Beginnings and endings are the most important parts of our stories, besides the middles! Each part is essential. Take a look at I Corinthians 12:21ff, “. . . the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ ” Our stories would be incomplete without the necessary parts, just as our bodies and the church are incomplete without each part.
The thing about beginnings is that they set the stage in so many ways. First lines or paragraphs are responsible to introduce character, setting, mood, and possibly even the story question.
Here are a few examples of first lines that behave responsibly. (These examples were used in my post on Beguiling Beginnings on July 17, 2014)
* “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
* Caroline Way’s Confessions from a Farmer’s Wife: “I am the last one. Of those whose lives I will speak of here, I alone remain.”
* Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: “It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door.”
Did you feel the mood? Meet the character? Recognize the conflict? These opening lines set the stage in a concise manner. Readers these days are becoming increasingly impatient, and a page, or even a paragraph, of description may well put them off. We want them to continue turning pages or tapping the screen.
If I were to pick out the most important element of a beginning (keeping in mind that we need them all), it would have to be conflict. Without conflict, there is no story. It drives or drags or chases the characters along their path until they reach some kind of conclusion.
That conclusion, of course, is the ending. A strong ending will answer the story question, leaving the reader satisfied. That doesn’t mean it must be positive or happy or final, but satisfying with regard to the story question. Did Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce come to terms with the people who shoved her into the dark closet? Did Caroline Way’s character find release or even redemption by telling her story?
Since most of you will be familiar with Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, let’s use that as an example of an effective ending. Eustace (a.k.a. Useless) Clarence Scrubb did eventually become useful and appreciated by his peers. We can be satisfied with that, even though the voyage left many unanswered questions. Will Eustace be able to live up to his new persona? Will peace remain in Narnia under Caspian X? How will Edmund and Lucy cope with never seeing Narnia again?
The ending must always connect back to the beginning to be successful, like an invisible structure that holds the story together. With apologies to Cat Stevens for my blog title, “You’ve gotta wind up where you started from.”