Beginnings and Endings

Just a short post this week, as I am heading off on a little holiday without my computer for the first time in six years (which is a bit scary), but I wanted to update you on a few important announcements and talk a bit about endings, as they have been on my mind.

Tales of Tinfoil, the conspiracy theory anthology to which I contributed a story about Elvis, launches on April 17th. It is a marvelous collection with stories about JFK, Lincoln, Hitler and Area 51 put together by editor extraordinaire, David Gatewood. I recommend checking it out. Has Elvis really left the building, or is he living with JFK and Andy Kaufman somewhere in Bermuda?

The Apocalypse Weird franchise has established an Indigogo campaign to fund its revolution in publishing. You can support the AW franchise for a buck. Even if you aren’t interested in the books (which are super fun reads), the author-centered contract concept alone is an idea worth supporting, especially if this initiative helps it to gain traction in the industry. So check it out and consider throwing in the cost of a coffee. This kind of thing is what is going to revolutionize publishing for all writers.

Thinking about Endings

Photo Credit:  Andrew Hurley  / flickr /  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Andrew Hurley / flickr / Creative Commons

As I near the end of Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist, I have been thinking about endings. Great beginnings in fiction must provide a hook or question that is of sufficient interest to compel readers to continue reading and prepare them for the type of story that lies ahead. The writer basically has little option on this front, because without a great beginning, few readers will read on, which is no short order.

Endings can be even trickier.

Obviously good endings should resolve the main conflict, have the reader hanging on the edge of their seat until the very end and provide a satisfying conclusion. Good endings should also be inevitable without being predictable.

"The key to all story end­ings is to give the audi­ence what it wants, but not in the way it expects."
William Goldman

Great. No problem.

To make the ending inevitable, the ending has to be set up by earlier events. Clues must be woven throughout the novel that lead to that conclusion so that readers say - of course! But to make the ending unpredictable, there should be some alternate potential endings with similar clues so they don't know which way it is going to go until the very end.

Connecting Endings and Beginnings

If that isn't hard enough, there are some who say that in a well-constructed novel (and short story for that matter), the ending should connect to the beginning of the novel and if the reader were to go back and reread the beginning, they would find that the ending is reflected somehow in the beginning. In some cases, the first paragraph could also function as the last. This connection between the beginning and ending can help make the ending feel inevitable and right.

In A Passion for Narrative, Jack Hodgins observes:

“In the best fiction, there is a sense that the entire story, including its ending, somehow grows out of the first sentence, that everything is organically related to the first cluster of words that the reader encounters.”

Josip Novakovich, observes that in a matching ending,

“the first image, transformed, is also the last. The end answers the concerns of the beginning directly.”

Thus, according to Matthew Lowes, Elizabeth Engstrom recommends that you “find your ending in your beginning”.

In other words, the ending should deal with the same characters and conflicts introduced at the beginning, and the climax and resolution should be the resolution to the opening dilemma. If there is a mismatch, then perhaps the story has gone off in a different direction than was originally intended, and the beginning and/or the ending should be reconsidered.

There are various approaches to developing an ending that reflects the beginning. For example, in some novels, the hero or heroine returns to the everyday world and their everyday life changed by their adventures (circular ending). In others, a character reflects back and ties together all the threads introduced in the story (reflective ending). To intensify the connection between the beginning and the ending, some writers will use the same symbolic object at both the beginning and at the end to help the reader realize that they have taken a journey.

One way of helping to ensure that this connection is established is to write (or rewrite) your beginning last, after you already know the story. As the writers of “On the Premises” newsletter observed:

“you can’t write a good beginning until you understand the whole story, beginning to end, so write the beginning last.”

However as with any literary technique it is important to use care. It is important not to draw the book to an artificial seeming end by trying to too explicitly connect the beginning and ending.

Non-Matching Endings

It is also important to note though that while developing endings that reflect the beginning is considered an effective technique, it is not the only way to end a novel or a short story. There are no hard and fast rules, and you need to use what works for your story. Novakovich notes that it is also possible to use non-matching, and sometimes ironic, endings presented as a contrast to the beginning to heighten the novel’s central themes. But although these endings do not necessarily match or reflect the beginning, by serving as contrasts to the beginning, they are still in some way connected to the beginning.

So think about connections between your beginnings and endings (I am definitely going to start doing so), or if you are a reader, go back and reread some of the beginnings of your favorite novels. What, if any, clues about the ending do you notice in the first paragraph, and how does it make you feel about the ending?

If you like what I have to say, don't forget to subscribe to my mailing list on my home page.