Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Lazy Way to Make a Story Sell

Form is everything in a successful story.

Everything? True, we have to flesh out characters, engage the reader in a compelling theme, get our language right and do a dozen other things. But without form, a story’s dead.

People read - and tell - stories to discover the form that their lives, afflicted by random events, might otherwise lack. Why else has storytelling been a feature of human life since records began? Bards have always found an audience among unhappy folk, hungering to invest their lives with meaning.

Simply to perceive form is to create meaning.

We have only to look at the patterns of stars in a night sky to speculate upon their meaning. A cluster of random dots becomes a horse, a plough, a shield ... humans are a pattern-forming species.

Is that why a great story lasts forever? The enduring myths of Cinderella, the Sleeping Beauty, the Ugly Duckling, to name but a few, can be found in every culture. Each has a strong, simple form. The form implies that our own life might be meaningful and magic too, if only we knew its hidden truth.

Although our lives may be formless, the stories we escape into cannot be. Each must have a pattern defined by a clear boundary - a satisfying close. Without a firm sense of closure, a tale might be a sketch, an essay, or a character portrait. But it’s not a story.

Of course, a fine story might not appear to close.

The classic ghost story of Henry James The Turn of the Screw leaves the reader hanging. We don’t know who dunnit or even what (really) the story had been all about. Yet the last lines have a satisfying sense of finality. Why? James uses a subtle tactic that goes under many names but the ‘Story Sandwich’ sums it up.

Here’s how to do it:

Simply put a memorable incident - even a theme, or phrase - into the opening passage. In a long story or a novel we might repeat variations of that motif several times. In a short story of, say, 8,000 words we need do it only once, then echo it at the end.

In Peter Robinson’s crime thriller The Summer That Never Was, detective Banks is called home from an idyllic holiday to solve a murder case. The title defines a theme - paradise lost - which is repeated throughout the story and the novel closes upon the same phrase. It gives a poignant sense of closure.

Robinson might have achieved the same effect with a Significant Incident. The story could have opened with detective Banks happily sipping an ouzo in his Greek villa. In the last paragraph, he’s back at the villa again. He starts to pour himself an ouzo. Then he reflects on the tragic incidents of the previous months, and he tips the drink away in disgust. The story has come full circle.

An emblem might also do the trick.

The ouzo could have closed the tale by itself, if presented as an emblem. At the start, it would have signified happiness and frivolity. At the end, it could imply sadness and remorse.

True, the ‘Story Sandwich’ is a formula but it’s a foolproof way to get a story started - and finished. And to beat Writers’ Block.

At the outset, we just write two sections of our story - the opener and the close. And we drop the same incident, emblem, phrase or theme into both sections, with creative variations. At our leisure, we can go back to fill in the bits in the middle. Our tale will then present a strong sense of hidden structure. If all else in the story is working well, the sense of closure will be very satisfying.

This simple tactic can be used in any story, even one that’s already drafted. Turn the story into a sandwich!

Dr John Yeoman, who holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing, is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. He now runs the Writers’ Village short story contest which draws 1,500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. His free book How to Win Story Contests for Profit and 14-part course in story writing for the commercial market can be found at:

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  1. John, you had me at 'Lazy' ... oh, if it were only that easy. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. While form is an element of story writing ... and folks generally like a sense of 'closure' ... it is by no means the only thing that 'sells' a story ... there is character, ambience, adventure, happiness, sorrow, and a bunch of other stuff. Making a 'sandwich' might seem like a simple tactic ... and, believe me, I've got nothing against 'simple' ... but, unfortunately, 'filling in the bits in the middle' is the hard part. In the end, all the elements should come together to create a satisfying tale, but what makes a story work is as ethereal and hard to define as any other art form ... and people either like it or they don't. But let's get back to that lazy thing ...

  2. LOL, Christopher. Always enjoy your humor.

    John, thanks so much for sharing this. As Christopher said, form is only one aspect of what makes a compelling story, but some people forget that it is important. I like the technique you mentioned as "sandwiching" for short stories where the opening line contains something that shows up at the end. I also heard that called "bookending" a story where the first and last line may even be repeated almost word for word.

  3. Of course, Christopher, if it was truly that easy we'd all be writing best sellers. (And if every story was a best seller, no story would be :))

    It often amazes me that folk who have gained some celebrity in other careers, say, as a newscaster think they can dash out a publishable novel in three months. As we both know, it takes an apprenticeship of many years plus close attention to all the other techniques you rightly mention.

    That said, good structure is vital in a story and the 'sandwich' or 'bookend' approach is a lazy way to plot a story. At least, we know where we're going. And, for the less experienced writer, that's half the battle won!

  4. Good blog, John. As you say, good structure is important, and techniques like sandwiching (or bookending), emblems, teasers, cliff-hangers, and the like are common elements evident in the work of successful writers.

    No one knows these things at birth; they are learned. But, and it's a big one, there is a difference between learning these things by absorption--that is, by reading and studying lots of good writing and practicing and getting feedback--and learning these as isolated tricks in a bag of writing legerdemain. When learned as tricks or formulae, the results all too often come across as trained ponies being paraded to demonstrate mastery of technique or as an effort all too obvious to the reader.

    The writers who teach writing, lead workshops, and write how-to books for writers did not, for the most part, learn these things by being taught them. They absorbed them or figured them out on their own, often without giving conscious thought to what to call what they were doing until they were called on to teach.

    I do not for a minute believe that Vonnegut or LeGuin or Zimler or any of a large number of talented and successful writers ever sat down and said to themselves, "Okay, I am going to sandwich this story."

    As you say in your reply to Christopher, it takes a long apprenticeship. In my view, it's the experience of the apprenticeship--read, think, write, get critical feedback, rewrite, read, think...--that matters.

    Unfortunately, all that cannot be distilled into a 600-word blog.

    Good blog, John.

  5. A sandwich without filling might as well be toast. The same is true for stories. ;)

    Now you've got me thinking about books I've read and enjoyed that employ the sandwich approach. The Haunting of Hill House used it; creepy and effective. Does sandwiching work as well in cheerful stories as it does in grim works?

  6. Or call it "coming full circle." Good reminder of the symbol or incident to use. Thanks!

  7. Loved your comment, Silfert. You are so right about the filling. To answer your question, I think the sandwich or bookend technique could work for any story, not just a dark story.

  8. FYI, I started using Christopher for my ... well, for lack of a better term, let's call it my literary career, because I thought it sounded more distinguished than Chris ... and in this business you need all the help you can get ... but my friends generally call me Chris ... sometimes they call me other things ... but often just Chris ... and I consider myself among friends here.

  9. Larry, your comments are very true. No good writer studies a hundred 'craft tricks' before sitting down to write a novel. Chances are, they learned them by trial and error - plus a little tuition - years before. Then the novel flows. It 'sandwiches' itself, or doesn't. (And, of course, there are dozens of other ways to close a story.)

    That said, every master pianist does their five finger exercises every day. After a few years, those exercises become instinctual - and sophisticated!

  10. Hi John, welcome back. Sorry to be late to the party here but I was traveling for a few days with only a dumb phone.

    I loved this post, though. I get emotional when people talk about the power of story to create meaning in life. It's such a beautiful topic.

    One reason the story sandwich works so well is that the entire story creates subtext for that opening image. Words accumulate weight as a story progresses and this is so true of a "sandwich" image or emblem: that man that was just any stranger when we saw him sipping his ouzo on p. 1 is now someone we know, someone who has endured so much. The accumulation of meaning has the power to change us as readers/humans to the point that we will never again be able to pass a man sipping ouzo without thinking of what brought him to that moment in his life.

  11. That's absolutely true, Kathryn. (Sorry to be a mite late with my comment :)) Any emblem will serve at the start of a story to engage the reader - say, a man skips stones across the waves. Each stone sinks at the first wave. By the close of the tale, every aspect of that emblem has acquired significance. The beach, the stone, the waves...

    So when he throws a stone again, and it skips across a dozen waves, dancing in the sunlight, we know what the tale means. What does it mean? A dozen things!


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