th–tomorrow at midnight! Visit our website for more information. And many thanks to our Chief Hannah Tinti, for providing us all with this fun and informative night of starts and finishes.

Beginnings & Endings: A Free Craft Lecture by Hannah Tinti on April 18th!

Ending.Beginning Please join us for a wine and cheese reception and a free craft lecture on beginnings and endings by One Story Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti. This event is presented by the One Story Workshop for Writers.

Where: Our home: The Old American Can Factory 232 3rd St. Brooklyn, NY 11215

When: Thursday, April 18th, 6:30pm

This night is a rare example of the insightful lectures and events that will be held during the One Story Workshop for Writers from July 14-19th, 2013. This intimate 6-day workshop is for writers who are considering the next step in their career, be it an MFA program or a residency or balancing the demands of a full-time job while sending out work. In addition to morning workshops taught by former Associate Editor Marie-Helene Bertino and current Contributing Editor Will Allison, each afternoon will include a craft lecture, and each evening a panel discussion on a specific area of publishing or a reading. Go here for more information. DEADLINE to apply to the One Story Workshop for Writers is: APRIL 30TH!!

Workshop Coordinator Michael Pollock will also be at this event to answer any questions you might have about the workshop, and what it can offer writers in any stage of their careers. Please join us, it is sure to be an enlightening and fun night! No RSVP necessary. Email for more information.

If you’re not in the area, or can’t attend, we’ll be posting a wrap-up of the event in the week after at our blog so stay tuned!

Superheroes Make Super Fiction

Is there a Superhero in the house?

Last Thursday writers packed One Story‘s home, the good Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, to hear editor-in-chief Hannah Tinti’s lecture on creating interesting, fictional characters using superheroes as models. Perhaps charged from seeing The Avengers or just passionate about fiction, the crowd was all ears and masks. This craft lecture was presented by One Story‘s Workshop for Writers, which will be held July 22nd to July 27th in Brooklyn. Along with daily workshops, and professional publishing panels, similar lectures will be held every day of the workshop, helping writers improve their work on the page with practical advice from talented authors and teachers.

Hannah began her lecture by revealing a personal trick she uses whenever a character she is writing feels flat: she opens a new page on her computer and starts listing facts about the character, using superheroes as her model. As an example, she reviewed the basics of everyone’s favorite superhero, Superman.

  • Name: Superman.
  • Costume: Red, yellow, and blue spandex with “S” logo and cape.
  • Superpower: super strength, super hearing, super speed, flight, x-ray vision, heat vision, arctic breath.
  • Weakness: Kryptonite.
  • Backstory: He was placed on a rocket as an infant while his home planet of Kypton crumbled around him. Then he was found and raised by the Kents in Smallville, Kansas, where he developed and mastered his superpowers.

It’s the backstory, Hannah explained, where the most interesting information on your character is hiding. Superman is an orphan—the sole survivor of an entire planet. Batman’s parents were murdered in a back alley. Bruce Banner’s life was destroyed after he was exposed to gamma rays and started turning into The Hulk. Once you know a superhero’s backstory, they start to have more texture. It works the same for characters in fiction: by sketching out the basic elements as you would for a superhero, an author can translate crucial questions about the people they are trying to create on the page:

  • What is the character’s name? (sometimes a name alone reveals a lot about a person).
  • What does he look like (his costume)?
  • What is he good at (his superpowers)?
  • What are his weaknesses (emotional or plot-based)?
  • What is his back story?

The final question Hannah asked is the most important and propels the character through the story: what does he want? This desire becomes his motivation, and fuels all of his actions and decisions. To give some examples of characters quickly and vividly established, Hannah turned to Charles Dickens. Magwich in Great Expectations provides a brief but deft  example of how this information can be rendered on the page:

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!” A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.”

With these lines, the reader not only gains a clear and frightful image of Magwich from the sound of his voice and the details of his appearance, but also learns his backstory as an escaped prisoner (without being explicitly told), and understands what he wants: freedom.

After looking at a few other Dickens characters, Hannah asked the crowd to don their masks. Then the audience created their own superhero, deciding a name, superpowers, weakness, and backstory for One Story managing editor Adina Talve-Goodman, who gamely donned some spandex, a cape, a mask and a shield. Her most impressive superpower? Smelling like lavender. (It must have been the purple tights.)

After fielding some great questions from the crowd, Hannah ended the night with this last piece of advice: “Love your characters—make them people you care about and like Pinocchio, they will come alive in the story.”

Events like this free craft lecture give One Story a chance to open our doors and extend our literary community. For this same reason, we invite you to apply to our third annual Workshop for Writers. We hope you will take advantage of this opportunity and join us this summer! Deadline to apply is May 31st. For complete details, go here.

Free Craft Lecture with Hannah Tinti

There are many great workshops to choose from this summer and it is difficult to know which one is right for you. One Story understands and would like to invite you to a sampling of our 2012 Workshop for Writers. In addition to daily intimate workshops, and evening panels with publishing professionals, each day of our July 22-27th workshop will include a lecture from a talented and generous author on the craft of writing fiction. On Thursday, May 17th at 6:30 pm at One Story’s home base, the Old American Can Factory, (232 Third Street btw. 3rd & 4th ave. in Brooklyn) Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti will lecture on character, using the model of comic book super heroes. Please join us to see how understanding the dynamics behind Spider-Man or Superman can help us create our own believable characters in fiction.

Last year Hannah revealed the secrets of revision. Her five draft process is easy to follow and extremely helpful. The writing process can be a journey through the dark but these craft lecturers are full of practical advice that illuminate the path ahead.

The evening will begin with a cocktail reception. Workshop leaders Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Allison will also be there to answer any questions you might have. This event is a great opportunity find out if the One Story summer workshop is right for you and a chance to meet our staff (in super hero garb). See you there!

If you would like more information on this event or the workshop you can email Workshop Coordinator Michael Pollock at

Issue 160: Hilarious, in the Wrong Way

Our new issue of One Story was discovered and edited by long time reader and managing director of our Summer Writer’s Workshop, Michael Pollock, and so I am passing the introducing of this story into his capable hands. I hope everyone enjoys this foray into the dangerous world of Junior High School. -HT

Two doors down from the house I grew up in lived Frank. Frank was the one who always pushed me into the pool, the one who broke my nose while roughhousing. Frank was the first one to say “fuck.” We all grew up with a Frank. He was violent and scary and unpredictable and our childhood selves were constantly and inexplicably drawn to him. Theodore is the Frank of Stephen Ornes’s “Hilarious, in the Wrong Way.” We are told early on of his death then watch our narrator, Ben, come to terms with this news.

“Hilarious, in the Wrong Way” is a relatable story but also a grabbing one. The tone of the first person narration hooked me immediately when I was combing through One Story’s massive queue of unsolicited submissions. The story is told by the voice of an about-to-be-pubescent boy who is surrounded by late 80s gadgetry, and lakeside suburbia. As the news spreads through the halls of Ben’s junior high school, he tells us that, “An eighth grader whose name I didn’t know said Theodore shot himself twice but that seemed impossible. I had known for a while that eighth graders always talk about things they don’t know.” Ben’s once certain reality is shifting. Think of Ben’s struggle as a coming of age story come three years too soon. Oh and there is a Jet Ski.

Please read Stephen Ornes’s Q&A with us to find out how he images the rest of Ben’s life playing out.

You Are Brilliant and You Deserve a Drink; the Secrets of Revision

Hannah delivers a lecture on revision

We at One Story are so proud and excited about the 2nd annual Workshop for Writers we’re planning for this summer that last Thursday we shared a small fraction of the week’s events. An awesome crowd of about 40 writers joined us at the Old American Factory in Brooklyn for our “taste test” craft lecture, a preview of the type of lectures offered during our summer workshop.  After a short cocktail and some delicious cheese, Hannah Tinti spoke about revision and her drafting process. Apparently, winning the PEN/Magid Award means she is a badass editor.  If you couldn’t make it, don’t worry–I’m about to go over some of the insightful and easy-to-follow advice that Tinti doled out.  If you did make it, please share what you found most helpful in the comments.

The crowd listens in

1. First, you’ll need something to revise. Completing your first draft is an accomplishment in itself, one which involves just getting the words on the page and turning off your “internal editor.” Tinti suggests you reward yourself with a drink, an integral step in finishing every draft.

2. When revising your first draft you must keep in mind the major tenets of fiction: plot/structure, character, dialogue, setting, point of view, and voice. Looking at each of these tenets you must identify your weaknesses, cut, add, and tighten. It can be a painful process, one that can damage your self-esteem and ruin your day. Tinti reminded us that most people don’t even finish a first draft, let alone a second. Remember: You are brilliant, you deserve another drink.

3. The third draft means line edits. Grab your style guide and check your grammar. (I sleep with a copy of Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson’s Grammar Desk Reference under my pillow and keep up with Phillip B. Corbett over at the Times.) Is that colon supposed to be semi? Is that em dash supposed to be an en dash? Also keep in mind repetition of both words and sentence structure. How many times did you use the word “conniption?” Conciseness is key so make sure you avoid complex verbs and adverbs.  Tinti suggests you underline every adverb and replace it with an action. (Turn “’How dare you,’ she said angrily,” into “’How dare you,’ she said, stubbing out her cigarette.”)  The third draft is also where you can play around with dialogue tags. Using Darth Vader’s much-famed line from Star Wars, Tinti showed how tag placement greatly alters the reading of dialogue. “’I am your father,’ he said.” Does not carry the same dramatic pause as “’I,’ he said, ‘am your father.”  This draft is a technical and tiring one but in the end it is important to remember: You are brilliant, you deserve a drink.

4. You have grown very close to your piece at this point. Rather than having another argument with the voice in your head (mine is Sir Michael Caine), you should show it to a your writing group or a few trusted readers. When speaking with your readers, first find out general impressions and keep your mouth shut – you do not need to defend your story. Ask the readers what specific parts they remembered – these are often the parts that you wrote best. Ask them what confused them – this is where your writing is weaker or where plot holes occur. Ask them what they thought the story was about.  You’ve told your readers that you wouldn’t take their criticism personally but it is still hard to hear. Tinti suggests crying and having two beers. And of course, remember that you are brilliant.

5. To close, Tinti provided two drafts of D.H. Lawrence’s “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” The early draft is written with the deftness you expect of Lawrence.  The final draft is improved by adding sensory details, adding a character, focusing the point of view and changing the last line from “So was the terror lifted off their hearts,” to “None of them spoke till they were far from the wakeful children.” Though less dramatic, the latter line manages to hit harder.

Tinti will be giving one of five craft lectures that supply expertise and advice as part of the One Story Workshop for Writers this July 24th – July 29th. We will also hold morning workshops and evening panels with New York’s literary professionals–MFA directors, agents, and editors.  It is an excellent opportunity for any writer  considering the next step in her career, whether she is trying to publish her first story, get into a great MFA program, find an agent for her first book or just develop her fiction skills. For more information on how to apply, please go here.

Craft Lecture: The Art and Skill of Revision

Didn’t get enough One Story at our Literary Debutante Ball last week? Come this Thursday, May 5th to our office in the Can Factory for a free craft lecture on the art and skill of revision.  One Story Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti will demonstrate the necessities of constant revision and how proper editing can make good fiction great.  The evening will begin at 6:30 pm with a cocktails and cheese reception and possibly end with tequila shots at a Cinco de Mayo party.

Besides revealing an often difficult facet of fiction, this event will also give a sneak peek of our second annual summer Workshop for Writers. The lecture will be similar to those offered from July 24th-29th  and taught by authors chosen for their expert ability to teach writing. The week will also include morning workshops and evening panels with literary agents, MFA directors and magazine editors. Visit the workshop’s page for more information.

There might not be as much dancing as there was at the Debutante Ball, but this is sure to be a fun and enlightening night. Please join us at 232 3rd St. at 6:30 pm on Thursday, May 5th.