Hey everyone. Do you know what day it is today? I just looked at the calendar… and it’s the 26th of September. Which means I’m scheduled to post in the TCWT blog-chain! Usually, by this time, I have my post ready-written and perfectly pedicured, manicured, with eyebrows plucked and all the wax out scraped out of the ears and burning brightly as candles. But today, unfortunately, due to my
swottish and procrastinatory tendencies important exams coming up, the day has somehow arrived without me having written post. So bear with me as I try to come up with something quick.
This month’s prompt is terrific: “What are your favourite book beginnings and/or endings?” This is a really interesting topic to consider, because beginnings and endings are a crucially important part of any story. Stuff this up, and chances are you’ve stuffed up the whole thing. On the other hand, get it right and you’ve gone a long way towards writing someone’s favourite book. So let’s go through and look first at some of my favourite beginnings, then some endings, and then at a couple of stories that did really well with both.
Thinking of favourite beginnings was much harder than I thought. I could think of heaps that were really good, but no absolute stand-outs. Nevertheless, I’ll give you a couple of my best picks, and try to pin-point at least part of why I liked them so much.
Of the books I’ve read recently, the one with the best beginning was probably Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Initially, what’s interesting about this novel is the narrator, Lockwood. A boring name for a boring guy, but even boring people can be interesting when a good writer tells the story from their point of view. In the first chapter, this city-bloke turns up on the bleak Yorkshire moors in a jolly good mood and imposes himself on the local populace (all the while claiming that he is an “exaggeratedly reserved” fellow). There, he immediately starts coming to wrong conclusions about everything. First, he decides that his landlord, Heathcliff, is a “capital fellow” when it’s obvious he’s anything but — and then he blunders around guessing who the young lady of the house might be married to (“Heathcliff, you’re wife? No?” “Your son’s wife then? No again?” “He’s not your son? Really?” “I’m asking too many questions?”)*. This works to get a bit of humour and conflict in the story early on, but the hinkiness of the narrator also establishes a certain air of mystery and uncertainty that really gets you hooked into the story. That air of mystery is cranked up to maximum when Lockwood is forced to spend the night at the Heights and has a series of bizarre dreams in which he is visited by ghosts. Clearly this place is haunted, not merely with ghosts, but with memories. And so the beginning draws us into the story, causing us, like Lockwood, to want to discover what these memories are.
Another beginning I loved was the beginning to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (by some famous author). There, rather than beginning with the main characters of the novel, we begin at the Riddle House (through a dream of Harry’s), where we learn about mysterious and evil goings-on that we know will impact on the events of the story. This heightens the sense of dread right from the start (all the more so because this is the 4th book in the series, and thus we understand many of the implications of the dream). After this dream, we cut to Harry, and the more mundane activities he is involved with, but we have that sense of fear and anticipation linked with the dream that draws us quickly through even the slower parts of the novel (which, admittedly, are virtually non-existent). In both Wuthering Heights and The Goblet of Fire, it’s that element of mystery from the beginning that is instrumental in drawing us into the story, and in creating a sense of tension and dread throughout the book.
Favourite endings were every bit as hard as favourite beginnings, but again I’ve picked a couple of excellent ones.
The first I’d mention is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This was a wonderful book. Ultimately, it’s the story of a girl (Salamanca) trying to come to terms with her mother’s leaving, but this is bound up between the interweaving stories of Salamanca travelling across the United States with her grandparents, and the story she narrates to her grandparents as they drive — the story of her friend Phoebe, who’s own mother also left, but then came back. This story is a masterpiece of pacing: it unfolds slowly and beautifully, yet without dragging it’s feet, and the different sections of the story — past and present — reflect on each other while at the same time leaving many details obscured. And then, at the end, the last piece is placed in the centre of the jigsaw puzzle, and it all makes sense. Salamanca knew everything, she just didn’t tell us. (At this point you do feel slightly miffed as a reader, because she tells it to some random police officer after going through the whole book without tellingus.)
The second book I’d mention is The Lord of the Rings (by another famous bloke). This is, quite possibly, my favourite novel of all time, so it’s no surprise that it contains one of my favourite endings. I won’t say much about it, but I loved how the ending was expected, yet unexpected; completely foreshadowed, and yet a complete surprise. And how it so wonderfully proved the wisdom of Gandalf, because Gandalf is awesome.
I’ve given you a couple of my favourite beginnings and endings, now for a couple of stories that had great beginnings AND endings.
First — to move away from books, for a moment — let’s discuss one of my favourite films: Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. This film starts off horrifically. A man drowns in (what looks like) a big fish-tank, and another man, who is caught standing outside the tank, is sentenced for his murder. It’s a dark and creepy opening scene that immediately draws us into the dark and creepy story. From here, we dive into the past to work out how we got there, watching as a tale unfolds of the increasingly bitter rivalry between two 19th century stage magicians. The story has so many twists and turns, flash-backs and flash-forwards, that one quickly forgets which way is up, but it comes together in a remarkable conclusion that turns the film upside down (if you knew which way that was), and makes you realise that the beginning was even more horrific than you thought. It’s one of those films where it clicks at the end and everything suddenly makes sense. Indeed, this film was even better because there were two clicks at the end — as my friend put it: “they blow your mind, then they blow it again five minutes later”. The beginning and the end work together perfectly to create a fantastic, unified story that turns itself on its head.
And now, the final story I’ll talk about: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. I’ve chosen this book precisely because it has a very different kind of beginning and ending to The Prestige, and most of the others I’ve listed.Okay for Now doesn’t score by virtue of its fantastically mysterious opening, nor due to an ending that makes everything fall into place. Rather, what I love about this is how Schmidt achieves a fantastic unity of voice that is present from the first page to the last. It’s a simple, poetic, sympathetic voice that makes us love the narrator, Doug Swieteck as much as we loved Holling Hoodhood in the prequel (The Wednesday Wars) — maybe even more. Here’s how the story starts:
Joe Pepitone once gave me his New York Yankees baseball cap.
I’m not lying.
He gave it to me. To me, Doug Swieteck. To me.
Schmidt uses words tastefully and economically to very quickly build up a picture of who Doug is. “I’m not lying” is a refrain throughout the book, highlighting Doug’s struggle — growing up in a family of liars, with not being believed even when he tells the truth — while his fixation on Pepitone’s giving it “to me” highlights how unimportant he is to almost everyone.
By the end of this story many things have changed. Doug has transformed from a jerk to a really sympathetic character. He’s made many friends, and he’s gone from feeling almost totally unimportant to being very important to many people. And yet, he’s still the same guy, and he still speaks with the same voice. Here’s how the story ends:
And I’m not lying, I heard, all around us, over the sounds of the huge machines in the room, over the sounds of Apollo 11 heading to the moon, I heard, all around us, the beating of strong wings.
We’ve still got the same voice, and yet now there’s a sense of security and hope, even in the face of obstacles and even perhaps death. Now it’s “us” not “me”.
What did you think of those beginnings and endings? I think it’s clear from my selection there, that there isn’t really any formula for writing a great beginning or a great ending. Some great beginnings start by plunging you into a mystery, others just draw you in through a really interesting narrative voice. Some endings make you see the story in a whole different light, others wrap up delicately and touchingly. There’s no “right” way to do it, really. And isn’t that what makes it so much fun?
(P.S sorry I’m late — I couldn’t quite finish the blog-post yesterday, so now it’s early on the 27th and I’m a day late. Follow the blog-chain for some more thought-out and punctual posts.)
September 2014 blog chain prompt/schedule:
Prompt: “What are your favorite book beginnings and/or endings?”
8th – http://zarahoffman.com/
15th – http://miriamjoywrites.com/
and http://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/ (We’ll announce the topic for next month’s chain.)
- Disclaimer: these are not direct quotes from the novel.