Kat: Beginnings & Endings

iStock_000024694204XSmallRecently, the eight ladies celebrated the completion of Justine’s first draft. Like most of us, she’d been struggling with the last third of her book. After months (well really over a year) of hard work and dead-ends, she finally had that breakthrough moment we all dream of, the moment when she discovered her perfect ending.

It’s great when a friend and sister-in-arms succeeds (congrats to Nancy, too!). Not only does she move that much closer to her ultimate goal, but her success is an inspirational battle cry for the rest of us, too. My perfect ending is out there somewhere; I just need to discover it. I already have a general idea of what happens:  Cheyenne will get her HEA (Happily Ever After) and she’ll win the conflict over the family house and land that she’s embroiled in with her Uncle Hawk, but how all of that happens is still a mystery. So I went back to the basics we learned at McD for inspiration on crafting the perfect ending.

Linking Beginnings & Endings

One of the first things we learned about beginnings and endings at McD was that they should be linked to show the circular nature of the story.  That means that I need to go back to where my story begins—a hot, dusty Arizona day in June.

As my story opens, Cheyenne has just arrived in the fictional town of Dry Creek and is attempting to break into the house she’s inherited from her mother (symbolically claiming it). Just as Cheyenne begins to gain a foothold, her Uncle Hawk halts her progress. He blocks her way and questions her sense of entitlement, then threatens the thing she holds most dear at that moment (her dog). It’s a contentious scene that ends with Hawk riding away from a shaken but determined Cheyenne. Hawk may have won this round, but she’ll find another way into the house (all roads point to her mother’s executor, Reed McConnell).

My opener does most of what it’s supposed to. It sets the time and place, introduces the protagonist and her stake in the story, as well as foreshadows the main conflict with the antagonist. All good stuff, but it doesn’t really get me closer to discovering my ending.

Or does it?

Something else we learned at McD was that the story beginning should foreshadow the ending, and the ending should repeat elements from the opening scene. This means that the climatic scene should mirror the opening scene in as many ways as possible. Here are a few ways to accomplish this:

  • Use the same setting in both scenes.
    The opening takes place at the house, but the climax was slated to occur in the barn. I’m rethinking that now.
  • Have the same characters present in both the opening scene and the climax.
    My opener features both the protagonist and the antagonist physically squaring off. The climax will feature them both as well, but the loose plan was that they’d be engaged in a psychological battle rather than a physical one. Hmm, the scenes should mirror each other. That points to a physical confrontation.
  • Use similar dialogue, or a memorable line or word.
    My opening doesn’t have a standout piece of dialogue, but if yours does, working it into the climax is a great way to mirror the scenes.
  • Use the same motifs and/or metaphors.
    In the opening scene, what means the most to Cheyenne (her dog) is under threat and she physically protects him. In the end, what means the most to Cheyenne is her relationship with River (and Reed). The house is also a metaphor for Cheyenne’s mother (i.e. the past) and it must play a role. What happens to it in the ending will be central to the story resolution.

The last bit of advice on crafting endings is this: keep the resolution short, make sure it ties up all the loose plot ends and answers all the questions, as well as establishes a “new” stability for the protagonist. And perhaps most importantly, the ending should be satisfying for the reader.

All of that is very helpful in how to approach crafting the ending, but it still doesn’t get me my slam-bang finish. Yet. For that, I’ll have to keep writing and trust my characters to lead me home.

Many experts advise writers to write the ending first and work backwards (or is that forwards?) and I definitely see the wisdom in that as I struggle with my ending.  What do you think of this piece of writing advice?

27 thoughts on “Kat: Beginnings & Endings

  1. I think it’s good to know where you want the story to end up, and I know lots of writers who say they write their scenes out of order. But I myself just can’t do that. I use the beginning and middle to understand my characters. If I wrote the last scene first, that character development wouldn’t happen. That said, I think it’s imperative to know where you want your characters at the end. Should Cheyenne have the house or walk away? Or burn it down? You can make the metaphor work with lots of actions!

    • Exactly, Kay. I’m just starting to brainstorm what a “win” truly means to Cheyenne. This particular posting has really made me think and I realized last night that my beginning will need to be rewritten. Cheyenne shouldn’t be standing at the house in the opener watching Hawk leave — it should be the other way around (which means she’ll be standing there at the end). There are other things that will need to be tweaked or reversed, but at least it’s progress.

  2. As for writing the ending first and working backwards (forwards?), I don’t know…part of the discovery process of writing my book was figuring out who my characters were as I wrote (they changed and evolved). If I start at the end, I already know who the new “them” is, and I’m not sure working backwards from there is much fun. Plus, you’d have to have your entire book plotted out, wouldn’t you? I’m a half-plotter/half-pantser…not sure that it’d work for me.

    However, I completely agree with you on the end mirroring the beginning, which is why I was so excited when that flash of inspiration hit me, because that’s what it does (I will admit to you, though, that tying the ending to the beginning was an enormously huge piece of luck, because I certainly didn’t PLAN it that way…the ending came to me, I thought about it, thought some more, and then I said, “Waaaait a minute….it’s like the beginning! YESSS!!! *fist pump*).

    As for your book, Kat, it’ll come, don’t worry. I really thought I was dead in the water (depression sinking in, thoughts of “I’ll never finish this book,” I even walked away from it for awhile, etc.) and then suddenly the Girls decided to cooperate for a change, and when they did, the rest of the book spilled forth.

    • Well, with the philosophy that we (to some extent) make our own luck, I think you experienced the coalescence of your writer’s instinct and study of craft. Don’t sell yourself short :).

      Kat, I LOVED your opening scene. The setting and characters were so vivid. I have no doubt the ending will come to you and will have some of those same wonderful elements.

      • Thanks, Nancy, that’s nice to hear. The scene you probably read is long gone (bye bye snake), although I think the tone is still there.

        You’re right, I need to settle back and just write it.

    • It’s happening right now, Justine (*fist pump*). Revisiting the opening is making me think about how it will all end. I’m also looking at each major character’s story. I’ve got questions unanswered (like why Rose left Cheyenne as a baby) that will definitely play a role in the resolution. And maybe that’s why I can’t get there; those fundamental questions haven’t been answered, yet.

  3. Great advice! I’m struggling with my ending. Using the advice that you recommend, I think I can use it as a guideline for a solid ending. In a way we all work with an ending in mind. We start the project with at least a general idea of how we want it to end… Its just somewhere along the way our Characters try to derail us lol

  4. Hmmm. I know a lot of great endings that work that way. And then again, I know of at least a couple great endings that don’t work that way. I do think that as a reader, I don’t tend to pick up on bookending until the second or third re-read. I do like it a lot when it works.

    I tend to write very linearly, as if the story unfolds as I write it. But, if you want to write the ending, it’s a good idea to write it — no need to stick to one chapter at a time. Also, being forced to write the ending in class resulted in some good things for me. I got a better idea about how I wanted my whole story to run, and it also gave me a definitely end-goal to help me slog through the middle.

    However, since I wrote it so early in the process, I know it’s not sacred. I can’t force the plot to arrive at that point, if it decides to go wandering away from the outline (again).

    Putting a story together is very much like a jigsaw puzzle. You *can* start at the top left corner, work your way across and go down. But it’s much more efficient to do a bit here, do a bit there, and fill in the missing links (you could start with a chunk at the top left corner, and leave it to do more work in the top right corner, and so on).

    Efficiency isn’t always the best thing for a story, though (-:.

    • I write linearly too, Michaeline, but I’m getting close to the end of ACT II with no idea what happens in act III and that’s what’s scaring the pants off of me. Gotta get the draft in the bag!

      • I hate it when you sit at your computer and feel like you’re staring into the abyss. Act 3 will come. I think it was Dashiell Hammett (or maybe Raymond Carver) who said that when he ran into trouble, he wrote a man coming into the room with a gun. And when I ran into trouble, Jenny told me to write in a dog. So now I’ve got a dog. Maybe you need a man with a gun! 🙂

  5. Like Kay and Michaeline, I’m a very linear writer. I know for sure that my ending has to change in my rewrite and I have a good idea of where I want to get to, but I’ve changed some important character dynamics and I need to see how those play out before I can fill in the details of the new ending.

    I wrote a new opening scene but it’s still quite loose. It gets the heroine, antagonist and hero on the page in a way that I like and I decided to leave it not-quite-there until I finish my rewrite. When I’m confident about my ending I’ll go back and tighten up the beginning so that it matches.

    • I know you’re right, but some part of me wants that perfect ending now. Of course the harder I go at it, the more elusive it becomes. I know it’ll come as I write, but I’m getting itchy to finish this first pass and there’s a big blank nothing for Act III.

      May be time for campfire, girls 🙂

  6. Thanks for summing all this up, Kat! I’m still waffling about which character is my protagonist, and I can’t nail down the ending till I figure that out. The outcome will be the same, but the protagonist will drive the action.

  7. “I’ll have to keep writing and trust my characters to lead me home.”

    That’s exactly what I would do, too, Kat:)

    When I start a book, I do have an idea of the end. And of major plot points. But I don’t plot every scene out in advance. I can’t know too much or the story feels “done” to me and I don’t feel the drive to write it anymore.

    But I love endings. Especially when they hit all the right marks.

    I’ve even been known to write “The End” when I’m done and left that in one time when I sent my book to the formatter. The guy pinged me to ask if I wanted that left in there and I laughed and told him he could cut it, explaining that by the time I get to the end of a book I just feel writing “The End” is deserved;)

    Congrats Justine and Nancy on your much deserved typing of “The End.”

    Fun blog, ladies. I came by way of Jenny’s and am glad I did.

    • Ooh, writing “The End” sounds so satisfying. I can’t wait to try that.

      When I started writing my story I thought I had an ending, but the book has evolved so much over the past year that it doesn’t begin to resemble what it was in the beginning (a good thing, actually). As so many of you have pointed out, it’ll come together.

      We’re glad you came, too, Katy!

  8. This has been a very enlightening conversation in developing stories. So much discipline and work involved in carving it all out. Thanks for the food. I need to sit down and do some real thinking and developing if I want to be serious.

    • You’re right it’s tough. When I started my story I had a single sentence that described the premise. That was it. Thinking and planning is good and I probably could have saved myself months of work if I’d done more planning up front. But there’s something to be said for letting the writing go where it will, too. Sort of like balancing the craft “rules” while allowing the freedom and flow of creativity. To me, both are equally important to telling a good story.

  9. As I embark upon revision, I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings and endings. I found this really useful Kat – and I think your list is a good set of tools, especially things to think about if you’re feeling bogged down or unsure about the ending. For me, I think it comes down to two things: 1. In some way answering the unspoken questions that you posed at the start of the book – which is another way I suppose of saying that you’ve got to have the pay off for what you set up at the start. So, at the start, you’re letting the reader know what the story will be about, and at the end, you’re finding a way to say: yes, that’s what it was all about. 2. Or another way of thinking about it might be: it’s about bringing the story back home. Finding a way of curling it round in on itself in a satisfying way. And I think that’s why stories often, but not always, use ingredients from your list – I suspect as we all get more experienced as writers, we’ll find that there are ways to achieve those two things through the resolution of the theme, the main story questions, and metaphor, without worrying too much about locations etc.

  10. I admire all you ladies who love to write and are so very passionate about it. I am NOT a writer; but a friend of Kat’s. I never read much until I met her and she now has me hooked on escaping into someone’s world (in a book). I’m certain that you 8 ladies are a big help to each other. I’m patiently waiting for Kat’s book signing 🙂

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