Feb. 20, 2005
Okay, I've got one for you.
Suppose your fairy-godmother appeared and promised you one of two possible wishes. Waving her magic wand, she would grant you the ability to write a novel with a really terrific beginning but a real snoozer of an ending. Or...a novel with a really terrific ending but a real boring beginning. No messing with Mr. Inbetween. A great beginning or a great ending. Which would you wish for?
There's no "right" answer here. Obviously, a really good novel should have a really good beginning and a really good ending. But as all writers well know, sometimes it's just not that easy to get both the beginning and the ending to jibe. Sometimes you have a really wonderful start to your story, a concept and a scene that will instantly hook the reader and have him/her frantically turning pages... but, for the life of you, you can't figure out how to end the fecking thing!
If you have a steady income from some other source than writing, then maybe you have the luxury of waiting until inspiration strikes. But for others, time's a-ticking and that story has to be ready and in the mail yesterday! In that case, forced to choose, here's how I see things.
A good beginning is important because it is the story's "hello" to the reader. It is the story's way of introducing itself, making a first impression. And that first impression may influence the way the reader reacts to the rest of the story. For example, if the story is a comedy, and it begins with a really funny opening gag, a message has been sent to the reader: "Relax. You're in good hands. We know how to tell a good joke." And, even if the rest of the novel doesn't live up to the promise of that first scene, that beginning has what I would call "creative momentum". The more creative momentum a scene imparts to the reader, the farther into the novel the reader can read before she clues into the fact that it isn't really all that good.
To be sure, I'm not saying a great beginning can redeem a terrible story. But it can buy you a certain good will on the reader's part.
And the converse is equally true. A really boring beginning (again using comedy as an example) sends a message to the reader: "We're idiots. We couldn't joke our way out of a wet paper bag. The fact that you blew ten bucks on this turkey is funnier than the funniest joke in this book. And that's not very funny." That bad beginning imparts its own creative momentum, such that the reader is predisposed to remain poker faced no matter how good the jokes that follow. The reader goes into the thing expecting to be bored -- and bored he shall be.
Given that argument, you'd be inclined to say a good beginning is more important than a good ending. Right? But...
Consider the opposing argument.
The ending is the last thing the reader reads before closing up the novel, or, in a movie, the last thing the audience member sees before everyone goes home. As a result, the impression left by that ending, whether good or bad, is stronger in the hours afterward than the earlier impression made by the beginning. You can sit through a really boring movie, squirming restlessly, wishing you had taken your spouse's advice and gone to the Disney cartoon instead. But then, the movie wraps up with a clever, funny, perfect ending that has the entire audience literally on their feet cheering (the Will Smith flick Enemy of the State leaps to mind.).
That ending can impart what we could call "reverse creative momentum". (Say, this making up technical words is fun! I wonder if anyone pays for that sort of thing? Memo to self: An agent isn't a "bloodsucking leech". He's a "creative exsanguinator".) If that ending is sufficiently good, it can ameliorate (ie. de-stinkify) all the bad memories of the earlier scenes (including that bad beginning), leaving you remembering the experience as having been less, oh, what's the word?... stinkific than it was.
So, now you see why I said there is no "right" answer. You pays your money and you takes your choice. On the one hand, you can be tootling along, thoroughly enjoying a movie, then, blam! (Or, as Dan Turner would have it: "Ka-chow!") A really lousy ending up and socks you in the kisser, in an instant souring all that has gone before and leaving the entire experience a miserable, tragic waste of perfectly good 35mm film stock. (Prizzi's Honor, I'm talking about you!) But on the other hand, a great ending don't do squat if the reader tosses the book or walks out of the theatre before the final scene arrives.
Anyway, all this is by way of a lead-in to talking about beginnings. Specifically, what is known in the trade as "the opening or narrative hook".
You know what a narrative hook is, don't you? In film terms, it usually refers to the short prologue that precedes the opening title and credits. Not all movies have hooks and not all movies with hooks place that hook before the title and credits. But plenty do. Both. Er... right. Anyway...
As I see it, the purpose of the opening hook, as the term itself implies, is to "hook" the audience. To literally keep them from escaping to some other competing story. The assumption being that, once they are "hooked", it is comparatively easy to hold onto that audience. The real trick is hooking them in the first place.
Because the narrative hook is at the beginning of the story, it also serves the function which we already discussed. It is the story's "hello" to the audience. It should give the audience a taste of the type of story which is to follow. For example, I think all James Bond movies begin with narrative hooks -- prologues which precede the opening title. Sometimes those prologues are connected with the movie's main plot, but more often they are more self-contained, depicting the final moments of the untold Bond adventure which supposedly preceded the story we are about to watch.
In either case, those prologues tell the audience that they are about to watch a fast-paced, two-fisted adventure. If a Bond prologue gave the mistaken impression the movie was going to be a dark, unflinching look at East-West relations during the Cold War... that would constitute a problem. (Actually, I think the opening of the Pierce Brosnan Bond flick, Die Another Day, comes pretty close to fitting that description, as we are treated to the unpleasantly brutal spectacle of Bond captured and tortured for months in psuedo-realist grainy images, incongruously juxtaposed with the usual Bond montage of gyrating female bodies. Ee-euw!)
If the hook is supposed to "hook" the audience, how does it do that? On TV, many series, although structurally having a prologue before the titles, still fail to make use of the prologue to hook the audience. It is almost as if they simply put in a prologue because, well, everyone else was doing it, who knows why? In my opinion, the best hooks hook the audience by... provoking questions. (I'm not going to take that thought any farther here, since I pretty much covered the "question" question in my earlier editorial, How to Tell the Perfect Story. Check it out, if ya wanna.)
I started thinking about this essay while watching a DVD of the 1970s British series, The New Avengers. This was the later follow-up series based on the original spy series, The Avengers, from the sixties staring Patrick MacNee as John Steed, paired with various curvaceous female co-agents. The New Avengers paired Steed up with two new co-agents, Purdey (Joanna Lumley) and Gambit (Gareth Hunt), and set them loose on various world threatening nutbars all determined to use their genius for Evil instead of Niceness. Everything was presented with a twinkle in the eye and a knowing quirk of the lip, Steed's trademark tip of the bowler assuring us that, no matter what the threat, no matter where it might originate, the Queen mum at least was safe.
Come to think of it, The New Avengers was basically just James Bond for the tele.
The scripts for The New Avengers were cleverly written, and every episode began with a clever narrative hook. For example, one prologue presented various agents shooting their way through an obstacle course, gunning down various pop-up targets which fired back with paint pellets. Cut to each agent undergoing a medical exam and receiving a clean bill-of-health -- all this in preparation for some well deserved R&R. Then... one after another the agents drop dead, for no apparent reason. One even dies in the doctor's office, having just been assured he is fit as a fiddle. Cut to the Title and credits.
All right, so The New Avengers had some decent opening hooks. That could probably be said for many successful action shows. The reason I've fixated on that particular series is because The New Avengers added a clever wrinkle to their hooks. Every episode prologue climaxed with... someone falling.
That sounds funny, I know, but bear with me. Every prologue would climax with someone either jumping through a window, or falling off a cliff, or simply falling down dead...it didn't matter. Just so long as the camera could freeze-frame on the dynamic image of that falling body even as the music began and we cut to the titles. And it must have been a hard and fast rule, too, because I think every episode followed suit. Then, when the titles ended, the body would finish its plunge and the story would continue. (You may now take a moment to admire the clever wordplay found in the title for this editorial. Please, take your time. But hold your applause till the end.)
I have no doubt that the writers increasingly cursed the "falling rule" as it became harder and harder to concoct reasons for people to fall without repeating earlier episodes. But the reason I say the "falling rule" was "clever" is because it forced the writers to put some action in each and very opening hook. Without it, they could have found themselves writing more sedate, less interesting hooks simply because it was easier. So long as they were forced to follow the "falling rule", they had no choice but to get the story up and running before the main titles.
There is a lesson here for novelists. The first chapter of a novel is its "hello" to the reader and it must serve as a narrative hook. Often publishers will ask for a submission to include the first three chapters of a novel. Why do you think that is? Many authors, reading that request, will grumble: "If I send only the first three chapters, it will give them a false idea of my novel. My story doesn't really start until chapter four. After that, it'll blow them away."
But that is precisely why they ask for the first three chapters. If the first three chapters give a false idea of the rest of the novel then they need to be rewritten. It doesn't matter if you thought it was some of your best prose, if the novel doesn't really start moving until chapter four then maybe the author should either rethink the structure of the story or maybe jettison the first three chapters altogether.
I find a lot of writers bristle when you suggest there might be "rules" to writing. They feel that this is somehow curtailing their freedom of expression, confining them into tiny pigeon holes of arbitrary cliché. Well, yeah. It probably is at that. But nobody is twisting your arm. If you feel your story is best served by a slow, gradual beginning, then by all means write a slow, gradual beginning. But if you want to hook your readers, if you want them to start reading and keep reading right to the very last sentence, there are "rules" which can help you. When writing those first three chapters of your next novel, ask yourself -- is this a good narrative hook? Does it establish the style of the novel? Does it provoke questions? Has the story "started" or am I still just introducing characters?
You might even take a hint from The New Avengers. When writing your next novel, why not aim to climax the first chapter with someone falling. I'm not kidding. It doesn't matter why. That's for you to work out. But try it. Whatever else happens in the first chapter, someone does a half-gainer in the final paragraph. Try it. You might be surprised.
What have you got to lose?
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
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