20 Ways to Make It Better # 17—Beginnings & Endings

 # 17. Beginnings – Endings

Beginnings Begin at the beginning, not before. What does that mean? Write as much of the back story as you need to get going, but then whack it off and start where things get interesting. The “inciting incident” those who teach call it. Start the story with a promise of what the story is about. With a short story, start as close to the end as possible.

Some of my favorite beginnings:

Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deep down, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you. – from Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. – from A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

The Santa Ana’s blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three quarter moon. – from White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

Endings Good endings stay with us because they resonate back to the beginning and give us more to think about. Does the ending allude to a deeper story? Is the ending satisfying? Throughout the story we’ve wanted the reader to say, “and then what happened?” With our endings, we want her to say, “Tell me another one.” The best ending is the one that is followed by what Tim O’Brien calls “a holy silence.”

A few of my favorite endings:

Tomas turned the key and switched on the ceiling light. Tereza saw two beds pushed together, one of them flanked by a bedside table and lamp. Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below. – from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milo Kundera

The people of the Flat melted into the darkness. Danny’s friends still stood looking at the smoking ruin. They looked at one another strangely, and then back at the burned house. And after a while they turned and walked slowly away, and no two walked together. – from Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

The beginning of The Catcher in the Rye is often quoted; I like the way the end circles back to the beginning:

If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about.  … Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you’ll start missing everybody. – from The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Here’s something to try: Choose 10 or 15 or 25 of your favorite books or best sellers in the genre you’re writing, read the beginning—the first paragraph, the first page, even the first chapter then go to the end, the last few pages, the last page, the last paragraph, the last sentence. Read as a student. Keep notes on what you discover. Let stories teach you how to write a story.

What’s your favorite beginning? Ending?