On Beginnings and Endings

On Beginnings and Endings

This morning I’m thinking about beginnings and endings. I am fascinated and envious about brilliant, compelling beginning paragraphs. The start to a story is a welcome mat, an open door revealing an entire world for the reader to explore. Drawing them into that world is the job of the beginning paragraphs.

Thinking about beginnings led me to look at the first lines of the last three books I read.

“The library at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages was silent except for the whisper of books in the Theoretical Magic Section. Honeyed sun poured through the tall windows onto rows of empty study tables, which still gleamed with the freshness of summer cleaning.”

Magic for Liars, Sarah Gailey

There’s a lot of information in those two sentences. They establish location. They establish that magic exists. We learn the time of year and I won’t say more to avoid spoilers. The two descriptive phrases are simple and full:

“Honeyed sun poured…”

“… gleamed with the freshness of summer cleaning.”

“… the whisper of books…”

I don’t know about you, but my head is full of sensory information based on those phrases. ‘Honeyed sun’ is not early morning sun and it’s not high noon sun, it’s afternoon sun. My mind goes to warmth both visually and in temperature. I can even imagine the smell of warm wood, carpeting and books. The study tables gleam in that sun and also from their recent cleaning. Is there still a hint of cleaning products or wood polish, activated by the warmth of the sun? What would it feel like to run you fingers across that shiny clean surface? The library after summer cleaning would be a library ready for the school year, ready to welcome back students. I imagine that state of readiness would be palpable. And ‘the whisper of books’ helps establish the magical atmosphere of the library and the school. The hush of the gleaming, waiting library is complete except for the sound of books whispering among themselves. Those two sentences give us sight, sound, location, mood, time of day and time of year, and hints for smell and touch.

I’ve practiced writing opening lines. For the current WiP, I wrote a page full of potential openings for the story. The questions I ask myself are: do I want to open in the middle of an action scene, or in a moment where the character is thinking back on a scene, or do I establish place as in the lines above? An opening that starts in the middle of action could be like

“Stacy’s grip was beginning to fail and if Josephine didn’t arrive soon with the dirigible, the bottom of the dark hole beneath her was waiting.”

That would start a story off in a hurry. We immediately get a mental image of poor Stacy holding on for dear life and start rooting for her. Hang on, Stacy! Hurry up, Josephine! A beginning like this yanks the reader in by their collar and starts running. A beginning like this is also a promise. The promise is, the writer will eventually tell you who Stacy is and why she’s hanging on by her fingers, and where she’s hanging on and over what. We’ll get to know what has happened to bring Stacy and Josephine to this predicament and we’ll find out what happens next.

Another book I read recently was Ghost, by Jason Reynolds. This story starts inside the protagonist’s head.

“Check this out. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons… with his nose.”

We don’t start in the middle of an action scene and we don’t start with a series of descriptions establishing place, time or mood. What does happen is we know right away that we’re going to spend time in this character’s head and the communication is going to be immediate and intimate. The protagonist breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to us. Through word choice, we can make guesses about the character’s age and even gender – if we stick with stereotypes. I already knew the character was a boy, because I read the dust jacket.

The opening lines of N.K. Jemisen’s book, The City We Became, starts in first person as well, and contains descriptive information.

“I sing the city.

Fucking city. I stand on the rooftop of a building I don’t live in and spread my arms and tighten my middle and yell nonsense ululations at the construction site that blocks my view.”

It starts with two terse sentences that are almost contradictory. They also leave us with more questions than answers. It’s not ‘sing to the city’, so what does it mean to ‘sing a city’? Then the narrator says ‘fuck the city’ and we wonder why they are singing it at all. The next sentence establishes place at the top of a building and what follows leads me to wonder about the sanity of the narrator, and also gives you a sense of their audacity. On top of a building they don’t live in, ululating at the top of their lungs at a city. Though we don’t know who this character is, we already have a sense of them. A sense that they kind of don’t give a shit what people think.

Openings need to pull the reader in and keep the pages turning. What about endings? What are endings supposed to do? Endings generally wrap up some of the questions posed throughout the story, the ones not answered by the culminating ‘Big Scene’. Often, they don’t answer all the questions and instead leave some doors open for speculation by the reader. I generally like this kind of ending, even when it frustrates me by not answering my questions.

Ghost ends as the starter’s gun goes off and Ghost starts his first race. We don’t know how he does in the race, how he places or his time. And though we want to know, because we’re rooting for Ghost, we also don’t need to know. By ending it here, the author is telling us that the result is unimportant. What’s important is that he got to the starting line.

I’m thinking about endings a lot right now because I haven’t decided how I want my WiP to end. Do I wrap up most of the loose ends, or leave something for the reader to write for themselves? After the Big Scene, which I’m in the process of writing, the danger that has been present for most of the story is gone. There are two more questions I will definitely answer and several that I don’t think I will. Because the danger is gone, so is most of the tension and ‘page turning’ ingredients. Really, there are only two chapters at most following the Big Scene, so I’m almost done. And now that I’m that close, I’m starting to think about how to nail that ending. The routine can be amazing but if you don’t stick the landing, you’re gonna lose points.

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