Beginnings and Endings

by Vashti Farrer

The first page is arguably the most important in the mss. If the editor isn't impressed he won't read on. Forget Chapter 5 being stunning and Chapter 17 - brilliant! He won't know. Your opening page, half page, or better still, opening paragraph must hook him.

The last page is less important as publication doesn't depend on it, but it must provide the reader with a sense of completion. That doesn't necessarily mean tying up all loose ends. The ending can remain open to interpretation and still be satisfying, but your reader needs some completion - a cutting of the fictional umbilical cord, while you the author remain true to the essence of your manuscript.

Two of the most famous opening lines not only hooked their editors but remained in the public memory, namely:

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" - Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" - Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Other novels begin:

 "In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"'Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.'" - F. Scott Fitzgerald's opening to The Great Gatsby successfully sets up a moral framework and hints at the kind of characters we are likely to meet.

 "'The Signora had no business to do it," said Miss Bartlett, 'no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view, close together, instead of which here are north rooms, here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart. Oh, Lucy!'" - E.M. Forster's - A Room With A View - another opening of standards and expectations, plus a hint of satire.

"Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill. It had all been said before, but they said it again.

            'She never knew what hit her.'

            'When she did it was too late.'

            'Rapid onset.'

            'Poor Molly.'

            'Mmm.'- Ian McEwan's AMSTERDAM - we want to know more about Molly and her lovers - a definite hook.

"October 3rd

"Something very peculiar happened today. I got up rather late, and when Mavra brought my clean shoes in I asked her what time it was. When she told me it was long past ten I rushed to get dressed. To be honest with you, if I'd known the sour look I was going to get from the head of our department I wouldn't have gone to the office at all."   - Nikolai Gogol's - Diary of a Madman also sets the scene. What did happen in the office?

"As usual, at five o'clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sound barely penetrated the window-panes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they'd begun. It was cold outside, and the camp-guard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long." - Alexander Sollzhenitsyn's - One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. 

Great atmosphere. Our chilblains ache with cold and we wonder where he is.     

Each good beginning contains the essence of the book and lures the reader on. So find the seed, kernel, essence on page one to epitomise your story and present it, if possible, in the opening paragraph.

Endings must be different, but they too have a job to do, ie cutting the cord. Consider these:

"He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.

            He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long, his face had an expression of calm, ads though almost glad the end had come." - Erich Maria Remarque's - All Quiet On The Western Front

 "A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.

"There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.

            Three extra days were for leap years." - Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. ties in beautifully with the beginning. Life in the gulag is still hard, but today it is without a dark cloud and almost happy. 


"And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness in man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

            "The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance." - William Golding's Lord of the Flies ­ when the schoolboy "savages" return to civilisation.

 "The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. 'Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! Selina would stare when she heard of it.' But in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union."

- Jane Austen's Emma, ­a novel she described as having a heroine no one would like except herself and the novelist Margaret Drabble once said, "Emma got what she deserved in marrying Mr Knightly. What can it have been line, in bed with Mr Knightly?" 

"With one last shriek of wrathful triumph, the whistling wind swept onward, and the morning sun - looking down from a suddenly unclouded sky            upon the place where the schooner had foundered - saw only two human beings - a man who, insensible himself, clung with the tenacity of death to a spar, and supported in his stiffening arms the inanimate body of a young child."

- the usual ending of Marcus Clarke's For The Term Of His Natural Life - the abridged version. In the original the pair survive the shipwreck and make it to the goldfields - and ends:

"Between them they inverted the vessel, and Richard Devine, holding his hand beneath the aperture, felt a small hard body drop into it.

'Well,' asked Quaid eagerly, 'what is it?'

The old man opened his hand, and there lay the result of the chemist's labours - a lump of charcoal!

'See!' he said sadly, crushing on his palm as he spoke the lusterless mass. 'A black and useless atom, fit emblem of my dark and wasted life.'

'An emblem indeed!' cried Dorcas, as leaning on her husband's arm she pointed to the original gem which, thus revealed, flashed in the sunlight. 'But not as you would view it. That which was Pure remains - for see, undimmed by thirty years of darkness and neglect, the Diamond sparkles still!'"

- I haven't read the longer version, but on paper I prefer the shorter version.

Charles Dickens was persuaded by the novelist, Edward Bulwer Lytton to change the original ending of Great Expectations and unite Pip and Estella in this published version:

"'I little thought,' said Estella, 'that I should take leave of you in taking leave of this spot. I am very glad to do so.'

'Glad to part again, Estella? To me parting is a painful thing. To me, the remembrance of our last parting has been ever mournful and painful.'

'But you said to me,' returned Estella, very earnestly, ''God bless you, God forgive you!' And if you could say that to me then, you will not hesitate to say that to me now - now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape. Be as considerate and good to me as you were, and tell me we are friends.'

'We are friends,' said I, rising ad bending over her, as she rose from the bench.

'And will continue friends apart,' said Estella.

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her."

 However, this is in some ways a contrived ending and not what Dickens intended. His original ending I feel is stronger and truer to his characters:

 "It was two years more, before I saw herself. I had heard of her leading a most unhappy life, and as being separated from her husband who had used her with great cruelty, and who had become quite renowned as a compound of pride, brutality, and meanness. I had heard of the death of her husband (from an accident consequent on ill-treating a horse), and of her being married again to a Shropshire doctor, who, against his interest, had once very manfully interposed, on an occasion when he was in professional attendance on Mr Drummle, and had witnessed some outrageous treatment of her. I had heard that the Shropshire doctor was not rich, and that they lived on her own personal fortune. I was in England again - in London, and walking along Piccadilly with little Pip - when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another. 'I am greatly changed, I know; but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!' (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.) I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham's teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be."

 Your first page you will probably rework more than any other to find the kernel that hints of what's to come and the opening sentences that must win over the editor.

Sometimes having spent all this effort upfront, you find it hard to move on and find yourself thinking, eating and sleeping on it - video images of scenes flashing over your mental screens as you try to sleep. Crazy as it sounds, the only way to break this cycle is to write the last chapter.

That doesn't mean the full stop will be final, but it will stand as a signpost on the road you are travelling, without a map, let alone a GPS. Now trust your instinct. Write the sign - the last chapter, to help you reach your destination, knowing it will no doubt change in the final draft.

Some writers write the signpost chapter first, then go back and start heading towards it. It's entirely personal. Meanwhile, concentrate on the impact your first paragraph must, and will, have on the editor.

© Vashti Farrer 2010



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