Episode 26: How To Write Effective Beginning and Ending Scenes

Today we’re going to be talking about the importance of the first and last scenes of your novel or screenplay and how to make sure they are doing the absolutely vital work that they need to do in order to show the change in your characters. But first, we take a little time at the beginning to talk about a couple of things I want to experiment with.

SHOW NOTES:

About a week ago, I sent out a questionnaire to show listeners so that I could get some feedback about what you like about it, what you don’t like about it, and what we might be able to bring you of value. THANK YOU to all of you who took a few minutes to respond to us with your thoughts and ideas… that really means a lot to me. If that’s something you’d still like to do, you can go to our website at www.BradReedWrites.com and click the Feedback link at the top of the page. It’s a short little form that should only take a minute or two but the feedback is really important to us, so thanks in advance for being a part of the show in that way.

One of the innovations I’ve been wanting to try with the show seems like it would be of interest to you, the listener, based on the some of the feedback we’ve gotten. I want to experiment with having guest hosts on the show. I’m not talking about guests to interview here. Back in the day, before TV talk shows just ran reruns when a host was on vacation, they actually brought in guest hosts that would fill in for Johnny Carson or whoever. They hosted the show. You see something like it more commonly today in blogs where you’ll have your normal “host” who’s writing most of the content, but they will occasionally feature a guest blogger for a fresh voice, a new perspective. That’s really what I’m talking about here. So here’s what I’m thinking… and I’d love your feedback on this as well–you could email me at bradreed@bradreedwrites.com to let me know what you think. From time to time, I’d like to have a guest presenter take over the main part of the show. We’d still produce it and do all the introductions and wise word segments and such–a guest presenter would really just be recording a 20-25 minute segment where they share a writing technique or insight that they are particularly passionate about. Think of it like teaching a little mini-lesson to a group of fellow writers. This could be recorded by you–hopefully using a pretty decent microphone and a quiet environment–and then you’d send it to me as an mp3 file. Now just like submitting anything, really, not everything that gets sent in would make it on the show. We’d have to consider the quality of the recording, whether or not your content would connect with the audience, and other things like that, but I think this could accomplish two important things:

  • First, it’ll get some new great voices and perspectives on the show so that you’re not always listening to me blathering on about my own style and techniques!
  • And second, it’ll give us a much-needed backlog of content to help keep the show consistent and delivered on time with valuable and actionable content.

So there’s big idea number one: guest hosts. Again, if you either have some feedback about the idea or maybe would even like to submit a guest host segment for consideration, let me know at bradreed@bradreedwrites.com or by going to the Talk to Us link on the website.

Big idea #2 is really more of a question for you guys as listeners. Some of the feedback I’ve received is that the show can move a little slow sometimes and that you’d like me to get right to the “meat” more quickly, which I totally understand. Part of my pacing in the show comes from my background as a teacher. I try to be very methodical about the way I present information, which means I sometimes cover more background information to introduce a topic or technique that people need. I’m always trying to make what are sometimes pretty advanced techniques available even to fairly new writers without much background in writing fundamentals. But it is also sometimes driven by me desire to keep the show somewhat consistent at around 30 minutes or so, give or take maybe 5 minutes. So here’s another thing I could use some feedback about: would you rather a shorter show that gets right to the point and leaves out some of the “building blocks” that new writers might need, or do you prefer the longer format even if it means sitting through some material that is, essentially, review for writers with more experience?

Now, it may seem strange to take so much of today’s show to talk about these kind of background decisions and ideas, but–again because I’m essentially a teacher at heart–it’s absolutely vital for me that I check in from time to time and see how you guys are receiving the show and how it might be more useful and effective. Again, if you’re interesting in sharing feedback, go to the Talk to Us or Feedback link at the website at www.BradReedWrites.com.

Alright, thanks for sitting through a little “show check-in” prior to today’s topic, which is, How Do We Write Effective Beginning and Ending Scenes that Bookend our Stories in a Meaninful and Effective Way?

TODAY’S TOPIC:

The first few lines of your story are, arguably, the most important. They have to do so many things at once. they have to hook the reader so that they’ll be interested enough to either keep reading or buy your book to take home with them, they have to set up the world of your story, whether that’s fantasy, realistic, fiction, science fiction, and so on. They have to introduce your main character and give your reader a reason to care about them, and they have to create some kind of tension that threatens that character. It can be an overwhelming task, and many writers find their opening the hardest part of their book to write… I know I do. And what makes it even more difficult is that it’s the place most of us start writing… we’ve got all these demands and expectations staring us in the face in the form of a completely blank page. No wonder writer’s block and procrastination set in! Our opening scene should end up being the most rewritten and revised section of your entire book. For that reason, it’s actually the least important in your initial drafting. Just get something down and get started writing. Of all the scenes in my first draft, I find Anne Lamott’s advice to just write a “shitty first draft” the most helpful in my opening. It helps me remember that I just need SOMETHING on the page to get started. I mean, of course you should give your first pass at it all the attention and effort you can, just don’t get married to it in your mind. Just now that until your book is 99% finished, it’s actually impossible to write the opening that your story really needs.

And that’s because the opening scene and the closing scene of your novel should work like bookends. They should resonate with each other and echo each other. They should be almost like mirror images of each other, which means until you’ve nailed the ending you can’t possible finish the opening… at least not in the most effective way possible. Think of it this way: A reader should be able to pick up your novel or screenplay, read the first few pages and the last few pages and get a very clear sense of how your character (or the world around them has changed). As with virtually every other technique I share with you on this podcast, the best way to get a grasp of it is by looking at some examples. They’re easier to spot in film, so we’ll begin there with some of the films we’ve already used as examples in previous shows.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – 2013(?)

At the very beginning of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, we are introduced to the main character as he sits in a sparse, quiet apartment balancing his checkbook. It is the least exciting beginning to a film possible. The lack of music and visual interest resonates with the audience because we immediately see that this man’s life lacks color and interest. It is a boring life. From there, he opens his computer to a dating site and tries to get up the nerve to “wink” at a girl he is interested in. In this simple, understated opening, we learn a lot about Walter and what he wants and needs in his life. He wants love. He needs color and excitement. He needs a relationship and he needs adventure. He is alone and incredibly, incredibly boring.

Now let’s look at the final scene which should serve as a bookend. There is sweeping music that plays beneath the scene so we already have one major difference. He’s also out in the streets of New York City instead of holed up in his quiet apartment. And now he is the opposite of alone. He has with him the love interest, played by Kristin Wiig. Where he could barely take the risk of clicking a WINK on his computer before, he’s now bold enough to reach out and take her hand without knowing how she’d respond. The change he’s undergone couldn’t be more clear, even if we’ve only watched the opening and closing scenes. He’s gone from reserved to risk-taker. From alone to together. From overcome with self-doubt to confidence. The entire story, the entire character change can be seen in these two bookended scenes. And it’s accomplished because the scenes mirror each other so closely.

Captain Fantastic – 2016 (?)

In possibly the most graphic scene of the film, the opening scene shows us a bunch of kids with their faces all camouflaged in mud in the deep woods hunting a deer with their hands. A young boy leaps on the deer, slits its throat, and, with the blessing of his rugged and dangerous-looking father, eats its heart. It is an unusual way for a family to behave, but it is, essentially, just a scene showing the family having a family meal.

Now compare that to the final scene. We now see the same family around a traditional breakfast table, dressed and ready for school. The family sits quietly and serves each other fruits, vegetables, and other foods harvested from their garden. It is an idyllic scene that stands in stark contrast to the opening scene, yet it is also simply a scene of family meal time. If we were to only watch these two scenes, we could draw important conclusions about the changes that happened in the story. They have gone from feral to civilized. From violent to peaceful. The two scenes bookend the film. They are, essentially, the same scene shown to us twice.. once before the change and once after. Your opening scene sets the stage for the entire story to unfold and sets the expectations for the changes that you will be showing in your character or characters.

Let’s briefly look at one more, and we’ll pick one that hopefully everybody has scene. The original Star Wars movie: A New Hope. Now this film breaks the rules a little because it doesn’t really start with the opening scene. Now that may sound strange, but Star Wars uses it’s literal opening scenes to set up the world a bit–something really important for this film. We need to know its in space and what the world looks like before we meet the main character, Luke Skywalker. I feel like the opening scene doesn’t really happen until we meet Luke. If you’re familiar with the film, you’ll know that the first scene is Luke being ordered by his aunt to deliver a message to his uncle. In other words, we see a kind of child-like Luke who is pretty much just an errand boy. When he whines about following his uncle’s orders, his uncle accuses him of just wanting to waste time with his friends as though he’s a little kid with chores to do. Immediately after that we see Luke playing with a space fighter toy as though he’s a little kid. This simple little move is genius. It tells us everything we need to know about him. He’s a little kid at heart–and everybody treats him as such–but he’s really dreaming about being a great fighter pilot. If we stopped watching there and then jumped to the last scene, here’s what we’d see: Luke Skywalker is now the envy of the entire rebellion. He’s being celebrated for his skill as a fighter pilot alongside Han Solo–a man’s man if there ever was one–and in front of a throng of fans and admirers. He’s no longer a boy and he’s no longer dreaming about being a fighter pilot. He’s gotten everything he wants and it’s all there in the opening and closing scenes of the film. When they basically remade “A New Hope” as “The Force Awakens,” they use an almost identical technique. Remember the first time we see Rey? She’s basically doing “chores” as she harvests parts from wrecked spaceships and there’s even a moment when she puts on an older fighter pilot’s helmet. It’s the same scene–she wants to be a fighter pilot just like Luke was. In the final scenes of the film, we see her piloting the Millenium Falcon in place of Han Solo–she’s made it as a fighter pilot. And she’s no longer a little girl doing chores. She’s face-to-face with the man himself, Luke Skywalker, challenging him. Standing up to him. Again, it’s all there in the opening and closing scenes.

Even if the audience doesn’t remember the opening scene, it’s there in their mind. They call back to it and think back through the entire story to see and understand the impact of the story they’ve just scene. And the impact is always about character change. We need to see where they start and where they end. Those are the bookends of your story.   

Now this technique is generally clearer in most movies than it is in novels, mostly due to the fact that films are under such an extreme time crunch. Everything must fit in to a 90- to 120-minute window (unless you’re Peter Jackson and can demand 3+ hours to tell your stories) so everything is severely compressed. Every scene, every moment, must be packed with meaning and intention. While this is not necessarily true when writing the more loosely-controlled novel, it’s still a good rule of thumb to use in your writing. Even if your opening scene is not literally the first scene of your story, make sure it comes early. Your readers want to know who they are reading about, what they desire, what they are up against, and what kind of changes to be watching for as the story comes to its final moment

WISE WORD

So our show today was not about breaking new ground. I’m sure if you’ve studied story structure at all, you understand the importance of the beginning and ending scenes. But, like so many other techniques, it’s easy to forget when we’re in the thick of writing our stories. So, for our wise words this week, I want to hear from some other writers and writing coaches that echo today’s topic.

We’ll start with the simple pronouncement from Henry Ward Beecher, who says “The beginning is the promise of the end.” And that’s so true. You are making promises to your audience in the opening of your book, promises that should be fulfilled by–and often IN–the last few scenes.

Katherine Anne Porter talks about how she approaches her story with the end in mind. She says, “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last line, my last paragraph, my last page first.” While I don’t think it’s necessary to do follow her advice specifically, it is a good mindset that echoes today’s concept that you can’t really know how to revise or rewrite your opening until your ending is complete.

And finally, (we’ll do a trio of wise words today) we’ll leave off with some wisdom from Pascal. He says, “The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first.” And that is, essentially, what today has been all about.

WEEKLY CHALLENGE

Our weekly challenge this week is to take some of the work we did today and make it specific for the kind of writing that YOU do. Here’s what I mean. I was going to give some examples from novels or novellas today, but I decided to leave that work for you to do. It’ll be much more insightful that way. So, for this week, I encourage you to choose a book or screenplay that is similar to what you are working on. I’ll be doing this on Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, for example. Then just read the first chapter and the last chapter to see how your writer went about making the promises of the story and then fulfilling them. Can you tell just by reading these two chapters what change the main character or characters underwent through the story? How is the setting, scene, dialogue, or tensions similar between the beginning and the end? And finally, what can you learn from the way your writer approached it that you might be able to use in your own writing… and remember, we’re not talking about copying here. There’s a difference between being “inspired by” other writers and simply regurgitating their stories with your own characters! By all means, be original and surprising, but don’t hesitate to learn from the masters in your genre.

CLOSING

That’s going to wrap it up for this week. Again, I really hope to hear from you regarding the things we talked about at the top of the show. I’m looking forward to reading your email, hearing your voicemail, or seeing your feedback from the Google form on the website. You can find out how to get your voice heard at the Talk to Us link at www.BradReedWrites.com.

Until next week, remember the best way to improve your craft is by writing.  That’s what I’m off to go do, and I hope you’re off to do the same. Let’s get some words on paper this week and we’ll meet up again next week for another episode of the Inside Creative Writing podcast!

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