Thursday, July 5, 2012

Getting the First and Last Word -- Story Openings and Endings

Whether you're a genre writer or a literary writer or some kind of hybrid (with excellent gas mileage), it difficult to deny that you have to grab a reader's attention right from the get-go. Not only are you in competition with other books, but also with video games, movies, and whatever else can capture your readers' attention. So we turned to a collection of attention-grabbing authors and picked their brains on the subject of story openings and story endings.

How important to you are your openings and endings for your stories?

Lee Houston Junior: VERY. Potential readers don't have time to scan through a whole book, so those moments are essential to grab their attention.

Ron Fortier: Ever since I can remember, it seems most genre writers, particularly those in mystery and sci-fi swear by the so called "narrative hook."  An opening line that is suppose to figuratively "hook" the reader immediately.

And although I can understand the merits of such an opening, its never been my personal approach to writing.  To me all aspects of any story are vital and I rarely assign any added importance to either a beginning or ending.  Each has to work as a part of the whole, thus when writing, I simply sit down and start at the beginning, as my muse has imagined it in my mind.

Of course most stories will have some kind of drama, but again, I just want to tell a good story, involve my reader... and move on.

It shouldn't ever be formulaic, but organic.

H. David Blalock: The opening and the ending should reflect a real logical progression. In other words, if you start out in Podunk, Arkansas you should end up in a likely place, not the 4th Dynasty of Egypt (unless the rest of your story points at it). Readers usually like a short story to deal with one concept at a time. Save the subplots and story arcs for novels and serials.

Van Allen Plexico: I firmly believe in trying to grab the reader by getting things going urgently and immediately, with a quick and powerful sentence or two that is evocative and colorful.  Here are some examples of my openings:

Hawk awoke naked and screaming in the heart of a shattered galaxy.
(HAWK.  Trying to be vivid and evocative.)

Down rained the night, cloaked all in fire and brimstone.
(LUCIAN.  My attempt to be sort of lyrical and also hint that this guy is more devilish than angelic!)

A wormhole is a hell of a place to die.
(ALPHA/OMEGA.  In italics, from the protagonist's POV. Tough and terse and military-SF-ish.) (Incomplete novel.)

The fact that I typed each of these from memory proves that, at least for me, they definitely were "grabbing" and memorable!  :-)

R.J. Sullivan: An opening should be powerful, a hook to make the reader want to read more. One rule of thumb I have heard is "no backstory exposition for the first three chapters." (I broke that in Haunting Blue, oh well). It should establish your POV character or at least the conflict that will affect the POV character. If you think in cinematic terms, think of Star Wars--the opening drew you directly into the story and the conflict. Even though we don't meet Luke for another 20 minutes we know exactly what's at stake, who the players are, and we've seen the destriuction the villains are capable of in a very dramatic way. The opening is vital to get right, because if you blow that, the reader won't continue.

Marian Allen: Openings and endings are very important to me. The opening is where the story swallows the reader, and the ending .... Wait a minute. I start again. The opening hooks and pulls the readers into the story and the ending moves the readers on with a sense of closure, but with that hook still in, so they remember the story and want more.

What makes an effective opening? What is its purpose?

Lee Houston Junior: I have heard all kinds of theories and "rules" on this subject. But I definitely want everyone to feel that my story is worth reading. I want even the casual book browser searching Amazon or wherever to yearn to find out how the story progresses from what little they view.

H. David Blalock: The opening for a short story is critical. The brevity of the piece already restricts your ability to properly tell the story, but there is so much competition for the story versus other stories, novels, TV, etc. that if you can't catch the reader's attention immediately, you are very likely to lose them before the third paragraph.

Marian Allen: An effective opening gives readers the flavor of the piece and the sound of the narrative voice. It's like speed-dating for stories. The purpose is to establish a sense of "who" the story is.

M.D. Jackson: Hit the ground running and don't stop.

What makes an effective ending? What is it's purpose?

Lee Houston Junior: For me, the story has to reach a satisfying climax that "wows" the readers, especially if they didn't foresee the ending I wrote happening. I have heard plenty of positive comments from friends that PROJECT ALPHA did not end the way they expected it to. If you are not only happy that you read my book, but are surprised at how it turned out, then I did my job as a writer.

H. David Blalock: The ending needs to leave the reader satisfied that the story made sense from beginning to end, because if they don't, they won't be reading too much of your work in future. If you plan on ending your story with a bit of a twist, remember to set it up in the body of the work somehow. The twist can be unexpected, but it still needs to make sense in the context of the rest of the work. Of course, you should NEVER end a story with the narrator suddenly waking up. "It was all just a dream" is a really bad way to end any story. The reader will undoubtedly feel cheated and annoyed = one lost reader.

Marian Allen: An effective ending, IMO, is a payoff. Best last line ever: "A boy loves his dog." -- Harlan Ellison, "A Boy And His Dog"

I like endings that circle around or echo something in the opening. I like endings that resonate with the rest of the story.

R.J. Sullivan: Endings are a different beast. Generally, if you "have" the reader and they get to your ending, if the voyage has been worth it, a reader will forgive a weak ending and may still read your next book (Stehen King's endings tend to disappoint -- there, I said it). I feel, even in a series, that each part of a book should have it's own distinct climax and ending, concluding SOMETHING even in a long-running series. That's just my preference as a reader.

What are some of the cliches that writers should avoid or that you have struggled with in creating powerful and effective openings and endings?

Marian Allen: There are no cliches a good writer should avoid. Everything has been done before, but a good writer can take even the most overdone bit and make it fresh and powerful. And anything, no matter how original, can be dull in the hands of a lazy writer.

Lee Houston Junior: "It was a dark and stormy night." ;-) Seriously, finding the right words to set the mood or resolve the story, let alone tell the tale to begin with, is not always easy. There have been times when I have written and rewritten passages because they sounded similar to something else or just weren't good enough. But finding the right words, not only for the opening and closing, but for everything inbetween is what makes the story come alive. But while each subsequent book in my series (Alpha and Hugh Monn, Private Detective) will build upon the past volumes, no book I write will ever end with those three dreaded words "To Be Continued."

H. David Blalock: 
There are some cliches you can use that can be forgiven. Opening with action, no matter how familiar, will usually work. Starting out with "They call me mad, but I swear it's true" or like words is a dead giveaway the writer needs to develop his or her style.