A Simple Secret to Powerful Prose

Sat Sep 22 2018

This is not an article about how you write. This is an article about where you put the things you write in order to give them the greatest impact.

Just like in real estate, location matters. And whether we're talking about sentences, scenes, or whole series, some postions in text have an inherent power to amplify the impact of whatever is in them.

The idea is to put the most important stuff into these "power positions" where it can hit readers hardest.

The different positions

There are only three positions you need to care about:

I know, mind-blowing, right? The fact that these are the positions is hardly magical. Yet, for all it's simplicity, this is a very powerful idea for how you think about your text.

The rankings of power

Due to the realities of human attention and how people process information, these three positions are not equal:

Power Ranking Position
1 endings
2 beginnings
3 middles

Endings are the most powerful, beginnings are next, while middles have the least power.

To see why, let's take it from the reader's perspective as they make their way through a piece of text.

At the beginning, the reader is orienting themselves towards what they're encountering. They're paying a fair amount of attention because everything is new and unfamiliar. They have to build some mental scaffolding in order to take in the rest of the text. The contents of the beginning are what allow them to do that. The beginning demands attention, which gives this position its power.

Once the reader is well into the material, their brains slide into cruise-control as they take in one piece of information after another and fit them onto the scaffolding they already built. In the middle, each piece is less powerful because it is "just another piece" contributing to the overall picture that your text is building in the reader's mind.

This is not to say that the middle pieces aren't important, just that by being in the middle they have less power to impact the reader.

Finally, readers hit the ending. By then, their mental picture is almost complete save for whatever key piece you've held for last. Readers have been circling around that picture for some time, watching it develop as the pieces come in. Their anticipation is at its highest. They are waiting for the last bit that will complete the picture and snap everything into focus.

When they get it, two important things happen which together give the ending its enormous power-potential. One, the reader finally has the full picture and can at last understand what everything has been building up to. Two, since there's nothing left to add, the reader has nothing to focus on but that final picture. At least for a moment, the final picture occupies their whole mind.

And if the freshest bit of that final picture is something really juicy, you better believe it'll hit readers hard.

Positions at scale

This concept of power positions applies at all scales of writing:

All of those things have beginnings, middles, and endings, and the power of each power position is directly proportional to how big the scale is.

The ending power position of a scene, being made up of paragraphs, has more power than the ending of any individual paragraph. Likewise, the ending of a chapter outweighs the ending of an individual scene, and so forth.

Larger chunks have had more material leading up to their endings, so naturally they can deliver a bigger punch when the end comes.

Or perhaps it is that these things add up. The end of a chapter is also the end of a scene, paragraph, and sentence.

What goes where

With all that in mind, we can draw some rough guidelines about what kind of material works best in each position.

Beginnings: Put your most important bits of mental scaffolding here. At whole-story scope, for example, this is where you give readers the critical facts about your story's world. If something about your story's world is different from ours in some surprising or particularly consequential way, the beginning is the most powerful place to deploy that fact. Such a fact will get readers brains spinning about the potential ramifications of the fact, and will enable the reader to understand new facts in their proper context.

Middles: At whatever scale, the middle is where all of your important building blocks go. Stuff readers need to know, stuff that moves the story along, but may not be particularly amazing or highly emotional. At paragraph scale, for example, middles are where you build the argument the paragraph is making. Think back to your school days when you learned about paragraph structure: topic sentence, supporting points, conclusion. That same model applies in fiction. The beginning of the paragraph is the topic sentence giving us a mental scaffold for what the paragraph is about, after which the middle delivers whatever supporting points lead up to the conclusion.

Endings: Being the most powerful, you save your best stuff for here. Big plot revelations and strong emotional statements work particularly well in ending power positions.

A small-scale example

Let's look at how to leverage power points to make the most out of a single sentence.

Suppose the situation is that it's my birthday, my partner has cooked a nice birthday dinner, and that we ate steak and potatoes. Four pieces to play with: birthday, partner cooking, dinner, steak, and potatoes.

Oblivious to power positions, one might write it like this:

I had potatoes and a big, juicy steak for my birthday dinner, which my partner cooked for me.

Sure, all the information is in there. But the sentence makes poor use of its two most powerful spots. The beginning power position has "potatoes" in it, which at least to my ear is not the most exciting piece of food in the list. The ending has "for me". All the best bits are buried in the middle. The sentence has no life.

A birthday is a big event in one's year, and gives emotional context to everything else. That puts it at the beginning.

The partner cooking is a supporting statement because it establishes a warm emotional tone and because it creates anticipation for the food itself.

This leaves the food for the end. This works because after reading the middle of the sentence, readers want to know what the big meal was. That's the sentence's "big reveal," snapping the whole picture into focus.

But what order does the food go in? Do we want "steak and potatoes" or "potatoes and steak?" Since this is my hypothetical birthday we're talking about, the steak is the best part. It belongs at the very end of the sentence, in the strongest power position.

Putting everything in power-position order, we get this:

For my birthday my partner cooked me potatoes and a big, juicy steak.

This may only be a small-scale example, but I think you'll agree making judicious use of power positions gives the whole sentence a whole lot more impact.

Power positions are like spotlights

And just like spotlights on a stage, they focus readers' attention.

But these spotlights are fixed in place. You cannot aim them. Readers will give more attention to whatever's in the beginning and whatever's at the end.

Your job is to be smart about what goes in them.