Thursday 13 January 2011

Story Beginnings and Endings


"It was a dark and stormy night ..."

The opening of a short story is more important than a novel's - it's a bigger proportion of the whole, and because a story's supposed to have a tight structure, the beginning's a strong indicator of the whole story's genre, mood and tone. Sometimes they even suggest what the end's going to be. Here's the first paragraph of a story. How's it going to end?

"You're not going out with him and that's the end of it!" Jenny's father announced.

(I'll show you the ending later. For now here's a clue - it's from "Yours", a Women's magazine).

Beginnings often set the scene in some way. In the olden days, first paragraphs were info-dumps. Here's something from 1859.

As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the preceding night. Two or three men, conversing earnestly together, ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances. There was a Sabbath lull in the air which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.

Initial info-dumps aren't necessarily bad - beginnings like "Gregory Samsa woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself changed into a giant bug" quickly give the reader the required context - but newer stories tend to spread out the scene-setting, sometimes starting in the middle of the action - medias in res. A survey came up with these statistics for how stories begin: 40% "narrative", 30% "description" (e.g. info-dumps), 10% "speech", 5% "author comment".

In "More five-minute writing", Margret Geraghty lists a few common types of starts

  • Attention-grabbing - "The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted" ("The Beginner's Goodbye", Anne Tyler)
  • Visceral - mentioning a strong smell, taste, etc
  • A Question - "Was was it, Tiffany Aching wondered, that people liked noise so much?" ("I shall wear midnight", Terry Pratchett)
  • An aphorism - "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." ("Anna Karenina", Leo Tolstoy)

It's worth getting the first sentence word perfect. A draft of Nineteen Eighty Four began with "It was a cold, blowy day in early April, and innumerable clocks were striking thirteen" which isn't as crisp an attention-grabber as it could be.


"Then I woke up and realised it was all a dream."

According to "The Narrative Modes" by D.S. Brewer (where I also got the statistics from) "Endings are even more various and harder to classify. They are also apparently harder to write well". Here are the statistics for endings: 31% speech, 10% ironic (in novels the percentage is lower), 8% main character dies, 7% a symbolic final event (a door closing, a journey ends, etc), 5% a question, 4% "author comment", 1% wedding (in novels the percentage is far higher). Over 15% end with a sentence of 5 words or less.

Aristotle thought that endings should be "inevitable and unexpected". William Goldman wrote that "The key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects". After Poe, surprize endings became popular and influential - "Though surprise endings as not ... numerically dominant in the whole of any writer's work until O.Henry, the effect of the surprise endings on short-story structure and on the popularity of the form extended beyond the actual number of examples". The importance of the ending can be so strong that it affects the shape of the whole story. Even authors who don't exclusively use twist-endings may be very end-oriented in their writing procedures - "If I didn't know the ending of a story, I wouldn't begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it" Katherine Anne Porter (in Writers at Work: "The Paris Review Interviews", p.151)

As an example of how closely the ending and beginning can be tied together, here's the end of the story from "Yours"

Mrs Wilson winked at her daughter and said: "So he's not such a bad catch after all!"

Sometimes the ending refers back to the beginning even more explicitly. Here's the start and end of "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan

  • My father has asked me to be the fourth corner of the Joy Luck Club. I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah jong table has been empty since she died two months ago.
  • And I am sitting at my mother's place at the mah jong table, on the East, where things begin.

More often, the beginning prefigures the end - symbolically maybe, a broken dish fore-shadowing the infidelity revealed in the punch-line. I think it's always worth reading the beginning again after reaching the end of a story. Here's the start of "Words from a Glass Bubble" by Vanessa Gebbie - an award winning modern story.

The Virgin Mary spoke to Eva Duffy from a glass bubble in a niche half way up the stairs. Eva, the post woman, heard the Virgin's words in her stomach more than in her ears, and she called her the VM. The VM didn't seem to mind. She was plastic, six inches high, hand painted, and appeared to be growing out of a mass of very green foliage and very pink flowers, more suited to a fish tank. She held a naked Infant Jesus who stretched his arms out to Eva and mouthed, every so often ... "Carry?"

And here's the final paragraph. It has many echoes of the first - checklist the first paragraph's items to see what happened to them. Identify themes.

Then, there was a sound. The cry of a buzzard as it might have been made by a small boy, a thin little cry that rose triumphant into the post woman's house, echoed round the stairs and floated out of the open windows to disappear among the whispers of wind in the night sky

Here's the first paragraph of Steve Almond's "Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched", the first story of Best American Short Stories 2010. It's a typical well-crafted opening - informative about the main character and establishing the narrative voice.

Dr. Raymond Oss had become, in the restless leisure of his late middle age, a poker player. He had a weakness for the game and the ruthless depressives it attracted, one of which it probably was, fair enough, though it wasn't something he wanted known. Oss was a psychoanalyst in private practice and the head of two committees at the San Francisco Institute. He was a short man with a meticulous Trotsky beard and a flair for hats that did not suit him. He cured souls, very expensively, from an office near his home in Redwood City

Open Endings - and Beginnings

As the 20th century progressed, the trend was not to end with an explicit authorial comment (which is one reason why stories more often end in speech nowadays), and not to link the start too tightly to the ending. Increasingly, endings are "open" rather than "closed".

William Gibson's "Neuromancer" ends with a section entitled "Coda: Departure and Arrival" which sums up what many endings do - some mysteries are solved, but others are begun.

Here are some typical modern endings which give a feeling of closure but leave some doors open - new relationship, new realisations, new starts.

  • And that was what she remembered. That was what she always said to Queenie later, how all the future had come flooding in with him, through the open door.
  • Later, the plane makes a slow circle over New York City, and on it two men hold hands, eyes closed, and breathe in unison.
  • Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
  • After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain (one of 47 ending that Hemingway tried for "A Farewell to Arms")

Just as some authors chopped the traditional beginning from a story, so some chopped off the ending, but even stories (by Barthelme, Coover, etc) without conventional closure exploit "closure signals" (repetition, change of tone or voice, zoom-out) to prepare the reader for the end.

Nowadays the expectation of closure is so low that the climax of a text can be the moment when the theme or genre is revealed. Beginnings are becoming more ambiguous too. Here are some initial paragraphs. Trying to guess the genre is hard enough let alone guessing the ending

  • Once a mouse family lived under the floor of a playroom. There was a mother mouse and a father mouse. There was a big sister mouse called Mousikin and a baby brother mouse called Little Mouse.
  • Once upon a time there was a little old woman, who lived in her council flat, and was as lonely as lonely could be. She had been retired from her old job at Superdrug when her hearing seemed to be on the wane. She had accepted her glass clock meekly, and the last-day paper cup of fizzy wine, then cried on the bus all the way home.
  • So Pete Crocker, the sheriff of Barnstable County, which was the whole of Cape Cod, came into the Federal Ethical Suicide Parlor in Hyannis one May afternoon - and he told the two six-foot hostesses there that they weren't to be alarmed, but that a notorious nothinghead named Billy the Poet was believed headed for the Cape.
  • We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds. The war clubs of the Comanches clattered on the soft, yellow pavements. There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire. People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. 'Do you think this is a good life?' The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. 'No.'
  • I'm Push the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants - and cripples, especially cripples. I love nobody loved.

The shorter the fiction, the more significant the ending becomes. In the Guardian (14/5/12) David Gaffney wrote Make sure the ending isn't at the end. In micro-fiction there's a danger that much of the engagement with the story takes place when the reader has stopped reading. To avoid this, place the denouement in the middle of the story, allowing us time, as the rest of the text spins out, to consider the situation along with the narrator, and ruminate on the decisions his characters have taken. If you're not careful, micro-stories can lean towards punchline-based or "pull back to reveal" endings which have a one-note, gag-a-minute feel - the drum roll and cymbal crash. Avoid this by giving us almost all the information we need in the first few lines, using the next few paragraphs to take us on a journey below the surface.

Short stories are usually too short to offer alternative endings in the way that "The French Lieutenant's Women" (Fowles) and "The Black Prince" (Murdoch) do.

See Also

  • Stanley Fish, in "To Write A Sentence: And How To Read One", discusses first and last sentences. He likes Roth's "When I first saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses" (the start of "Goodbye Columbus") because it quickly introduces the personalities. He likes Fitzgerald's "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (the end of "The Great Gatsby") because the narrative goes forwards but the sounds repeat.
  • Listen. Come in Here. You Want to Know About This by Victoria Heath

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