Writing: Beginnings and Endings

Cindy Skaggs
Building Blocks for Writers
11 min readAug 5, 2020

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How to start a story and bring it to a satisfying ending.

In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1)

As a lover of words, this verse is one of my favorite from a literary perspective, because it elevates writers. The Word existed from the beginning.

These six words do what all good opening lines should do. The verse intrigues and invites the reader into the world. It encourages the reader to read the next line and the next and the next.

This gentle coaxing that draws the reader into the story is why first lines — and beginnings — matter. My all-time favorite first line is

“The first time she slit a man’s throat she felt sick to her stomach.”

This line from The Ideal Man drew me into the story. I wanted to know more. Surprisingly, the book isn’t about serial killers, but Julie Garwood, who writes killer first lines, knows how to draw the reader inexorably into her stories.

Her style is definitely modern, in media res, as writing professors like to say. In the middle of things, but that concise shocking first line isn’t the only way into a story. Indeed, literature abounds with famous first lines. Do you recognize these iconic first lines.

Name that book:

  1. Call me Ishmael.
  2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
  3. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

The question writers should ask is does the line work? Does it draw the reader into the story?

The first example, “Call me Ishmael,” is from a required high school reading list. Junior year, and Mr. DelMargo waxed poetic about the book I couldn’t make myself finish. I didn’t understand the extended metaphor or the symbolic nature of the… creature discussed, and though I have tried many times to finish the book, I’ve never gotten to the end. In fact, several years ago I saw this title on a list of books people lie about having read. Still, most of us recognize the first line.

The last example is iconic. Those who haven’t read the whole book often recognize the book or the author from this line alone. The line also represents a paradox between all the examples: the best and worst, foolishness and belief, hope and despair. Such a great literary first line. Do you think you know the title?

Stock image from Deposit Photos © 2015

Answers:

  1. Moby Dick, Merman Melville
  2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  3. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

First lines draw the reader into the book, but writers must follow through with equally compelling second and third lines to create a great beginning.

“On the night of May 11 at precisely eight forty-five in the evening, Finn MacBain stopped being a colossal pain in the ass and grew up. He also became a hero” (Hotshot).

This second Garwood example demonstrates that the first line of a story — even a a killer first line — only gets a writer so far. The next line and the next build to create a compelling beginning. Garwood’s entire first chapter shows the main character as a “colossal pain in the ass,” but also describe his ascent to hero. Not an easy task for a writer.

The opening scene of a story does matter because the beginning

  • Sets the tone
  • Introduces the setting
  • Establishes point of view
  • Reveals the character
  • Plants the seeds of conflict

But the weight of this, the fact that it matters, puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the writer. Writers struggle with first lines for this very reason.

In one of my works in progress (WIP), the opening has changed dozens of times. I’ve flip-flopped the two opening scenes on multiple occasions, and I’ve revised and reimagined the first line because I wanted to get it “just right,” but that sense of rightness doesn’t exist, at least not in the beginning, and I would be better served to find “almost right,” and finish the book, which I ultimately did.

The tragedy for me is that the working first paragraph, which I love, has to change. Change hurts, particularly with these words that I love (kill your darlings), but the lines are written in passive voice and start with the non-specific word “it.” The opening also overtly states the theme, which I know can’t stand, so I am left — as I work on revision — floundering with the question of where to start.

Forget what you learned in English class

As much as this pains me, forget what you learned in English class, because the thesis statements and topic sentences required in academic writing are not creative and are not designed for storytelling.

Creative writing is a messy thing, or it should be, at least for non-linear writers. This, perhaps, is why Artificial Intelligence has not learned to write a novel yet (although scientists continue to try).

Messiness may not be next to godliness, but chaos is less destructive than perfectionism. An ancient truth often attributed to Plato is that

“Perfect is the the enemy of the good.”

Or as I often remind myself, perfect people die young.

As members of the human race, writers can never attain the perfection in their minds, because every word written will fail to live up to the loftiness of imagined words and stories. This ideal in the writer’s mind will result in paralysis, thus it is indeed the “enemy of the good” that could unfold on the page if writers let go of perfection and aimed for completion instead.

The beginning is a very nice place to start.

Most plot structure recommends starting in the middle of things, or right before things change for the main characters. In the movie John Wick, that’s when he meets the men who will kill his dog and drag Wick back into the dark underworld. In the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed, she starts literally in the middle, the middle of the book (a flash forward) where she loses her boot while hiking the Pacific Coastal Trail. This establishes the setting, the character, the tone, the point of view, and very effectively demonstrates the conflict of man (or woman) against nature.

Consider the needs of the beginning: tone, point of view, character, setting, and conflict. Even if a writer knows what moment in time encapsulates the beginning, how does the writer depict that moment to draw the reader into the story? Writer and college professor Sue Williams Silverman says that with fiction, she pretends that she’s

“watching a movie, whereby I copied down images I saw in my mind’s eye. With a memoir, however, it’s as if you’re inside the movie, inside your own life, whereby you not only see images, but you taste, smell, hear, and touch the images. You are the movie … [so] select those sensory details that best illuminate you and your world” (Silverman 13).

As a writer, with my fiction or creative nonfiction, I often play the movie reel in my head, on repeat, for hours, days, weeks — before or after sleep, sometimes during sleep, or in the shower, or on a walk — long before I put words to paper. Some books open like a movie, with a broad panoramic view. This is the way I “see” the opening of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert clear air has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointy toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them. (Capote 3).

This provides a panoramic view that reveals the story gently. The setting is slowly described with concrete, sensory details. The reader senses a gentle narration (point of view), and the words set the tone which is at odds with the horrific nature of the crimes. In fact, the opening scenery pits the setting against the conflict, where the reader finally arrives as the view narrows:

At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them — four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives (Capote 5).

The narration makes the reader wonder how this bucolic place could produce such horror, and thus, the beginning set the tone, the setting, hints at character, and establishes conflict, all in a movie-like view of the Kansas plains.

One reason for the success of this opening is the strong use of imagery. The language is active. There are few telling verbs, and the sensory details lead the reader from the panoramic view, past the plains, across the railway, over the river (yes, literally), and into the town of Holcomb with a sweeping view of the postmistress, the cafe, the school, each descriptive line leading us closer to the conflict, the murders.

Endings: It is finished.

“The end of the story is where, after the climax and denouement, the author ties up all the loose ends, making sure that any unresolved plot lines are closed” (Capps 84).

  • In Star Wars, the ending is the medal scene.
  • In Home Alone, the ending is when the family returns, and Kevin looks out the window to see that his elderly neighbor reunites with his estranged son and granddaughter.

How to end is a matter of story, tone, and personal style. I’m a big fan of the Echo the Intro ending. This is where the protagonist returns to the original setting, but as a changed man.

  • In Star Wars, for instance, imagine an ending back on Tatooine, where Luke’s aunt and uncle were murdered by Storm Troopers.
  • The movie While You Were Sleeping does this well as the story starts and ends with the main character working in the subway, taking tokens, but she has changed just as her life has changed.

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, calls this a circular story form. The ending of a story, for Vogler, is the mythological Return with the Elixir moment:

“Having survived all the ordeals, having lived through death, heroes return to their starting place, go home, or continue the journey. But they always proceed with a sense that they are commencing a new life, one that will be forever different because of the road just traveled” (Vogler 221).

Final thoughts.

As a writer, I prefer to write by the seat of my pants (pantser). Translation, I like to wing it, most of the time, but for some reason, I can’t write the book until I know the ending. Probably because I like to write in the circular story form, I need to know the ending to write the beginning.

Writers who plot (plotters) know how the story will end before they begin. Pantsers, however, let the story unfold organically. When this happens, there is often a disconnect between how the story started and the ultimate ending.

  • For plotters, the challenge is to leave room for inspiration in the middle of the book.
  • For pantsers, the challenge is to revise the beginning once the ending is finished.

Either way, the reader should get a sense of closure from the ending. While the characters should appear as if they continue on their life’s journey outside the confines of the book, the story presented should feel complete. Or, as I alluded to earlier, the reader should recognize that “it is finished” (John 19:30).

Prompts for discovering opening elements. For this series, choose a single writing project.

  1. Movie: First, picture your opening like a movie. Brainstorm for 5 minutes, writing down every detail you “see” in the opening scene.
  2. POV: Choose a point of view for your opening. Are you writing in first person (I) or third person (he/she)? Unless you’re highly skilled, avoid use of second person (you/we) for now.
  3. Character: Choose the main character from the opening scene:
  4. Char: How do they look? But focus on specific unique details. Do they have a COVID DIY haircut? Do their roots show? Are their nails ragged? Is their fingernail polish chipped or perfectly manicured? Does their smile show perfect white teeth, or chipped and yellowed? Do they have a uni-brow? Are their eyebrows over-tweezed?
  5. Char: How do they move? Is their gait uneven? Do they have a limp? Do they run or rush everywhere? Does that look like a Tom Cruise run or a Phoebe from Friends run? Do they stand like the captain of a ship, feet braced apart, or do they slump? How do they eat/sleep/sit/stand? Do they snap at the waiter or server? Do they use gloves at gas pumps because they fear germs (I mean, we’re in the time of COVID, so yes, I do).
  6. Char: How do they speak? Do they ask questions, make demands (commands), or complain? Do they use jargon like saying negative rather than no? Do they ramble and use phrases like and-so-on or etcetera (I have an uncle who does this). Do they say very little or use one or two words rather than full sentences? While these elements may not come up in your opening, they will help your character grow on the page.
  7. Tone: Tone refers to the author’s word choice and writing style, and it can change between genres or projects, so consider for a moment the tone you’re looking for in the opening of this project. Do you want clipped and fast paced? Long, descriptive, and flowing? What tone suits the opening best?
  8. Setting: Look for unique details about the place. What draws the eye? What is ugly, unexpected or unexplainable? What is beautiful? Is the ground mud, or desert, or grassy? Is the air arid, humid, or cold and wet?What sensory details does the narrator notice? What does it look like?Are there any tastes or smells evident? What does the environment smell like? Are there any tactile sensations?
  9. Conflict: What is the conflict of your story? Once you are aware of this, how can the opening foreshadow the conflict? Does the opening act as a call to action? What conflict occurs in the opening pages that will draw the reader deeper into your story?
  10. Movie Rewind: Now, review your initial paragraph that depicts a movie like opening to your story. Revise the opening scene to include the relevant details from the brainstorming.

Sources:

  • Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. Vintage International Books, 1965.
  • Capps, Ron. Writing War. The Veterans Writing Project, 2014.
  • Garwood, Julie. Hotshot. Penguin, 2013.
  • Garwood, Julie. The Ideal Man. Penguin, 2011.
  • Silverman, Sue William. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. The University of Georgia Press, 2009.
  • Strayed, Cheryl. Wild. Vintage Press, 2012.
  • Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.
  • This post includes affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Cindy Skaggs grew up on stories of mob bosses, horse thieves, cold-blooded killers, and the last honest man. Those mostly true stories gave her a lifelong love of storytelling that enables her writing addiction. She is the author of seven published romantic suspense novels, including The Untouchables series for Entangled Publishing, plus the Team Fear series.

Cindy is a writer, public speaker, college professor, and military veteran who holds an Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (Fiction) and Master of Arts in Creative Writing (Creative Nonfiction). She is an advocate for military and veteran issues, mom to two humans, and a reluctant wrangler of too many critters. Find more at www.CSkaggs.com.

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Cindy Skaggs
Building Blocks for Writers

Writer 🖊 | Veteran | Professor | Complex and flawed human | Booklist https://www.cskaggs.com/books.html and newsletter signup → https://www.cskaggs.com