Every novel needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. Elementary, my dear Watson! But what are the functions of each of these components, and how do you make them work best for you?
The beginning of your story or novel is crucial. You must catch your reader’s attention, do it well and do it quickly, or he or she will just put the book down. There are three standard methods authors use to catch the reader’s attention, to “hook” the reader into wanting to read more:
1) The action opening: Essentially, something exciting and unexpected happens within the first few paragraphs or pages that makes the reader sit up and take notice.
“The first thing the groundskeeper saw when he went to tend to the small cemetery behind St. Sebastian’s was the body that someone had forgotten to bury.” (Jodi Picoult, Picture Perfect)
2) The character opening: There is something so interesting — in either a positive or a negative sense — about the first character introduced (often but not always the protagonist) that the reader wants to hear more from/about him or her.
“He did not have the look of a man who frightened easily. But what made him afraid, in a way no bar bully or snarling dog could, was snow. Ordinary snow. The kind that dusts and occasionally blitzes New York City between November and April. Jonathan Corbin saw things in the snow. Things that could not have been there. Things that could not have been living.” (John R. Maxim, Time Out of Mind)
3) The style opening: Usually seen in longer works of fiction, this opening is simply so beautifully written that the reader wants more of that sort of prose.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York (…) It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.” (Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar)
Besides catching the reader’s attention, your story beginning is also an implicit contract between you and your reader, a promise that the rest of the piece or book will have to fulfill. You’re promising to deliver a story that will not disappoint the reader once they’ve read your opening: the rest, you’re saying, will be good, too.
Finally, no matter which type of opening you choose, be sure it generates forward momentum. There must be enough detail and description to orient the reader, but that’s all: keep focused at the beginning so that the story can move forward. More detail and description are generally welcome later on.
The ending of a story is often trickier than the beginning, because it has to be just as strong and, besides that, manage to tie up all the loose ends that might still be scattered to and fro. These can seem like mutually exclusive alternatives.
The strength issue is clear. You want your reader to close the book while wishing that he or she didn’t have to — to be sad that it’s over, to be wanting to read more. You want them to think or say, “That was a great book!” So your ending has to deliver enough punch (in much the same ways as the beginning does, via action, character, or style) to do that for you.
Yet at the same time, some dénouement is necessary. Readers want to know how things end, how issues got resolved, why characters did certain things. Forgetting to bring a subplot or thread to a conclusion can occasionally work to your advantage, as the reader is left making up possible options on their own; but I wouldn’t advise it.
Make sure you leave people wondering—but satisfied.
Jeannette de Beauvoir helps writers find their beginnings, middle, and endings at her website.