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Beginnings And Endings

Posted on 12.01.2015 at 10:54
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I have a strange habit: When I buy a new novel, I make a point of reading the first line, regardless of how many other books are ahead of it in the queue. I’m not sure when I started doing it, or why—or at least, I’m not sure I had a reason at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I can probably venture a hypothesis or two.

I don’t know if I can speak for all of book/literary culture, but first lines are something readers pay attention to. Just look at the various lists of memorable opening sentences. One book I’ve seen in the library collects first lines from eleven thousand stories. I’m sure you can probably recite a first line or two from something you’ve never read. (I’ve seen the opening to Pride & Prejudice enough to know it more or less by heart, though I still haven’t read any Jane Austen.)

And I get it. In my class this semester I’ve been talking about the seduction of the reader if a piece isn’t something people have to read, unlike when professional or civic or academic obligations compel them to read. The writer establishes a contract with the reader that promises some kind of pay-off—action, knowledge, mystery, something. Otherwise, why keep reading? While readers have different thresholds for when they’re willing to give up, it makes sense to get their interest as soon as possible.* For some, that’s the title. For many more, it’s that first line.

The reader perspective makes sense, but for me, my fascination with beginnings—of which the first line is kind of a big deal—comes out of a writerly curiosity. It’s easy to wonder about the choices the writer made in deciding to start a story in a particular place. Why begin with that scene or image or sentence out of all the ones available? What do we get in the opening—setting, dialogue, action, character, abstraction? What sense of language do we get a glimpse of—like, is there any rhythm in the prose even there at the start?

As you may or may not know, I really didn’t like reading when I was younger, so a huge swath of my childhood was devoid of formative reading experiences. I didn’t have books I read again and again until they disintegrated. I didn’t consume print in huge quantities during what were probably my most impressionable years. I’ve been working to make up for lost time, and so, because of that sense of time slipping away, I rarely revisit books. Though I’ve read hundreds, only so many beginnings have stayed with me. Some of them are so short that it’s hard to forget (like Fahrenheit 451’s “It was a pleasure to burn.”). Others I’ve seen repeatedly, often in craft books or books about books, that the memory becomes more solid (1984, Lolita). And yet, for all the specific sentences I recall, for others books, the thing that stuck is an image (Cassel Sharpe on a roof at the start of White Cat) or an idea (The Time Machine introducing the fourth dimension in a way that’s totally reasonable). And these aren’t necessarily the stories I remember best overall, just some pieces. So while an intriguing start is great, it’s not essential. Obviously you don’t want a story to feel like a slog from the first page, but the bulk of books I’ve loved didn’t floor me right away. That stuff arrived later—though probably not too much later.

As I was thinking about beginnings I remember—and the legion I forget—I realized I have a similar relationship with endings. Personally, I feel that endings are the hardest part to write, whatever I’m writing. My respect to those who figure out the destination then reverse-engineer a story from that. I can’t work that way. I’m not confident I know, even after all these years, when the right time to end a story is. I tend to not linger much once the conflict’s resolved; beyond that, I don’t have much technique for my own endings. I mean, exhortations of writing a “surprising but inevitable” ending don’t exactly help a whole lot in terms of actually putting that into practice.

But forget about principles. Let’s try for induction. Which endings (or near-endings) have stuck with me? (Brief, fairly vague references to Fahrenheit 451, The Road, A Wizard of Earthsea, Life of Pi, I Am Legend, and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear follow. I’m not sure if these qualify as spoilers, but in case they do, you’ve been warned.) Sometimes the ending hits hard with a vivid image (A Wizard of Earthsea, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear). Sometimes it’s a revelation that casts a new light on everything that came before (I Am Legend, Life of Pi). I admit, I’m partial to hope (The Road, Fahrenheit 451). And then there are the closers that demand slowing down by virtue of the cadence, so you savor the shape of the sentence (my go-to here is Neil Gaiman). But I’m sure that a number of books from my past would tick at least one of these boxes, so I guess I have no definitive pronouncements, just possibilities.**

What beginnings and/or endings have stuck with you? Any thoughts about why they persisted while others fell away?

* Throughout the writing classes I’ve taken, I’ve heard it emphasized again and again: Start off strong (though that doesn’t mean with a figurative explosion).

** One reason I likely have less to say about endings is their power rests on the preceding story, whereas a beginning doesn’t need the same amount of context to make sense. Jeff VanderMeer expresses a similar sentiment. In Wonderbook, he writes, “The truth is that it’s harder to talk about endings than beginnings.” Plus, y’know, spoilers.

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