How to Crack Your Novel's Beginning and Ending

15:00 EST - Nov 08, 2023

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Caroline Leavitt Avatar

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is a New York Times bestselling, prize-winning novelist, a developmental editor at Reedsy, a book critic for People Magazine and the Boston Globe, a columnist for Psychology Today, and the founder of A Mighty Blaze, a book initiative that interviews authors and booksellers. She is a New York Foundation of the Arts Fellow in Fiction, was longlisted for the Maine Readers’ Prize, and was a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab for both series and features. Her 13th novel, DAYS OF WONDER, will be published April 23, 2024 from Algonquin/Hatchette and can be preordered wherever books are sold.

Caroline Leavitt is an editor at Reedsy. To work with her on your next project, head to her profile.

Your beginning and your ending really can make a good novel. Whenever I'm browsing at a bookstore, I always read the first page first, sometimes just the first sentence.

And then I read the last page. It doesn't really spoil anything for me, but it does give me an idea of the change that's going to take place in the novel. I'm sure all of you know the feeling of opening a book and being engrossed right up to the last page. But how do you as a writer make sure that this feeling is there?

A large part of this alchemy is knowing how to craft a good first and last chapter. I always look at it as if your first chapter is posing the question of the book, and the last chapter is answering it. So, how do you do that? Well, I'm going to show you everything that I do. Everything that I know, everything that has worked for me, and I hope it'll work for you guys too. 

Tackling the Opening

So, let's tackle the first chapter first. Let's go to the very first page. In fact, let's go to the very first sentence.

The reason why your first sentence is so important is that when you send in [your manuscript to] a busy agent or an editor, they don't have a lot of time. You can be... Proust or Hemingway or Elizabeth Strout on page three, but the agent or editor may not know it. You have to make them want to continue to read after your first sentence.

I want to look at my last novel, With or Without You. The first sentence took me six months to figure out: “They were arguing again.” It's short, but I always thought, well, that's packed with meaning. There's an action there. There's an argument. And if you're a reader, I'm hoping that you're going to want to know what they’re arguing about. How nasty is the argument? What is that pesky word “again” there?

The first chapter introduces the characters. That's the most important thing. All plot comes out of character, not the other way around.

We have a former rocker desperate for a next chance, and his longtime girlfriend, a nurse, who wants him to settle down. See, it's getting very conflict-y. The relationship is at a crossroads until she caves and drinks and does drugs with him and winds up in a coma. End of first chapter, right on that note.

Instantly, I think, or at least, I hope we all think, What happened? What's going to happen? Will she get out of the coma? Is he going to stay with her? Are they going to break up?

And that leads to the question that I wanted my book to ask: “What happens when you're in a long-term relationship and the other person changes?” The ending of the book has the answer and the explanation for it. And the one thing that the nurse had wanted and hadn't thought she wanted is hers at the end.

So, we get the beginning that asks the question and the end which answers it. Think of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. The first sentence is: “We slept in the gymnasium.”

The next few sentences give us a sense that these are all youngish women, and they're all imprisoned, and it's against their will. That instantly is going to capture us and make us want to read more. If you turn to the end of the book, the last sentences are about this imprisoned young woman going into a truck, but is she going there to be rescued or further imprisoned?

To confound us further, Atwood also has an epilogue at the very end of the book. It's a century ahead of this whole novel, and it's important because one of the questions this novel is asking is, “What happens if our world turns upside down and everything we thought was right is wrong and vice versa?”

“Will the world stay that way and why?”

And Atwood ends the novel with, “Are there any questions?” And leaves it open for the reader.

Adding a Character

How and where do you start your first chapter? This is something I see a lot on Reedsy, mostly with new writers. Don't start with a description. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was really popular for people like Dickens to describe a house for five pages, to describe a village for 20 pages.

You don't want to do that. You want to have a character in your very first sentence. For example, say you start with a sentence like, “The house was big and blue with white shutters.” It just sits there, right? We have no idea of the character, no sense of the action, no sense of emotion. Why should we care that the house is white with blue shutters?

So, how do you get around that? Easy, easy, easy. Character. You put a character into the writing.

You could rewrite that sentence like this: “Darlene was always terrified every time she saw the white house with blue shutters.” 

See? Now we have a character. Now we have emotion. Now we know there's a conflict.

She's afraid of this white house. And this leads to questions we're going to read on to find out: “Why is she afraid?” 

“What is she going to do to conquer that fear?” 

“Does she even have to go into this house?”

Don't start with a long explanation either. The Handmaid's Tale puts you right in the middle of the conflict. It's like a “you are there” scenario. You're with this character June in this gymnasium. You've lost everything in your life. You don't know what's going to happen. All the reader knows is what June knows. We have her character looking around and seeing the other women and wondering about them, and we know her goal.

Something happened to the world. We don't know what it is yet, but we know that June is desperate to escape. We don't know her plan yet to escape, but we do get the sense on the first page that it's life and death for her, and that’s always interesting, and we're going to continue to read to find out.

Addressing Pacing and Action

Pacing. You want to get to character and plot fairly fast. If you take six pages to tell us about a book a character is reading or what they're eating for lunch and how it tastes, your readers are going to start looking for another book to read.

Remember, a story is not “This happened, then that happened, then that happened.” A story is really “Because this happened, this next thing had to happen.” Knowing cause and effect will keep your pages moving.

You might want to think like a screenwriter. Consider thinking of what your first chapter is going to look like if it was only action, where nobody's explaining anything to you, we’re just seeing characters do actions.

Here's a trick to make sure it's just actions: Look for all the adjectives and adverbs. I know we’ve all been taught — or at least I was — in the second grade to prettify your writing, use images, and use adjectives. That's actually not great advice because adjectives tell us, they don’t show us.

So, look at an example: 

Billy was skinny. 

It describes Billy, but what if the person who's describing him is a liar? We can't see Billy, so we don't know what Billy looks like. How could you write that without using the adjective “skinny”?

How about this:

No one could fit through the space except for Billy, who had only to turn his body to the side to easily slide through.”

Now, I cheated a little when I used the adverb “easily.” But you see the difference? 

If you want to try something like this for yourself, I always tell writers: “Try to write a paragraph about two people in love, but don't use the word ‘love.’” Don't use the word ‘romance.’ ‘Fondness,’ ‘kiss,’ anything like that. Just see how you can show it with actions.

Remember, actions speak louder than words. Actions are more truthful than words. Look at this sentence:

Angel loved his wife madly. 

Okay, so he tells us this. Do we believe him? What if he wrote this: 

Angel came into the house. His wife was on a chair. ‘I love you so much,’ he said. ‘I love you madly.’ And then he strode towards her, and he slapped her so hard she fell from the chair. 

We feel that, and we know that if Angel loves his wife, that's not the kind of love we like, so we know by the actions.

Setting the Tone and Asking Questions

A lot of times, you'll hear people talking about how the first chapter sets the tone or the mood. What that means is when you're reading a book and looking at a book, you want to know instantly, Is this a funny book? Are there jokes in it? Am I laughing yet? Is it dark? Is it serious? Is it both? 

Don’t listen to people who tell you that you can't change your tone from chapter to chapter. You absolutely can. But think [about] what kind of book you want to write, and that will dictate to you what should be there.

Most important, your first chapter should give us the question your book is asking, which is usually a question that's haunting you and the reason why you wrote the book.

In my book, Days in Wonder, I was wondering, What does it really mean to be innocent? And what does it mean to be guilty? Because that's a really murky area, and I feel that I answered that in that book. 

So what was obsessing you? What did you want an answer about? And what did you discover at the end of the book?

If we take The Great Gatsby, one of my favorite books, Fitzgerald's question was deeply personal: "Are the rich different from me and you? And if they are, why?"

That's a question that was plaguing him all his life because he was poor and then he became rich, and he always felt that the rich belonged to a special club that he wanted to join. And somehow, he could never feel like he belonged.

His book explores that. In the very first chapter, we see that question. We're introduced right away to Nick Carraway, a guy like Fitzgerald. Born poor, yearning to be rich, who tells us what he wants right away, to be invited into Gatsby's inner circle, and he's got a plan to get there.

Adding a Misconception

This first chapter also shows us something important, which I call the misconception. This is why the character hasn't been able to achieve what he wants before. It's like, if you believe that being rich will bring you happiness, you might become rich, but you're not happy. And then, why not? You have to figure it out. 

The ending will tell you that you can become rich, but it won't be satisfying for you, which is what happens with Nick.

See how well the ending and the beginning are connected. The beginning asks. The ending answers. The beginning asks, “If I'm rich, will I be happy?” And the ending answers, “You can be rich, but you're not going to be happy.”

Want another example? Let's take an alcoholic. An alcoholic is sure that if he gets into a relationship, he'll stop drinking. We know that on page one. But, of course, this is a misconception because this character doesn't know — but we the reader figure out — that if something goes wrong with any relationship, this guy's going to want to drink again. And he does.

Hinting at “Character Ghosts”

Your first chapter should also hint at a wound, or a “character ghost” from the past that your character hasn't healed yet. And maybe he doesn't even want to heal it.

For example, let's take our alcoholic again. The alcoholic's ghost is that years ago, he drove drunk, and his wife and kids were in the car, and they died, and it was his fault. So this guy's haunted by guilt. But when he thinks about it, it makes him want to drink more instead of less.

That's something he's going to have to change. Your first chapter should give us hints of a plan, or at least a recognition that staying still or doing nothing is impossible. This need to act is called the inciting incident. It's the one thing that shoves your character into action.

In The Handmaid's Tale, June is in the gym being screamed at by another woman and told that she has no bank account. She has no kid. She has no husband. She knows she's got to escape. If she stays still, things are going to get much worse. 

So, where to start? Start in the middle of the action, or start right at the point where the instigating action is going to come. You can also call that the disruption because it disrupts your character's life and forces him to go on a new journey.

Using Action on a Need-to-Know Basis

My upcoming novel, Days of Wonder, begins with a 22-year-old woman released from prison walking into a media storm because she's still a felon. That's all you know at first, but you know that once she's out of prison, she's got to act, she's got to do something. Her life is going to be different, and that rises up all these questions: “How is it going to be different?"

"What is she going to do?”

You don't even know why she was in prison, but you're going to keep reading to find out. It feels like she has a plan because she's looking for her mom, but we don't know yet what it is. Don't tell everything all at once. Use action on a need-to-know basis throughout your book from the first chapter to the last. That keeps readers reading.

Let me give you an example. Here's a perfectly great sentence:

“Billy ran, terrified that his father would catch him.”

We know there's action, this kid or guy’s running. He's afraid of his father.

Here's a better sentence:

“Billy ran, terrified.”

That's even better because now we don't know who is he running for. What's the fear? We're going to read on to find out. It ramps up our curiosity.

And here's the best sentence:

“He ran.”

We have no idea what that is. Is he running in a marathon? Is he happy? Is he terrified? The next few sentences might give you that answer.

Lauren Groff, who is a wonderful prize-winning author, has a wonderful new novel called The Vaster Wilds. It starts out with a young girl running in the forest in ragged clothes. We have no idea why. All we know is that she's running.

The interesting thing about this novel is that Groff gives us only information as we get from point to point as this young girl is remembering her past. We don't get the whole story. Why is she running? Who's after her? Is she going to survive? What happened? How can she escape?

Addressing Point of View

I want to talk a little bit about point of view. That should come first, and the point of view is who is telling the story. Readers want to know that.

You can tell the story in first person (“I went to prison”), second person (“you went to prison”) and all ranges of third person (“Evelyn went to prison”).

You can switch point of view in the chapters and have more than one protagonist. And they can all have equal weight. One of my friends, Jonathan Evison, wrote a book called Small World which had something like 40 protagonists in it, and it got great reviews.

Figure out who you want to tell the story. Usually, it should be the person who's going to change the most.

Avoiding Prologues

A prologue is usually a short, almost poetical piece that provides background information about a story or a character. Do you need it? The answer is, well, “Maybe.”

I've seen beautiful prologues. For example, one that shows a nameless person murdering somebody else. And then Chapter One starts in a sunny suburban scene, switching tone, where a woman's feeding her kids and she hears on the news that there's a murderer around. That connects the two chapters and sets up two moods.

But bear in mind, there is a practical reason not to use prologues. For some reason, at least in America, agents and editors have decided that they hate prologues. They feel it's too much information, it's too explanatory. 

So I always tell writers I work with that if you must have a prologue, call it Chapter One. Nobody's going to say, “Hey, wait, that's not Chapter One, that's a prologue.” Just call it Chapter One, and you'll be safe.

Think of your first chapter as an invitation to recap. The first chapter introduces your character in trouble, tells us the stakes that will rise, and tells us the question the novel is asking. 

Writing the Last Chapter

Your last chapter is actually as tough to write as your first chapter. Believe me, I know. It takes me forever. Your last chapter answers the question you posed in your first chapter. 

In the last chapter, your character should be totally different than what they were in the first chapter. I always make a diagram. If [a character] starts out shy, by the end of the book, she's bold. Starts out as an alcoholic, end of the book, she’s sober, or at least trying to get sober.

You want to see a difference. You want to see character change. How did this journey change a character? Ask yourself, what did the character learn? Are they in a better place?

The best stories don't have everything neatly tied up at the end, unless it's a specific genre (romances do that). Usually at the end, there's a cost to getting whatever it is the character got. 

Nick in Gatsby did change. He went from poor and dying to be rich to rich but not wanting to be rich at all. The cost for that is that he realizes that the rich are different from the rest of us, and that's a sad thing for him to realize. The rich, he now believes, have no soul. So he walks away from that. And interestingly enough, Nick walked away from being rich, but that's something that the author Fitzgerald never could do himself.

Transforming the Setting

The story world, or your setting, also should be different at the end of the book because where we live changes as we live.

If you think about it, maybe you grew up in a tiny town, and you hated the town. You felt suffocated. All you wanted to do is go to New York City. So you go to New York City, and at first you love it and you're happy there. And then as you get older, you begin to think, “I don't really like paying 5 million a month for a tiny apartment (which is New York real estate). I'm starting to get tired of the crowds, and there's not enough business opportunities.”

Then, you go for a visit back to that same tiny town you hated, and to your surprise, you like the very quiet you used to hate. You like the people who used to bother you, and you find that now there are business opportunities. That tiny town didn't change, but you, the character, did. And that's what's great for us to see before the end of a novel.

Ending the Novel

How do you really end the novel? This is what I call “The Cut Before the Kiss.” You know when you go to see movies or a TV series and there are two characters, they're flirting, and then they fall in love and you keep watching because you want them to kiss? But then when they do kiss, it's disappointing because… what are you imagining after that? Where do you go? It's much stronger to cut before the kiss, so then readers wonder what's going to happen.

If you think about the Margaret Atwood book, the very [last part of the book mentions that] hundreds of years after this terrible society of Gilead is gone, somebody is studying that society, and she's telling how that society died out, but they don't really know how. And her last question [and the novel’s last sentence] is: “Are there any questions?”

So, first of all, The Handmaid's Tale started when this new world was just beginning, and it's a nightmare. At the end of the book, we don't know what's going to happen with this society. We just see June trying to escape. The epilogue ends with, we know this society turned around, and it’s no longer there.

But by having the last sentence be “Are there any questions?” We have lots of questions. We're going to close that book and wonder, Oh my god, how did a society like that come about? Could it come about here? What am I going to do about it if it does come about? It leaves it wide open.

Considering the “New Equilibrium”

There's a term for endings that was coined by story structure guru John Truby called the “new equilibrium.” Sometimes, you can end your story just by showing your character acting in some new way.

In The Great Gatsby, Nick doesn't have to tell us anything. He doesn't have to act in any way. All he has to do is walk out of Gatsby's mansion and walk back towards where he came.

Meanwhile, the alcoholic, the former drunk — we can know that he's no longer an alcoholic if he walks into a bar, the bartender slides him over a whiskey, he shakes his head, he points to club soda, he drinks the club soda. We know by his actions that he's different.

Don't explain to us why a character is the way he was. Don't just show it. Don't philosophize. Do not have a cliffhanger at the end, unless it's part of a series. And even then, like the Harry Potter books, for example, they have to stand on their own.

When you're done with your whole book, you can also think of looking at it from back to front. If you're stuck, think about your last chapter and try to backtrack. If it ends with somebody in prison, think, How did that start? How did that originate? What would be the good opening for a book that started like that?

It's a way of double-checking that all the beats of your novel make sense. Most important of all, a story is not “This happened, then that happened.” A story is “Because this happened, the next thing had to happen.”

Final Thoughts

Start reading differently. When you've finished a book you love, go back to the first chapter. Look at the first sentence. Look at the first page. Go to the last chapter, look at the last sentence.

Ask yourself: "How does the first sentence capture my attention?"

"Does the first page show the protagonist?"

"After reading the last chapter, do I know what question the novel is asking, and did it answer it?"

"Did it leave wiggle room so when I close the book, I'm still going to be interested in this book and thinking about it?"

Another great thing to do is watch movies because the structure jumps out at you much more clearly. Think about the movies that have grabbed you instantly. What did their openings tell you? Were you bored? Was there enough action in it? Did you love it? Which endings were satisfying? And which ones made you angry?

I have four helpful books you might want to look up. The first one is called Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. Lisa talks about how we're all genetically wired to love stories. It's a biological thing, so if we experience terror by seeing certain details, we'll be more careful in real life. Her book is very good.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Noah Lukeman is a really wonderful agent, and he talks about what should be in those first five pages.

Refused to Be Done by Matt Bell. This is all about the revision process, and Matt talks about what should go into a novel first, what should come second, how to go about doing it.

And finally, The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Now, Truby marks everything up and he goes into great, great detail. The only caveat I have about the Truby book is that he is a screenwriter, and the book is mainly for screenwriters. Take from the book what resonates for you, and the rest, you don't have to.

And that goes to my closing statement, which is that there are many story gurus out there. It’s not one size fits all. Certain things will work for you. Certain things you'll try, and then you'll say, “This is nuts. I don't like this. I'm not trying it.”

That's all fine. By dint of being here, you're all writers, and I know you can learn a whole lot — hopefully, from this, and also from continuing to read, continuing to write, continuing to try things out.

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