Writing Beginnings And Endings

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University Creative Writing By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: University Creative Writing
Last updated: 17/10/2017
Tags: creative writing, plotting, story planning, story structure, storytelling

'I have to start to write to have ideas' - Françoise Sagan

Beginnings in life

When do real life stories begin? Usually well before the fictional narrative, way back in childhood. Think about Freud's idea that an adult's character is shaped in their early infancy.  

When writing a piece of prose fiction, whether a short story or novel, you need to decide when to start your narrative. Think about the story of your character's whole life versus how you will narrate it, when you will begin.

Take Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, which opens with the character Clarissa, age 52, who is preparing for a dinner party at her home in London. But her story really starts much further back in time, in Clarissa's youth, when she decided to marry reliable Richard Dalloway instead of the enigmatic Peter Walsh. Clarissa's early life decisions shaped her later self. But the plot of the novel starts at a definitive point in time, later in life. Think about the difference between your plot linehow you tell the narrative, and your storyline—the chronology of the story.

19th-century realist novels tend to start right at the beginning. We first encounter a child who we follow into adulthood. Think of Pip in Great Expectations, or Jane Eyre. Modern novels tend to be less sweeping, they begin in medias res (in the midst of things). Decide when you want your action to start.

Think about the beginnings of your characters' lives. You don’t necessarily have to write these out in your narrative, but you need to know them so that you know your character. Recognise that your character has a backstory: a life that has lead up to who they are now.

Where to start?

Start a little later than you imagine you need to. Try to write the beginning of a story. Take a look at what you've written. Now try starting your story further in than where you began.

Start your story with DRAMA. Lengthy scene setting can feel flat, it can alienate readers. Swathes and swathes of description, however beautifully written, will only turn the reader off. Intersperse your descriptions with the drama. Create an opening that grips – by plot, emotional engagement, or curiosity.

Exercise

  1. Think about an uncomfortable meeting with someone.
  2. Write about this meeting and try not to be too conscious of what you are writing. Just write what comes into your head.
  3. Now look back over what you've written.
  4. Are there any good lines or interactions you could bring to the beginning?
  5. Change your start, so that you begin further into your story. Cut your original start and get straight to something that grips, something that draws the reader in.

Ian McEwan: Enduring Love  http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/m/mcewan-love.html

The beginning of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love has great dramatic impact. Read the opening chapter of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Think about whether you like this opening. Does it make you want to read on? Why is it effective, or why not? Think about how the scene setting and backstories intersect the present-day drama.

Opening lines

Here are some examples of striking opening lines:  

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." - One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

"Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know." - The Stranger, Albert Camus

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." - Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." - The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

"A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house" - Viewfinder, Raymond Carver

"That morning she pours Teacher's scotch over my belly and licks it off. In the afternoon she tries to jump out of the window." - Gazebo, Raymond Carver.

Can you think of any other powerful opening lines? Think about why they have such impact? How do they make you feel? Do you want to read on?

Endings - The right ending?

How does life end? Does life ever end neatly? Can we ever really reach the right ending? When you write the ending to your story think about ambiguity versus completion. Which do you prefer in a story, and why?  

For example, read Chekhov’s 'The Lady with the Lapdog'. http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/LadyWith.shtml

      Then they spent a long while taking counsel together, talked of how to avoid the necessity for secrecy, for deception, for living in different towns and not seeing each other for long at a time. How could they be free from this intolerable bondage?

     "How? How?" he asked, clutching his head. "How?"

     And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.

In some ways, the end of this story reads like the beginning. It is open-ended, though it has a positive ring.  

Other endings veer into entirely different directions.

Read the end of 'The Dead' by James Joyce. https://www.shortstories.co.in/the-dead-2/

       A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Exercise:

Take one of the stories above by Chekhov or Joyce and think about the following:

Where does the story start? How does the beginning relate to the end? What do you make of the ending? Why is it left in this way? Is this a complete story? Is this a complete life?

Further reading:

Anderson, Linda, ed. Creative writing: a workbook with readings. Routledge, 2013.
Bell, Julia. The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry. Pan Macmillan, 2016.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the plot: Design and intention in narrative. Harvard University Press, 1992.
Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Penguin, 2014.
Gardner, John. The art of fiction: Notes on craft for young writers. Vintage, 2010.


Catherine S H University English Tutor (South East London)

About The Author

I’m a passionate and supportive tutor with a PhD in English and six years' tutoring experience. As a lecturer in English at Goldsmiths, UCL and Kingston university, I teach a range of topics. My tutoring centres on the student's specific needs.




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