Last week, a friend of mine, who happens to be a writer (quelle surprise!) posted in her Facebook group about being obsessed with beginnings and endings as she starts a new writing project. I’m in the same headspace right now for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m about to embark on my own new writing project. The second is that my husband and I finally got to watch a proper ending for an HBO series we loved that died an unexpected death thirteen years ago.
We were Johnny-come-latelies to the prestige TV phenomenon of the series Deadwood. But after years of having the story recommended to us by trusted friends, we eventually watched the first episode. And we were hooked.
The very first scene* had a twist I saw coming but couldn’t quite believe would really happen. The first season introduced a community of characters who were sometimes repulsive but always magnetic, storylines that focused on character minutia but were simultaneously sweeping, dialogue that was vulgar while also Shakespearean. And as we watched the last episode of the third and final season, we realized with dismay what the show’s early fans had experienced in 2006–this amazing story, unexpectedly canceled after the third season had wrapped, never got a proper ending.
All that changed this weekend, when HBO released a movie that didn’t exactly resolve all the storylines and questions, but did provide story closure. And because I had watched the series not that long ago, I recognized one of the reasons immediately. The storyline, images, and dialogue hearkened back to the beginning of the story. Callbacks and echoes. But often, they were reversed, a mirror image of who the characters had been in those early episodes, showing how they had grown (and sometimes hadn’t) in all those years.
I’ve written before about my fascination with beginnings and endings, including the bookending of the TV shows Buffy and Justified, the unintentional musical genius of beginnings and endings from The Beatles, and my own occasional failures to live up to opening-scene story promises. My premise is the endings that bring us the most satisfaction are often the ones that resonate and echo with, while at the same time contrast with, the beginning. If readers read (or watch) the first and last scenes of your story back to back, they should see similarities, albeit with important differences which are the result of the way the story events have changed your characters.
I strive to provide that sense of story satisfaction for my readers. In my HFF series, I open with scene sequences, first from the hero’s POV, then from the heroine’s, and call back to some elements of that beginning in my closing scene sequence. In Too Clever, James and Luci first interact at a ball that marks the launch of Duke’s Trust annual award contest, where they are competitors who take an instant dislike to each other. Their story ends at the closing ceremony/ball for the award, and by this time (no spoilers here, as it’s a romance) they are still rivals, but are also hopelessly in love.
In One Kiss, the callbacks are more subtle, but there are still some elements–Emme’s parasol, his best friend and her aunt, a few phrases now turned around–that appeared in the opening scenes. And Two Scandals opens with Luci and Edward hiding behind masks at a debauched house party, with him watching her across the room and falling in love. By the end, they are attending a respectable house party and out of their masks, and she’s watching him, her love, from across the room.
Now it’s time for me to write the first draft of the beginning/ending scenes for another HFF story, Four Corners of Heaven. The opening image fixed in my mind is of the hero, Harry, sick and hurting, in the bowels of a ship that has just arrived back in England. He’s discovered by a woman he has never met who is on a mission he can’t decipher. I know what he wants, I know what she wants, and I have a grasp on the scene arcs and beats. But at this point in time, I have no idea what echoes, callbacks, and reversals will appear in the final scene or scene sequence. It’s a bit of a problem, as these days I try to write the beginning and ending together, before wading into the messy middle, then revise and tweak them after rest of story is in place.
For now, as happens every time I’m facing down this task, I’m focused on the brilliance of other writers’ bookendings. If I
procrastinate study long enough, I hope to channel some of their genius into my own work.
How’s your writing going? What brilliant plans of your own do you have for June and the rest of the summer? And can you recommend any stories with great beginnings/endings to
distract inspire me?
*You can watch the first scene of season 1, episode 1 of Deadwood here to get a feel for the characters, storylines, and dialogue – oh, the dialogue! – to come in the rest of the series.
Beginnings and endings are fascinating, and sometimes all we remember from a particular story. Tempt them into reading more, then finish up with good memories so they recommend to friends and maybe read again.
I usually start at the beginning and work to the end, never really knowing how things will end. And by the time I get to the end, everything feels so set in place . . . if it’s a lousy story, I have to go back to the beginning (usually) and start all over again with choices and decisions. (If I do re-write.)
Right now, I’m planning to re-read all of my Jack and Olivia stuff, and then make a playlist for my summer story about them. I groan thinking of it; what I wrote was pretty horrible, at least in my memory. I might be able to salvage some “turning point” cards, though, and be able to add stuff and delete the crap. Then I’ll start at the beginning with an outline to guide me. (Not my normal way of working, but it feels right this time.)
Good luck on working with an outline! The Jack and Olivia stories you shared with us were so much fun. I’m sure you’ll find they are better than you remember :-).