Warning Spoilers for Ender’s Game (Honestly, if you haven’t read this book already, stop right now and read it, then come back and read this post!) Actually, spoilers for several books in here, but all of them are more than 5 years old.
Beginnings and Endings are tied together, or they should be. The best authors look at where their story begins and where it ends. If they are not linked, they go back and change something. In the beginning, the opening scenes make promises to the reader about the story. The author must pay attention to those promises and fulfil them.
Being aware of how you begin and end the story allows you to craft an artful story. There is beauty in balance.
There are many different ways to begin a story. For this reason I find this the most difficult part of writing a story. Many will tell you to begin In Media Res which is Latin for in the middle of things. You don’t want to begin your story with the forming of the planets unless that is relevant to your story. But you do need to start in a place that makes sense. I usually write 3-7 different beginnings for my stories and see which on fits best. Here are some things to consider when writing your beginning:
Setting– Your setting can be a useful tool. I list this first because you should include some form of description of the setting so you don’t have talking heads. Some stories begin with a heavy emphasis on setting and others only lightly touch on it. Also, it is great for creating mood, conflict, emphasizing theme, amplify emotions, and control pacing. I talk about it at length here: https://quillandbooks.com/2020/07/31/setting-planning-your-story-and-editing-your-scenes/
Establish conflict (internal or external, major or minor)—Your very first scene should have someone wanting something. It doesn’t have to be the primary conflict, but it needs to be there. It doesn’t have to be clashing swords or dueling mages. It can be a character wanting someone to notice them. It could be wanting to sit down and read a book but the nosey neighbor is over, bothering her about some sort of noise she heard last night.
What kind of narrator voice does this story have? What is the tone of this book? Is the narrator’s voice funny, sarcastic, jaded? Do they have a no nonsense attitude? Does the narrator have a dry sense of humor, full of irony?
What if question? Science Fiction books are great at this. For example, what if something terrible needed to be done, but nobody wanted to give the command that would destroy an enormous amount of human lives. So they decided to give command of real ships to a brilliant boy who thought he was playing a simulation. Fantasy book, Sanderson asked, what if you could push or pull metals…and so Mistborn was written. Realistic fiction, what if you nearly die in a car crash? Some of your family is dead, but your boyfriend is alive. (If I Stay)
Sets Expectations— If you have an action packed opening to your book then readers will expect action through out your novel. If your opening is reflective, then readers will expect that throughout the novel.
Hint at Theme—Often the theme topic is introduced very early in the story. It is a thread running through the story. Finally, at the end, the theme is brought into the light again and highlighted.
Book Ends– You begin with someone telling a story. The bulk of the novel is the story this character is telling. Then at the end you come back to the present day and the person telling that story. Patrick Rothfuss does this with The Kingkiller Chronicles. Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco uses this technique as well.
Circular Ending– Can indicate an endless cycle, Can illustrate a change by going back to where we started but now it’s different in some way. (LOTR ending) Horror movies like to do this to imply that it’s starting all over again.
Surprise Ending– Ends in an unexpected way. Often this is foreshadowed along the way. Some readers see it coming, some don’t. The fun part about this is that things fall into place in unexpected ways and it explains some things the reader noticed, so now the reader wants to go back and read it again— this time knowing the outcome.
Trick ending– This is a surprise ending that is not foreshadowed or set up in any way. This type of ending often leaves readers feeling cheated because the prep work was not laid down and it comes out of the blue.
Open Ending-Ambiguous is the word I associate with this one. There is no closure; the reader does not know what happens to the characters. I can’t remember reading a novel like this. I see this used in short stories all the time. (These tend to drive me crazy because I like the author to tell me what happened to the characters instead of imagining my own ending. Some people love this type of ending though. )
Epilogue– The narrator gives a summary of what happens after the conflict is resolved. This is the ultimate nice neat bow ending. We get to find out that Johnny lived happily ever after as a carpenter who made toys for children. It can be overdone a bit like the movie ending of the LOTR. Epilogues should be kept short and to the point. ( I personally love this kind of ending as it is the opposite of an open ending. )
Mirror Ending– This begins with an image or idea and ends with the same idea or image but viewed differently now. The journey has changed the main character’s view of the thing. For example, in Watership Down, it begins with Hazel and Fiver facing death and the destruction of their home. They view it with fear and horror. The book ends with Hazel willingly going with the black rabbit (death) knowing now, after all their adventures and learned wisdom, that death is nothing to fear. It begins and ends with death, but it is viewed completely different.
(There are many layers in this novel, but I focused on the death aspect of it as I read it shortly after we lost my stepdad this year. You may read the book and get something completely different from it.)
I am sure that I have not included all possible beginnings & endings. If you have one to add, please comment below
Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Beginnings and Endings
What do I promise with these opening scenes?
Is the setting right for this story?
What is the tone I set?
What is the mood?
What is my what-if question?
What is my theme?
Did I fulfil that promise with the ending?
Which kind of ending best suits my story?
Did I highlight the theme clearly enough?
Did I tie up all the lose ends? Or should I leave it intentionally ambiguous?
If you found this blog post helpful, you might also like From Rough Draft to Published. To find out more, click the image.