On Story Writing: beginnings and endings
Beginnings and endings can make or break a short story. A bad opening line can lose a reader immediately, and a badly written ending can ruin an otherwise great piece.
In a short story, every sentence is important, your opening lines need clout.That is not to say that a story should begin with fireworks, but it must reward the reader for picking it up and then convince them to read on.
Alice Munro, is a master of the opener as is evident in the first sentence of ‘FreeRadicals’. ‘At first people were phoning to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much.’ (Munro, 2014, p.419)
This sentence is working hard. The word choice alone gives the reader an idea of the story’s tone. ‘Depressed’, ‘lonely’, ‘drinking’. Each of these words carries negative connotations which coax an emotional response from the reader. This sentence also gives the reader a clearer picture of Nita by showing how others perceive her, and, more importantly, it does so by showing rather than telling… The callers are worried about Nita. We are not told this, but it is made implicit through the reasons they call. They are checking up on her, so we know that people care about her, it makes Nita real and this makes a reader more likely to care about her too.
We don’t often think of rhythm when as we are writing our killer opening lines, but it can be manipulated to give power to a seemingly ordinary opening line.
Munro’s first sentence is simple, but, through its structure, it produces a notable effect. Up until ‘depressed’, the sentence is fluid, then, the rhythm is altered by the punctuation. This change arrives simultaneously with the words that carry the most semantic meaning and the repetition of ‘not’ enhances the effect by linking these words with a rhythmic quality. ‘Not’ becomes like a snare drum, keeping the beating and drawing our attention to key moments in the sentence. The prose exudes style. The rhythm not only makes it pleasant to read but evidences the control Munro has over her prose and this gives the reader confidence in her ability to tell the story.
All good beginnings leave the reader with questions.
Munro’s opening line leaves the reader with questions, which, naturally, they want answering. They want to know why people are checking up on Anita, why they are described as people rather than friends, and, why the use of ‘at first’? This implies that these people do not call anymore, or, that if they do, they call for different reasons.
If you want your story to stand out in a collection, make sure you are appealing to the reader’s curiosity. If you make them ask questions you give them a reason to stick with your story. It is a cliché, but you really do need to hook your reader from the start.
And to end…let’s talk about endings
When we talk about beginnings we often think of endings, and although they are linked in many ways, it would be a mistake to ignore that they are very different beasts.
Some techniques that lend themselves well to opening sentences can feel contrived in endings. Think about how beginning a story after a death, and ending with that death might work in your narrative. It is possible, likely even, that with the latter, the ending would feel too convenient. Dramatic for the sake of drama. This might evoke a reaction in the reader initially, but it is unlikely to do so in a reread, and the closure that death brings might hinder the narrative’s ability to continue off the page.
Jeff Vandermeer, has written on the relationship between beginnings and endings and suggests that good writing embeds clues to the ending, in the opening; even when the ending is intended to surprise the reader. (2013, p.73) He says that there is pleasure to be found if you return to a story’s beginning and it makes you think, ‘Ah—I see it was all set up from the start.’ (p.73)
This is true in some cases. In Mark Haddon’s ‘The Weir’ images used as the description in the opening passage become significant at the end when they are used to explore deeper themes:
‘…the last few minutes may be horrible, but that’s O.K…because nothing is lost and the river will keep on flowing and there will be dandelions in spring and the buzzard will circle above the wasteland.’ (Haddon, 2015, p.79.)
As I mentioned earlier, every sentence in a short story needs to pull its weight, and it is especially important that description has more than one function. Otherwise, words are being wasted to describe a setting that the reader is not going to inhabit for very long. A sense of place is, of course, important, but the more description in a short story; the more it needs to earn its place.
A great story will continue off the page
In ‘The Weir’ the description initially provides the reader with a vivid setting which partially establishes the tone, but later these images are used to symbolise the continuation of life. (Haddon, 2015, p73-79) If not employed well, this sort of repetition would be a waste of words but it works in ‘The Weir’ because of the reflective and symbolic nature of the ending. This ending is resonant because the descriptive images are used to get at a greater truth in the story. This truth is largely left to the reader to interpret, which makes the ending even stronger because it gives the reader a reason to go away and think, and to return to the story in future.
Elaine Chiew is an advocate of this type of ending which she calls ‘open closure’. She suggests that stories in which the writer resolves everything are artificial, like fairy-tale endings. (Gebbie, 2013, p186) If this is true, it can be argued that Vandemeer’s comments on endings do not go far enough. Endings and beginnings are certainly linked, and pleasure can be found in discovering clues to the ending throughout a text. (2013, p.73.) However, it is not enough on its own. The ending needs to be worth setting up, and if clues are going to be planted throughout the text, the ending must aim for more than surprise. If moments in the text lead up too conveniently to the story’s climax it will feel contrived, and yes, every story is contrived, but great stories create the illusion that they are not.
Beginnings and endings are arguably the two hardest things for a writer to perfect, but, when executed well, they are also the most rewarding. We all remember great beginnings and great endings. They are our point of entry into other worlds. With a beginning, the reader opens up a door and is guided by the writer through that world. With an ending, the writer should leave the door open so that the reader can discover its intricacies on their own.
Gebbie, V. (ed.) (2013) Short Circuit: A guide to the art of the short story. 2nd edn. United Kingdom: Salt Publishing. p.186
Haddon, Mark. (2015). ‘The Weir’ Included in The New Yorker, November 16, New York: pp.73-79.
Haddon Mark. (2015). This Week in Fiction: Mark Haddon on Writing Stories as Complex as the Real World. Available: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-mark-haddon-2015-11-16. Last accessed 19thFebruary.
Munro, A. (2014) Lying Under the Apple Tree. London: Vintage Classics.
Vandermeer, J. (2013) Wonderbook: The Illustrated guide to creating imaginative fiction. New York: Abrams Image.