Beginnings and endings

Today I read two blog posts on writing, and the topics fit so nicely around one another, ouroboros-like, that I thought I’d post my own thoughts inspired by them. The first post, by Terri Windling, is on beginnings. The second, by Carrie Ryan (blogging at the awesome Magical Words), is on endings.

Windling’s post is not so much about actual story beginnings as it is about the act of beginning. It’s a love song for head-over-heels story-exploring! It really resonated with me because (see below), I’m all about the headlong rush into story. Windling’s quoted some really lovely stuff that I utterly agree with. Just go for it: don’t be afraid of beginning! I found the whole post really inspiring. (Also, pictures of trees and a lovely dog!)

Ryan’s post is a more general discussion on endings and their difficulty. It’s rather validating to know that published authors also struggle with the matter of endings! :) Good points about how endings should resolve aspects of the story.

Which is easier?
Beginnings, endings: two essential features of any story. No matter how non-plot-driven, every story has a beginning and end. Beginnings affect endings, vice versa too. And like in all aspects of writing, every writer has their own ways of dealing with both beginnings and endings. So what are mine?

I’ve always found beginnings far easier than endings. I can come up with a bunch of beginnings for stories in half an hour, but struggle for months with finding endings that feel right. Oh, the number of unfinished stories languishing (possibly forever) in my writing folder, lamenting their want of a proper ending! (Well, in truth, the stories that never get an ending probably weren’t worth the trouble in the first place: had ideas that didn’t take wing, were clumsily done, etc.)

Note: I’m talking first drafts here. In the editing process, beginning and ending alike pose their own problems. What felt like the perfect scene to start a story can end up being cut, or changed entirely.

Sometimes I’ll know the ending of a story the moment I start writing it, but mostly I’m a pantser. Or at least, more of a pantser than a planner. I guess I’m a percolator, really (to quote from the link: “I let the drips of a story filter through my mind over a long period of time, letting it steam and swirl about without determining it”). So, yeah. I’ll plan a bit before starting a story – unless sudden, unexpected inspiration hits.

I think mostly it’s about the attitude to beginning. Even if I’ve planned something in advance, the ending is rarely entirely clear. So I jump into a new project with mind open and a blind faith that eventually I’ll find my way through the maze to the ending. I love hurtling into a new story (or longer poem) without quite knowing what’s going to happen along the way. Only once I’m past the initial rush do I start giving serious thought to how the story’s going to end.

My problem with endings is something that’s plagued my writing my whole life. It’s not like every story is problematic with regard to its ending, but like I said: beginnings are definitely easier than endings. I think one of my main problems with endings is that they are what resonate (or not!) with the reader once the story’s done, so there’s a lot of pressure to make the ending Matter, and be Brilliant. Of course, beginnings should also be Brilliant, and hook the reader and so forth. But I can forgive a book a lacklustre beginning if it has a breathtaking ending, because the ending is often what lingers with the reader.

Case study
I’ve been trying to plan a story for a competition organised by a Finnish sf/f con (named… wait for it… Finncon!). In Finnish, naturally. It’s nice to flex my Finnish-writing muscles again, but what’s been difficult so far has been the ideas and planning, not even the writing. Since the deadline is in around a month, I thought I’d plan the story first. Efficient, organised, all that.

Well, yesterday I came home from work with the snow falling briskly around me: the city all white again, daylight gone. And suddenly, bam, an idea (only vaguely based on my previous plans) and words tumbling out so fast that I had to type the first sentences into my mobile phone so I wouldn’t forget them. So now I have a typical me-situation: a first page of prose with the initial scenario, plus a few notes for the future. No actual plot yet, and definitely no ending in sight. But a strong atmosphere and a love for the words and characters.

I wish I knew the ending for this story. But I think I’ll have fun finding it out even as I write! It’ll require more editing, but I hope I come up with a satisfying end… erm… in the end.

What’s more difficult for you, dear readers? Beginning a story or coming up with an ending?

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About Sara Norja

I'm a bilingual writer of prose and poetry. Things I enjoy apart from writing include tea, reading voraciously, cycling on warm summer nights, medieval manuscripts, dancing, and the wind.
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7 Responses to Beginnings and endings

  1. T says:

    I don’t do writey stuff (except academic of course, but that’s different), although I can feel that I’m developing an itch I might want to scratch at some point. Perhaps somewhat related, though, I spotted a conversation online about linear vs. “random access” writing. Some people begin at the beginning and write until they’re finished and are most comfortable doing that; others weave in and out, write whatever bits are easiest/most important/whaterver in whichever order suits them. I suspect that if I actually ever wanted to finish a story, RAW would be the only way for me.

    • Sara Norja says:

      Ooh, you should totally scratch that itch if it ever comes to it! Yes! *enables*

      “Random access writing” is a good term for it! For me, it depends on the story. I tend more towards a linear approach if I’m not quite sure of the plot; but if I know what I’m going to write, I’ll write whichever scene feels right at the time.

  2. MNiM says:

    If you don’t mind too much, I’d like to answer the question you didn’t ask first. I promise, it leads into the one you did :D. On the great planner or pantser question, it really depends on the piece I’m writing. I’ve started stories not knowing the main character’s name. I’ve started stories knowing literally only the first sentence. But I’ve mostly moved away from that, I think. Over all, I’m probably mostly a percolator, but these days there tends to be quite a bit of planning as well, even if it’s just a list of scenes. That probably sounds like a lot of planning, in that I know the who and what of most of the scenes in the book, but the how, and the exact words changes so much of the mood of the story and the tone of the character arc.

    Given that most of my stories tend to have a mix of structure and percolation, I usually know the ending before I start writing, and when I was younger, and at my panter-iest, I liked beginnings and endings just the same. (I hated middles instead. I wasn’t very clear on what a middle should be, exactly, but felt quite confident of my beginnings and endings.)

    These days, it varies depending on the piece. If I can begin in, or close to, in media res, I’m perfectly happy with beginnings. If the story requires quite a bit of set up, on the other hand, I tend to skip it and leave it til the end, when I have a better idea of the characters and their internal life. And I’m not as confident about endings, anymore. There is always something a little jagged about them. After all, unless the final words of the story are, “Rocks fall, everybody dies”, that’s not the end, not really. The story goes on, even if the reader isn’t there to witness it. So these days I find it hard to know where to drop the curtain, precisely. And truthfully I’m never entirely happy with what I’ve chosen.

    • Sara Norja says:

      I’m really impressed with how much you know about a story before you get into writing! The process really seems to work for you. :) Knowing all the scenes, even! Wow. It does sound like a lot, even though I get what you mean about not really knowing how things work out. Are your lists like “important thing happens that affects MC’s psyche”, or more detailed?

      Leaving the beginning till you’ve absorbed more of the characters and their internal life is a pretty good idea, I think. But endings, yes – they’re very difficult. Knowing when to stop.

      • MNiM says:

        For most recent book I finished, it was called “list of plot events” (I just opened the file to check!). And it started life as a just that, a point by point list of about 35 things, some of which were nested under each other, some of which stood alone. Although they were events, most of the points have a connected thought or mood that I was aware I needed to communicate through that scene. Some of the points even have lines of dialogue next to them, and those lines still summarise the resulting scene quite well.

        Basically, if it’s a scene where something happens to the MC, I simply note what that is, but leave her reaction to it happen organically as I’m writing the story later, unless I need to know now because her reaction becomes action. If it’s a scene where she makes a decision, takes action, changes course in some way, I look more carefully at the why and how, because that isn’t something that I want to let develop entirely by itself — it’s something I want to lead towards.

        Once the basic list was done (which took a few hours, honestly, all told, in about 2 sittings on one morning), I added things like mood cues (in the form of theme songs), and look at through the lens of the Hero’s Journey and narrative structure (you know, just to be sure it has any).

        I still found out all sorts of amazing things along the way. A brilliant character I had NO idea was going to be in the book popped up and I thought he was going to be a major character in the next one, only for him to die, off stage, before the end (allowing me to do something really quite clever I didn’t think of it until I was doing it). A character I thought was going to die in the middle of the book has survived.

        But I don’t do that for every book. I’m working on a novelette-length portal fantasy at the moment, and all I have is a list of places the MC visits on her journey. A couple of them have important notes next to them, but most of them have nothing.

        tl;dr?

  3. Sara Norja says:

    I’m well impressed. I’ve only been able to do scene lists after I’ve first blurghed out the zero draft. :) But it’s great that you have a technique that doesn’t constrain you, but still allows you to plan coherently.

    Yay for the portal fantasy!

    • MNiM says:

      You could try my technique: wait three hours by yourself in a public transport venue! (UK venues may work better than others).

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