How to Write Beginnings & Endings

Mirror.ReflectTomorrow is the final day to apply for the One Story Summer Workshop for Writers (July 14-19th, 2013 at the Center for Fiction in NYC)!!

Last week, One Story gave a “taste-test” of our workshop by hosting a free craft lecture, given by One Story Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti. Over fifty eager writers joined One Story in Brooklyn at our  home, the Old American Can Factory, for wine,  beer, snacks, and an engaging talk on how to write beginnings and endings.

In her lecture, Hannah started by comparing the first page of a short story to a first date. Imagine you’ve just asked out your reader. You’ll want to shower, dress up and look your best (fix that grammar & improper semi-colon). You don’t want to be boring (make something interesting happen on the first page). You don’t want to over-share (don’t over-burden the reader with too much back-story–save that for pages 2-3). You want there to be a second date (i.e.–for the reader to keep reading), so be sexy, mysterious, fun and most important: yourself. But: how can a writer make that happen on the page?

  • Write with authority–clear, confident sentences.
  • Set the stage–make the setting/place vibrant right away so the reader gets oriented.
  • Introduce the major characters–so the reader knows who the players are.
  • Start with action–early active scenes will capture the reader’s interest.
  • Establish the characters’ emotional situation–all stories are about something changing–show the reader how things look “before” this change.
  • Hint at the overall intention of the piece–what is this story going to be about?

For examples, Hannah pointed to a few opening lines from the masters:

The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station.–“Reunion” by John Cheever

In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I’m in the third checkout slot, with my back to the door, so I don’t see them until they’re over by the bread.–“A&P” by John Updike

She flicked her wrist neatly out of Doctor Harry’s pudgy careful fingers and pulled the sheet up to her chin. –“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter

A look at these first lines shows how quickly the necessary orientation can take place. The shortest is perhaps the most powerful. With just twelve words, Cheever introduces the main characters–a father and son, their relationship–tenuous at best, and setting–Midtown Manhattan. Instantly, intriguing questions pop into the reader’s mind.

Although first dates are often full of hope and excitement, nearly all break-ups are horrible. There is a big dramatic fight, or a mean text-message, or worst of all: radio silence. In this same way, Hannah explained, many short stories end badly, without the proper resolution, leaving readers unsatisfied or confused. The best endings are thoughtful and meaningful, respectful of readers and emotionally moving, right up to and even past the final page. Here’s a few tricks Hannah shared to help make this happen:

  • Slow down time on the page, by lengthening descriptions and paragraph length, as well as cutting down on dialogue.
  • Focus on the main theme of the story without being too obvious.
  • Use the five senses in the last two paragraphs to bring emotional clarity without being overly-explicit. It allows the reader to experience a situation alongside the character. To feel what they feel.
  • Like a well-written obituary, or a moving memorial service, the ending of your story should leave a resonance, an echo that continues and stays with the the reader even after they’ve put down your book.

Now let’s take a look at the last lines of our master stories:

Goodbye, Daddy,’ I said, and I went down the stairs and got my train, and that was the last time I saw my father.–“Reunion” by John Cheever

I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.– “A & P” by John Updike

Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this—I’ll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.– “The Jilting of Grannie Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter

Hannah went through all of these endings, but for time I’ll just repeat her close read of “Reunion.” Rather than finish with the father’s drunken antics, Cheever adroitly takes the first words of the story, and reuses them as the last words, creating a circular structure. This implicitly brings the reader back to the beginning of the story, reminding him of the journey taken, and underlining the words–“the last time”–which now hold greater meaning.

Like mirrors, Hannah later explained, the beginning and ending of a story should reflect everything that has happened in the story. The best writers re-write their first and last paragraphs over and over, until they gently echo each other, creating the sense of “infinity” of two mirrors, facing one-another on opposite walls (see pic above).

Wish you were there that night? Ready for more talks like this one? Then it’s time to submit to the One Story Workshop for Writers, an intensive learning experience from July 14th to 19th, where you’ll get a great lecture like this everyday, along with an intense morning workshop and evening panels with editors, agents, and MFA directors. We hope you take advantage of this opportunity and join us this summer. The deadline to apply is April 30th–tomorrow at midnight! Visit our website for more information. And many thanks to our Chief Hannah Tinti, for providing us all with this fun and informative night of starts and finishes.