As It Turns Out

A little good news–for me, anyway–to start the post. HarperCollins’s marketing folks have approved Ogre Enchanted as the title for the Ella prequel. This is lucky, because I’ve never felt as strongly about a title. So, hooray and woo hoo! And thanks to all of you on the blog who’ve helped me with titles in the past.

On June 4, 2017, Samantha wrote, My work in progress is about ice hockey. In a nutshell, my MC’s parents died a year before the story takes place and he has to struggle with life, adolescence, friends, and… well, his life. Anyway, in the end his team ends up wining the series in the finals. I’m wondering if it is too dramatic to make my MC score the winning goal.

Christie V Powell responded. I don’t think it would be too dramatic, but it is a touch predictable. I love how Pixar’s ‘Cars’ played with the archetype–you expect McQueen to win the race, when instead he wins in a different way. There is a whole subgenre of sports stories, but I’m afraid I’m not very well read in that genre. You might want to try to check some out and see how they end. The last couple I’ve read (about dog agility and 4H) both ended with the main characters being disqualified but reaching some personal goal or important character growth. Maybe that’s become cliche now and delivering the winning goal is new again.

I agree with Christie V Powell that it doesn’t sound too dramatic. If there’s going to be drama in a story, the ending is the right spot for it.
It’s been decades since I watched the movie Rocky (the original–I haven’t seen any of the sequels), but my recollection is that, in the end and against all odds, Rocky Balboa wins, and the audience is delighted. I think the reason the ending works is that so much is stacked against him. Since victory seems impossible, when it comes, we’re surprised. In my opinion, there’s a trick here that our minds play on us. We go to the movie pretty sure it’s going to come out okay. We may even choose it for that reason, but when the action starts, we drop the belief and abandon ourselves to the unfolding story.

So a complete happy ending can works if the route to it is full of surprises. In some cases, we’re disappointed if the happy ending is at all tarnished. Some of you may have seen the musical Into the Woods. I confess to loving the happy first act and hating the unhappy second act when everything falls apart.

In a way, most plots are like sporting events. Something important is at stake, and, in the end, the MC either succeeds, utterly or to some degree, or fails, utterly or to some degree.

Take Hamlet, for example. ***SPOILER ALERT*** It’s a tragedy. However, Queen Gertrude and King Claudius’s successful conspiracy to kill Hamlet’s father is exposed. They die, and the ghost is avenged. In a grisly way, those are positive outcomes. Hamlet’s death isn’t.

Or take my beloved Pride and Prejudice. ***SPOILER ALERT*** again. The main romance ends happily, but Lydia has to suffer the consequences of her disastrous flirtation. Even Elizabeth and Darcy in their married bliss have to put up with that bounder Wickham forever.

We may–because anything is possible in writing–be able to write a satisfying, unpredictable, believable ending in which everything goes right and there is no shadow. Try it as an early prompt. Your MC is a member of a team (you decide the sport, which can be a real or a fantasy sport) that has lost for ten straight seasons. His grandmother is very ill. His dog has bitten someone and may have to be put down. He is failing biology in school. His best friend isn’t talking to him. Write the story, or the final scene, and make every single thing come out well.

After those spoiler alerts, I want to mention this interesting report I heard on the radio that is at least tangentially related to predictability. Research was done that shows that people enjoy a story more if they’re told in advance how it ends. Turns out, those of us who peek ahead and turn pages in books are really heightening our pleasure.

I don’t know if the study can be replicated, so it may not be true, but the way I understand it is that a spoiler doesn’t spoil the details, the character development, the flow of the story, and readers still have the delight of discovery–untainted by the anxiety of not knowing how it will all wind up. I get this. Sometimes I’m tense enough about what will happen that I don’t take in a lot of the story in my desperation to reach the outcome. That’s why a second read is often rewarding, because I slow down and really pay attention.

We certainly don’t want our endings to feel improbable. No matter how much  luck contributes to success or failure in real life, in fiction, it can’t. Luck can come in earlier, but not at the end. If Samantha’s MC scores the final goal because, as luck would have it, the opposite team’s best athlete is injured late in the game, the reader is going to bellow, “Foul!”

So we’re going for believability. Our MC’s character has to justify the end. If Samantha’s MC, again, is so lost in depression that he doesn’t drag himself to practice very often, the reader isn’t going to buy his win.

He can be depressed! He can finish practice every day and wonder if it’s worth his effort. But he has to practice. He can even throw a game, or his part in it, earlier in the story, so that the reader can fear that he will throw this final one, too. She can believe that throwing the game and really going after it are equally possible. She’ll be stiff with suspense.

If we’re not sure about an ending, we can bring in my favorite weapon: the mighty list. As I said in an earlier post, lists are predictability poison. We can list possible endings, including scoring the final point. We can decide to list at least twelve options. And we have to remember that no possibility is too stupid to go on our list. Our brains can be exploding from effort by the time we reach number seven, but we must soldier on, because, after we exhaust the obvious, the surprises pop up. The ending that appeals to us most may arrive as number eleven, and we’d never have gotten to it if we hadn’t slogged forward.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Shannon, your MC, has the job of guarding the crown prince against both the enemies of the state and his own bad proclivities. Problem is, Shannon, a staunch patriot, doesn’t think much of the prince and is convinced he’ll make a disastrous king. Matters come to a head at a reception for the queen of the neighboring kingdom, with which relations have lately been tense. The prince often behaves badly during ceremonial occasions, and there’s intelligence of a plot against him. Write the story or the final scene.

∙ Pick one of these: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and rewrite it as a tragedy. Moreover, make the sad ending come from something in the character of the heroine or hero. I don’t mean they have to be evil in the slightest–their own goodness can do them in. Or some other character trait that’s neither good nor evil. (This can, by the way, be comic-tragedy, if you prefer.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Bookfanatic102 says:

    Your writing a prequel to Ella Enchanted! Yay! I love that book! I can’t wait to read it! I watched the Ella Enchanted movie before I read the book (I’ve been watching it even before I knew there was a book) ad when I read the book (Two or three years ago) I proved the people who say if you watch the movie before you read the book you’ll like the movie better or if you read the book before you watch the movie you’ll like the book better wrong I like the Ella Enchanted book way better than the movie

  2. Thank you, Mrs. Levine, for using my question! I’m truly honored. What a wonderful post!
    And I can’t wait to read the prequel to Ella Enchanted!!

  3. Erica Eliza says:

    I read a book about a class election where the MC was her brother’s campaign manager. The major conflict was making sure her brother beats his opponent. Her personal conflict was proving she didn’t commit a crime and getting back together with her ex-boyfriend, the rival’s campaign manager. In the end, the ex-boyfriend helped her clear her name in exchange for her brother throwing the election. The brother was only running because he wanted the power to make a memorial for a student who died in a car crash. So in his final speech, he made sure he would lose-by telling everyone to write in the dead student’s name on their ballots.
    Technically, the MC and her brother “lost”. He came in third out of two candidates. But, the MC’s name was cleared, he honored the dead student, and the MC got back with her boyfriend. Happy endings all around! I expected him to win the election, so this ending was both happy and a surprise.

    • What was the name of the book and who wrote it? It sounds like a good book! And like Mrs. Levine said, even though I know the ending, I’d like to know the adventures the characters go through to get to the ending. 🙂

  4. I’ve grown rather fond of the title Ogre Enchanted for the Ella Enchanted prequel, so I’m glad that it’s official!
    I also wanted to comment that I have seen Into The Woods (the original musical and movie…both on DVD) and I agree that the first act is WAY better, although I love Bernadette Peters as the witch! : )

  5. I definitely relate–I don’t like the second act of Into the Woods either. And I read through Harry Potter 7 so fast that I had to reread the ending to figure out what actually happened.

    I’m excited for Ogre Enchanted. If you’ve read Ella, this title brings up all sorts of exciting questions. How come all ugly human-ish things are evil? Orcs, ogres, giants, urgals… all are sub-humans created to be cannon fodder so that the brave hero can defeat them without feeling guilty. (end soapbox)

  6. Yay for the title!

    I like both acts of Into The Woods for different reasons. “Giants In The Sky” ended up in the writing soundtrack for a book about, well, a giant. (He HATES being called that!) And without the second act we wouldn’t have “No One Is Alone.”

  7. This is such a thought provoking post! Thank you for sharing your wisdom. My least favorite book I’ve ever read was doing exactly what you say not to. Luck saved her in every situation. I could tolerate it through the beginning, but when the ending came along, I was screaming at the book. The author even spelled it out by having the character think, “I just need to wait for luck to save me!” I was so furious. But I love your point about how we often already know the ending anyway. It’s the “how” that readers keep on for.

    I’ve been quietly stalking your blog for a while now, and I love all your books and posts! You’re such an inspiration.

  8. I have a problem spot here. The book I’m working on concerns the relationship between my main character Keita and her twin brother’s fiance. My beta-reader suggested a wedding scene right before the climax to heighten the stakes when the couple is in danger. I like the idea but I don’t want to add more than a few hundred words to this chapter. So, any tips on cramming something as culturally significant as a wedding into a few paragraphs? Or should I skip it?
    So far I have this build up:

    Zuri tried to look serious but she was bouncing on the balls of her feet. “It’s been a year since we were betrothed,” she said, “and without your parents here, you’re the head of the family…”

    “You want to marry now?” Keita demanded. “Your people do all sorts of fancy stuff you couldn’t do here.”

    “I know.” Zuri sighed. “But Glen said we can have more elaborate celebrations at the next festival.”

    “You just have to give permission,” Glen said, “and…”

    “Just give permission,” Keita repeated scornfully. “If I’m in charge, we do all the old traditions… the one where you’re chained together until the next festival…”

    Zuri paled. “Three weeks?”

    “And you can’t keep your bride unless you defend her from all the cousins carrying arrows…”

    “No,” Glen said.

    “Then the kidnapping…”

    “Keita, come on. We’re at war, remember?”

    “In that case, I say no.”

    She let them squirm almost a minute before she said, “You’ve forgotten one thing. I’m not an adult yet. You’d have to ask Aunt Laurel.”

    Keita tried to smother her laughter but it burst out anyway. Both gave her dirty looks before they fled the courtyard.

    • I love these wedding traditions. 🙂

      A wedding right before the climax sounds like drama on top of drama, with no time to let the first one sink in. If the wedding’s important, maybe have all-out fun describing it in the previous chapter, then have the newlyweds enjoying some quiet domestic bliss when BANG! Danger happens. Unless the wedding scene is just a quiet happy interlude, with no great drama? Then the climax WOULD be a contrast.

      And if they’re newlyweds and get separated to who-knows-what fate, ouch!

      OTOH (just brainstorming here) maybe if they’re NOT married before the climax, and they’ve been planning it for weeks or months, and then they’re in danger, we’ll have an extra reason to root for them to survive and have their wedding. What kind of danger are we talking about?

      I hope all this rambling is helpful. Have you read Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic? That’s got a wedding contrast to break your heart.

      • I have read it, but it was years ago and the details get fuzzy.

        I think this chapter is going to start with the wedding and end with a battle in which Keita and Zuri are captured. I’m just not sure how much of the wedding will occur before the battle begins… or if there’s a small ‘bliss’ scene in between. I don’t want it to be too melodramatic or cliche (I just showed the kids ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and thought about Harry Potter 7: both weddings get interrupted toward the end). Glen and Zuri have been romantic through the book and Keita finds it disgusting/annoying the whole time.

    • It’s kind of difficult to give advice without more context. But basically you need to make Keita and Zuri have a rocky relationship, right? So give lots of little opportunities to have them cut at each other, with increasing intensity. So here, Keita threatened Zuri (and Glen) with a dangerous wedding, but then revealed the joke so as not to seem mean (but still clearly passive aggressive). You need more passive aggressiveness from Zuri to Keita, and from Keita to Zuri. The characters need to go from “is she just teasing me?” to “oh no she didn’t” and retaliation.

      Off topic, but why the names Keita, Zuri, and Glen? Glen seems very Caucasian, whereas Keita is a Japanese masculine name (in fact, when I read these excerpts from your story posted here and there, I have trouble remembering that your MC is female, not male).

      • Thanks for the tip. The girls were good friends and they still want to be, so this divider is really hard for both of them. I’ll see where I can add more conflict between the two. Thanks.

        I was going for name meanings over origin. When I first chose the name Keita, the babyname website I preferred listed it as a female Sanskrit name meaning ‘forest’. That was years and years ago and the site has changed, but the name stuck. Glen is also a forest term. Zuri is short for Azura, because she’s from a different kingdom with water abilities.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I’m adding this question to my list–mostly in terms of stakes-raising, which is super important!

          In the meanwhile, though, I’m not sure chapter length is the most important factor in making a plot decision.

          • I was trying to reply to Christie’s post, but it didn’t have a Reply button: How does the cover design work? Can’t the spine be made to fit the # of pages, rather than vice versa?

          • Yeah, true, I could go back into my design program and adjust it–I’d just have to save to PDF and upload it again. This is the first time I’m doing the cover 100% on my own so I’m still figuring things out (first one was professional, second one we based off the first but my sister did the ‘assembly’).

            I was working on this scene today and I think I’ve got it where I want it. I had to move a couple scenes around that I hadn’t planned on, but it’s smoother. The women are still preparing for the wedding when the attack begins.

  9. I love your mighty list. I started implementing it (as well as notes) after reading your suggestion the first time and it’s made my stories a lot easier to write!

    I’m also terribly excited for Ogre Enchanted. Ella Enchanted is still one of my most favorite books, even after all of these years.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Thank you!

      I’m glad lists have helped. I rely on them all the time, for writing matters large and small.

  10. Hi, I am writing a story at the moment but I am struggling to find a name for a character ( a girl ) she a feisty , no nonsense sort of person. Please help.

    • I would suggest looking up ‘Names that mean feisty’ or ‘Names for a feisty female’. Or something along those lines. Also, when I have a personality in mind I often go to google translate and translate a few words, that describe that personality, to another language and see what I come up with. Here is a sample; ‘nonsense’ translated from English to Latin is ‘ineptias’. So I will take that and change it around…I’ll play with the vowel. I, E, and A. I look at the other letters… A lot of names jump into my mind – Nia, Tia, Septa, Inea, Inia, Teni, Tani and think of all the spelling variations! It’s so fun to do this!
      Hope this was helpful!

  11. Because INTO THE WOODS got into this reply thread, I’m going respond, though I don’t usually! Yes, the first part of it is brilliant, and I love the music. But I love how the second part completely turns the first on its head and has quite a few interesting things to say about the trite “happily ever after” of fairy tales. (Especially Cinderella’s charming prince.)
    I like almost all the characters better in the musical, except, somehow, the baker and his wife. I wept buckets over them in the movie.

      • Everybody, as far as I can remember, except for Jack (who was too young in the movie to do anything much well). The musical Jack, though, was brilliant, which made me even more upset…

        • Thanks! If the other major roles are good I may look into it anyway. I was j==kinda disappointed in the movie version of Les Miz. Of course, it was late at night, so maybe I was just tired + cranky and wanted an excuse to stop + go to bed.

  12. I’m trying a list thing, of sorts. I tend to write very short, and I’m not much of an outliner, but I’m trying to plot a trilogy, so I’m making a bullet list with a sentence for the man point of each chapter. So far I’m still on the finished Book 1, I’ve hit a couple of spots where I’ve thought “Hm, maybe this should be 2 chapters.” How important is it for them to be near the same length? How do you decide if something’s a chapter break, or just a scene break?

    • I plot out my chapters kind of like they were short stories–all of the scenes have something in common and they all lead up to a climax scene.

      I probably care too much about length (see my question above 🙂 ). I don’t mess with it at all during the rough draft, but in the first draft I use the table of contents and an excel sheet to keep track of each chapter and how long they are. I aim for about 6-7 pages (8×11 page, so not formatted for book size yet). First and last chapters are allowed to be as short as 3. Under 5 is probably too short, over 10 is too long. I stop counting again when I get to the polish and formatting stages, but I find it useful to get a feel for the pacing.

      • So far my longest is 26 pages in Word, Standard Manuscript format. 4,647 words. (The shortest is the 4 page Prologue, but that doesn’t really count.)

        Both the potential break points would work, from a dramatic standpoint. I’m just not sure which works better.

        • The advice from you and Christie solved the chapter length dilemma, thanks! The larger dilemma’s harder to explain without major spoilers for 2 books, but here’s the gist: The world of this would-be trilogy has humans, serpent-demons, the sort-of-angelic Aureni, and an omnipresent, basically omnipotent and benign deity, which the Aureni can heal people by praying to.

          Book 2 started out as a NaNoWriMo project, and in the name of fast wordcount I invoked the “A wizard did it” rule and handwaved a lot of stuff. Now I want to turn it into a serious sequel, but the central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to do. (and I don’t want to invoke Deus ex Machina any more than I can help.)

          I’m also somewhat worried about offending people’s religious beliefs (It’s already happened once), but I’m hoping that readers will understand that everybody, including the deity, is fictional.

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            I agree that the dread deus ex machina should be avoided! Can you go back into the first book, since it isn’t published yet, and set up conditions that will make your villain’s heinous act possible in another way? Seems to me this is another time for a list of possibilities.

            I’m adding your question to my list, to be answered in a more general way.

          • The villain could harness the deity’s power somehow? Coerce the deity? Coerce an Aureni/some Aureni into doing it, through mind control or bribery or blackmail (would that even work?)? The villain has an object that connects to the deity? The villain coerced an Aureni into creating such an object? If only the deity can do whatever it is you need the villain to do, then logically the villain needs the deity’s power (unless you change things up in the first book, or things in this book). So the question is how the villain can harness the deity’s power – unless there are OTHER ways of obtaining a power of that magnitude. Maybe there’s another deity (like, a light-dark balance good-needs-evil idea, idk). Maybe there’s something that’s not a deity that doesn’t like the deity and would aid your villain in one-upping the deity in power (whether or not your villain is directly striking against the deity/Aureni).
            Maybe a random portal opens up spontaneously halfway through the book and the villain reaches into it and rummages around and pulls out a recipe for a magic vegan cornbread that when eaten gives the eater a temporary power (read: a power that will wear off once the cornbread is digested) to talk to stars, and instead your villain enslaves the stars and uses them to blackmail the deity, or uses them to perform the act you said only your deity could do.
            These suggestions may be completely redundant (well, okay, magic cornbread is definitely completely redundant), but I have very little context about your villain and the nature of your deity and the situation in general, so these thoughts are very general. I just have fun with all y’all’s brainstorm-type things.

          • Thank you for all the suggestions! And Gail, thank you for taking this as a post idea. I have lots to ponder now.

            And mmm, cornbread. Maybe I should put some cornbread in the story. I know a spot in Book 3 where it might be particularly plausible. 🙂

          • And I wish I could give more context without being spoilery…The basic idea is that the Aureni have healing touch, and the villain has twisted that around. I can explain that storywise on a small scale, but for the big thing I’m thinking of….

            …hey, I may have just caught the tiniest whiff of an idea…!

          • BTW, I don’t want to get rid of the actual “deus.” (Don’t think I could, actually.) I think the scenes between it and the MC are fun. I just don’t want it acting when the finite characters should be.

          • I think if you characterize your deity more as the type one meets in mythology than in a “living religion” you could get away with coercing/tricking/manipulating them more, because in the old myths from around the world is happens all the time.

  13. I’m so excited for Ogre Enchanted and delighted that the title is greenlit! I first read Ella Enchanted as a 13 year old, staying in my Grandparents’ attic bedroom during a tumultuous summer. That first reading has stayed firmly in my memory, and the book and many re-readings has stuck with me and influenced me for so many years. I can’t wait to experience the prequel and share the stories with my kids! Thank you, and congratulations on the title!

  14. Hey, just wanted to thank Song4myking for some very helpful advice on the last post! I got grounded without my computer for a while so I wasn’t able to read it until now 🙂

  15. Hey! I just wanted to say it’s been a busy summer so I just now read your last post – thanks for answering my question! As always, super helpful. 🙂

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