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.
Warning: Spoilers, including spoilers for parts of The Hobbit that will be covered in the third film.
I’ve been away so long you’d probably thought I’d done a Bilbo, and gone off to foreign parts in search of adventure. But no, I’m back, and I’m here with a review for the second Hobbit film: The … [drumroll] … Desolation of Smaug. Just the other day I saw this second instalment in the film trilogy that has held geeks and non-geeks alike in eager anticipation, and I’m keen to express my conflicting thoughts on it with you.
To begin with, I want to say what I said last time: the Set. Was. Awesome. Well, maybe not quite as incredible as the set for An Unexpected Journey — Mirkwood, for one, could have been a little better — but most things were really, really good. There was Erebor, again, of course (though now after decades of dragon habitation), and Laketown was terrific. Best of all was probably King Thranduil’s halls, and it was perhaps a pity we didn’t see more of it. And of course there was the entire landscape, which was surely enough to make anyone want to move to Middle-Earth… or New Zealand.
Going on to the storyline, and pacing, I can’t say I was quite as impressed. It seemed like they tilted the whole film forwards, rushing through the early parts and spending too much time (and inventing too much) in the later stages.
For a start, there was Beorn. I would have liked to see more of him than one brief scene. I suppose, in the novel, the time with Beorn was a bit of a lull in the tension which Jackson probably wanted to avoid, but perhaps we could have had a just little more? Also, though Beorn was terrific as a bear, as a man he was not really how I imagined him. The hair was good, but character-wise I thought he would be more impetuous, more volatile, more hearty. In the one scene where we see him, we see only his grave and gloomy side.
I could easily pass over Beorn not meeting my expectations, but I confess I was disappointed with the whole section in Mirkwood. “Flies and Spiders”, and the whole of the events in Mirkwood is one of my favourite parts of The Hobbit. It is one of the most crucial parts of the novel in terms of Bilbo’s character development, and the prolonged dark, depressive atmosphere is really one of the low-points of the novel for the company, especially with the unexpected absence of Gandalf.
In the film, I felt the whole thing was rushed through so that we could get to more “exciting” action sequences with the roped-in Legolas and Tauriel. It seemed like we were in the forest for barely any time at all (and we skipped the moths with bulbous eyes and the whole affair with the black river and the enchanted Bombur) before Bilbo went up the tree for a look around, and then came down for a short, shallow tussle with the spiders before the elves popped along and whisked the dwarves away. Peter Jackson evidently decides film noir is not what he wants for The Desolation of Smaug, and Bilbo’s character development is set aside for another time and place.
Admittedly, in the film series much of Bilbo’s character development has already happened by this stage, what with him saving Thorin’s life at the end of The Unexpected Journey. And I suppose the scene with the spiders might not have been as impressive in a film as in the book, given that everything would be dark and hard-to-see — and Bilbo would be invisible anyway. I’m still disappointed, but I’ll keep these things in mind so that I don’t end up with an unfairly negative view of the film.
Once we get through Mirkwood, the movie-makers seem suddenly to remember they still have about five hours of film to fill and less than 150 pages of the novel to fill it with, so they start pulling in characters, fight-scenes and turkey-stuffing faster than you can say “Bilbo”. They probably thought they could sell a few more movie-tickets by satiating Orlando Bloom fans, as well as appeasing critics of Tolkien’s all-male cast, so they bring in Legolas and a red-headed girlfriend. They even seem to try and get in something of a love-triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and the “hot dwarf”, Kili.
I’m not sure what to think of these character additions. On the one hand, it is entirely plausible that Legolas should have encountered the dwarves, and Tolkien certainly did lay it a bit thin with the female half of the population in his novel. The fight scene with Legolas playing stepping-stones on the dwarves’ heads was just incredible, and I could mostly forgive the over-the-top nature of it because, after all, he’s an elf. On the other hand, the whole thing with Kili getting injured and staying behind, and then having Tauriel turn up to cure him, was going a bit far. There’s a fine line between balancing a gender-imbalanced cast and completely changing the story to invent love-interest.
What about Laketown? For starters, I thought the introduction of Bard was good. I was pleased with how we get a feel for the man before the big events of the next film, and especially good was the short debate between Bard and the Master. We see Bard for a man of integrity, who will help the dwarves where his conscience allows, but who feels the need to warn the people against their greed — while the Master, who really dislikes the dwarves, helps them for the sake of his popularity.
While there was some good stuff in Laketown, though, I would have liked to see a bit more of the mass joy and frenzy over the dwarves return and the expected fulfilment of the prophecy, and a bit less of Orcs creeping over roof-tops. There was some pretty funny stuff in the book with all the people hero-worshipping the dwarves and the Master grudgingly going along with it while thinking of all the costs to business and wanting to get rid of them as quickly as possible. I suppose that wouldn’t really have fit the film, though, because there was a lot of emphasis on hurrying to the mountain to get there by Durin’s Day. The film’s increased temporal pressure meant the loss of a funny scene or two, but I’ll own the resulting increase in tension was certainly a good thing.
Then there was the dragon. That scene started off well. Smaug was one magnificent piece of CGI, and the dialogue between him and Bilbo was done well. (Bilbo was visible, which irked me at first, but the most annoying thing about invisible people is you can’t see them, which doesn’t work quite so well in a film). After the initial bit, though, things went a bit downhill. All the dwarves piled down, and there was a rather pointless scene where I think they were trying to fight the dragon, with a lot of creative ingenuity, but with pretty pathetic results. It was all a bit preposterous, though, and it did seem to devalue the danger of dragon fire. I mean, isn’t this supposed to be fire hot enough to melt the One Ring itself? But here the dwarves and Bilbo are practically playing in fire and hardly so much as singeing their eyebrows, so far as I could tell.
Rewinding a bit, I think a really good part of the film was the removal of Deus ex Machina’s from the book. Tolkien is a brilliant writer, but he did have a tendency, particularly in The Hobbit, to drop miraculous escape-opportunities sometimes literally out of the sky. For example, earlier in the story, he has thirteen dwarves, a hobbit and a wizard up in five fir trees, looking set to become fifteen kebabs for a pack of hungry Wargs and goblins, when, out of the blue, swoop a bunch of giant eagles to save the day. The film-makers partially atone for this blatant copout by having Gandalf whisper to a little moth beforehand, which sort of gives us the idea he had called for the eagles.
The removal of Deus ex Machina, and the general foreshadowing of plot-twists, continues strongly in The Desolation of Smaug. The most critical point is the foreshadowing of the dragon’s bane. In the book, the passing of Smaug is a bit of an anti-climax. It’s not foreshadowed, it doesn’t happen by hand of Bilbo, or Thorin, or even Gandalf — it’s killed by Bard, an almost complete nobody in terms of the story at that point, who is only even said to be a descendent of the Lord of Dale (as far as I remember) immediately before he kills the dragon.
In the film, the thing is done a whole lot better. Early on we see something of Bard’s character. We learn about his ancestry. We hear about Girion’s attempt to slay the dragon, which only just failed. And then we learn that there is one more black arrow remaining. Just one more.
And it’s not just in the slaying of the dragon where Jackson and the screenwriters set things up better than Tolkien did. For one thing, there’s the whole affair with Thorin being pursued by Azog’s horde of Orcs. Personally, I think this subplot got a little too intense, especially in the first film, but a really big plus of the whole thing (besides its virtue in maintaining some tension through nearly 9 hours of film), is that it foreshadows the Battle of Five Armies. In The Hobbit, the Battle of Five Armies was a shock to everyone. It was a shock to Bilbo. It was a shock to Gandalf. It was a shock to the reader. In the film, I imagine it will still a shock to everyone (except those who have read the book), but we won’t complain that they cheated by bringing it totally out of the blue.
One last episode where I think they made really good use of detail in the film, was Durin’s Day. Durin’s Day is “when the last moon of autumn and the first moon of winter are in the sky together”. A rare occasion, not something to miss.
In the book they nearly missed it. They were sitting there on the doorstep, looking desperately for the keyhole, and then the sun went behind the cloud. They thought they were done for, but then it emerged from the cloud, just long enough to fit the key and enter the mountain.
In the film, they went one better. The sun set, the stars came out, the moon came down to set as well. All was lost, for certain. But hang on a minute, the … moon? The thrush knocks and the moonbeam falls on the keyhole. Bilbo calls for the dwarves, Thorin grabs the key as the hobbit nearly kicks into the valley, he fits to the keyhole.
Okay, maybe we don’t need the blow-by-blow recap, but you get the point. They made the film that much more powerful by fully utilising details that we’d been provided with earlier. They kept the subtle, implicit promise they made in the previous film: the promise that the detail of the moon was important.
I’ve said some good things about this film so far, but I’ve also made a lot of criticisms. I’ve criticised the scene with Beorn, and the whole episode in Mirkwood, and the lack of development in Laketown. I’ve criticised the scene with the dwarves “fighting” the dragon and the excessive intensity of the orc-fight scenes. What is it that I really want? Am I just being pedantic, criticising everything because it gives me a perverse pleasure?
Answering the second question first — yes, I think I mainly am just being pedantic. The Desolation of Smaug is a brilliant film, just as An Unexpected Journey was. But I do have a reason for my criticisms, I do have something that I want — or that I think I want — out of the Hobbit film series. The problem is that Jackson’s focus in his film series is different to what mine would have been.
If I had directed The Hobbit films (which, believe me, you wouldn’t want), then my emphasis would have been on humour and character development. I’m not saying I would know how to write the humour, I’m not saying I would know how to write the character development, I’m not saying I would know anything at all about directing a movie, but those are my two primary ideals — humour and character development.
Humour means more stuff like where Bilbo wants everyone to turn back for him to get his handkerchief, and where Gandalf goes off to seek the company of “the only one around here who has any sense”. True, there might not be as much scope for that in the relatively grim setting of The Desolation of Smaug as in the first film, but they probably could have got a bit more in than they did.
Character development in this film means, primarily, more stuff in Mirkwood. Less of the intense action, more bits where the little guy finds he has to act all alone.
I’m not saying Jackson didn’t manage any humour or character development — he managed both, in some places quite well. What I’m saying is that that’s where the emphasis should have been. Rather than trying to beat the Lord of the Rings at its own game, trying to be the biggest, most epic high fantasy film on the block, The Hobbit should have been gentler, funnier and every bit as touching (in a very not-soppy sort of way).
That’s not to say they shouldn’t have tried to set up for The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson had an advantage here that Tolkien didn’t have: he knew exactly what the sequel was. I have little doubt Tolkien would have written The Hobbit quite differently if he wrote it in the 1950s, rather than in the 1930s, due to a progression in his ideas about Middle Earth history. Making use of a wealth of material Tolkien didn’t have when he wrote The Hobbit, Jackson has been able to create a film that ties into the sequel much better than the book does. But he should not forget that though the events of this tale, as Middle Earth fate would have it, have big implications, the events themselves are not nearly so large-scale.
In the end, it was a great film. The set was brilliant, they did a great job of removing Deus ex Machina’s and of making use of every detail. The emphasis wasn’t so much on humour and character development as I would have like it to be, but having chosen to make The Hobbit trilogy BIG, like it’s sequel predecessor, they certainly aren’t failing (and their managing to fit some humour and character development in as well). In addition, they’ve managed to avoid having any really painfully over-the-top scenes in this film, such as the stone-giants in the last film. Really, I can’t blame Jackson too much at all — but I’m still annoyed about Mirkwood. Rating 4/5.
Note: My ratings are probably a little more stingy than they used to be. This was at least as good as An Unexpected Journey.
Which fictional world would you most like to be a part of, and what role do you think you would fulfil within it?
For those of us who have long suffered high fantasy addiction — who, when we were young, imagined finding Narnia at the back of the wardrobe (though it never worked); who reeled in shock with Bilbo when a throng of dwarves appeared on his doorstep; who have drifted to Hogwarts in spirit when our own studies grew too dull — for us, this prompt has done nothing to help break our addiction. It has caused us to want to prove, rather — for better or worse — that fancy can cheat so well as she is famed to do, and that perhaps she is not so deceiving an elf after all.
The question of what world I would like to be a part of is not easy. Earlier bloggers have pointed to the inherent undesirability of most of these worlds — stemming from the high risk of being murdered by a fellow teenager, placed under an excruciatingly painful curse by an unsociable wizard, or living under the shadow of a villainous eye who raises hordes of ugly elf-mutations for the purposes of world domination.
While all of these are certainly drawbacks, I think this stereotype of fictional worlds is unfair. Take Narnia, for example. In The Last Battle, Jewel the Unicorn explained to Jill Pole that “In between [the visits of the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve] there were hundreds and thousands of years when peaceful King followed peaceful King”. I think this is representative of fictional worlds in general: most of them aren’t really any worse than our earth. Thus, what I am really looking for is the world with the most depth, the most three dimensionality, the most interesting qualities in general.
Considering these factors, the world I decided on is Middle-earth. That land may have been the setting of many long and terrible wars, but in between those wars were long periods of peace, where men lived for long generations in relative happiness and prosperity. And Middle-earth is a land of such incredible depth; such rich and varied history; such sublime beauty (even if I wasn’t studying Romanticism just now). Of all the worlds I have ever read about, Middle-earth is certainly the most three dimensional and the most large-as-life. I would love to live in the realm of King Aragorn II, in the period following the Great War of the Ring.
So Middle-earth is the world that I choose, but what is my occupation? What role do I fulfil in Middle-earth? This part of the question was harder to answer. It started me thinking of things I like to do in the real world: could they be transferrable to Middle-earth? What skills would King Elessar need in his realm that I can offer? What skills do I have that are scarce in his kingdom?
I like writing, but there are writers enough in Middle-earth. Maths is cool, but I wouldn’t want a career based solely on Maths. History is fascinating, but how could I compete with the elves, having experienced so little?
What about Economics? I started studying Economics this year (in the real world) and it’s great. That wonderful subject that is all about common sense — about the choices people make because they simply can’t have everything in life. Surely Aragorn needs a good economist in his empire? Maybe, with study, I could be that economist. Even if I can’t predict anything that is going to happen, at least I can explain to the King why it happened, afterwards.
I would live in a lodge in the mountains west of Minas Tirith and commute to work in the city each day. Imagine how much fun it would be, being an economist in Middle-Earth:
“King Aragorn, after all those years of war against the East, your human capital is poor. I suggest you allocate more funds towards setting up schools in your Kingdom.”
“King Aragorn, you really must get rid of these tariffs on gold, gems and mithril from Erebor. All you are doing is making these things more expensive for your citizens — and encouraging Erebor to increase tariffs on our wheat and corn in retaliation. Globalisation — I mean, Middle-earth-alisation — it leads to lowest prices and greatest choice in goods and services for all of us.”
“King Aragorn, that big ugly new mill built by Ted Sandyman in Hobbiton is a prime example of a negative externality. It is beneficial for Sandyman to have his big mill right in town, and it’s beneficial for his customers in that flour is cheaper, but it has made Hobbiton a nastier place to live in for everybody! I suggest that you tax him in order to simulate the cost to the ambience of Hobbiton. Either that or … screw taxes, just shut him down already! I don’t like that guy.”
As you can see, being an economist in Middle-earth would be brilliant. Even if, due to his great wisdom, Aragorn would have done everything I suggested anyway. Even if, due to my encouragement, Aragorn lowers interest rates (with help from the Reserve Bank of Arnor), which contributes to a hobbit-hole price-bubble which bursts, precipitating a
global Middle-earthal financial crisis. (Well, I don’t think Aragorn would let that happen. He’d be too wise to follow any of my not-so-good advice.)
Even so, I’d be busy as a dwarf in a goldmine, and as happy as one too… for a while. But then my fiftieth birthday would arrive, and I would grow restless.
Forget inflation rates, I want to see ents … and oliphaunts … and elves, sir.
So I would pack my bags and leave Gondor. I would visit the forest of Fangorn and drink a draught or two with Treebeard. I would travel to Laurelindorenan and join the elves, singing under the stars. And I would cross over the Misty Mountains cold, and come to Rivendell, the first homely house. There I would eat and sleep and tell stories and sing — and at times just sit and think.
What world did others choose? Follow the blog-chain to find out!
4th December ~ Against the Shadows
5th December ~ Deborah Rocheleau
6th December ~ The Little Engine That Couldn’t
7th December ~ Relatively Curious
8th December ~ The Magic Violinist
9th December ~ Laughing at Live Dragons
10th December ~ This Page Intentionally Left Blank
11th December ~ Kira Budge: Author
12th December ~ Brooke Reviews
13th December ~ Next Page Reviews
14th December ~ Susannah Ailene Martin
15th December ~ Musings from Neville’s Navel
16th December ~ Mirror Made of Words
17th December ~ Woah!
18th December ~ Lily’s Notes in the Margins
19th December ~ Tara Therese
20th December ~ Please Forget My Story
21st December ~ An MK’s Meandering Mind
22nd December ~ Miss Alexandria
23rd December ~ Unikke Lyfe
24th December ~ Miriam Joy