There are two ways to begin a journey. One is with a clear destination visualized. A definite purpose to drive you forward. The other is with a determination to have an experience without any particular expectation of how it will end. To allow things to unfold and wash over us. Either way where we end up is often not where we expected to be. I have been thinking a lot about beginnings and endings this week after spending a couple of months rewriting the beginning of my own project and contemplating how I feel about the current ending.
Stephen King said “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
I have revisited some beginnings of novels I have read and included some that I’ve found compelling…
I did not scream when I came in the back door of Sal’s Saloon, where I work, to find Sal himself lying there on the floor of the stockroom, the color of blue ruin, fluids leaking from his various holes and puddling on the ground, including a little spot of blood by his head. – Noir: A Novel by Christopher Moore
I found Moore’s voice in the is book really compelling. It’s quite unique. He’s also hooked me with the character who found Sal and the question – why is Sal dead?
It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse -The Dry by Jane Harper
Harper evokes rural Australia in such a simple and evocative way with this opening, and of course there is the question of why is there a corpse.
I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn’t sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily and he whistled. – Storm Front by Jim Butcher
Butcher sent shivers up my spine with this one and made me wonder if there was a psycho mailman on the loose.
I go by many names, none of my own choosing. – The Parcel by Anoshi Irani
Irani’s opening is short, simple and elegant and asks an evocative question.
A great beginning compels the reader to continue. Sometimes the voice draws you in by insisting on your attention, or using intimacy or intrigue. Sometimes the opening contains a hook or drama to make you want to know what happens next, particularly in mysteries or stories with a quest. A character may be so compelling that you want to know more about them or the rhythm or pacing of the writing can power you to read on. You also have to find the right place and time to begin. Start to soon and you will bore readers with routine and no goal or conflict, start too late and you confuse people with inadequate context.
The ending is a long way from the beginning. But it has to answer the question that was asked at the opening in order to satisfy readers. It has to take all that you have written about in depth and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. If the ending fails to answer the specific question set out in the beginning, the whole book will fail. Many authors say they write the ending before they begin. I cannot always see the ending until I am well into the story. I am fairly confident the ending I wrote in my first draft will not be the ending I finish with. It is something I agonize over intermittently. Time will tell whether I find a satisfying conclusion.
Here are some endings that I’ve found gratifying and that have given me something to take away and think about…
My name is Harry Blackston Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. When things get strange, when what goes bump in the night flicks on the lights, when no one else can help you, give me a call. I’m in the book. – Storm Front by Jim Butcher
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. – George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)
I never saw any of them again — except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them. – The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
When they finally did dare it, at first with stolen glances then candid ones, they had to smile. They were uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of Love. – Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind
What are some of your favorite beginnings and endings?
Image: Queensland Museum