Why Story Beginnings and Endings Must Be Linked

The ending of your story is a loooong way away from the beginning. Three hundred pages or 100,000 words is an extraordinary journey. Contemplating the ending from the vantage point of the beginning is like looking up at the top of Mt. Everest and imagining yourself, in all your windblown, frostbitten glory, standing there with your hands on your hips and your foot propped on a rock. It’s all a bit hard to grasp.

And by the time you do make it to the top of the mountain, it’s going to be almost as difficult to peer down the rocky slopes and try to remember the base camp you left way back at the beginning of your trek.

This is a fact. But it’s also a fact that the only way to achieve a strong ending is to remember the beginning. “No need to watch where I’m going. Just need know where I’ve been.” So says Mater in Pixar’s Cars. Although writers need to pay as much attention to the road ahead as the road behind, there’s a lot we can learn from a good rearview mirror.

The beginning and the ending are two halves of the same whole. In some senses, they’re mirror images of one another. The beginning asks a question, and the ending answers it. This is the key. If the ending fails to answer the specific question set out in the beginning, the whole book will fail.

Your Story’s Beginning: Asking the Right Question

What is this question your beginning is supposed to ask? We’ve talked before about the necessity of hooking readers with an opening question. But this hook question may or may not be the question that is answered in the ending. The purpose of the hook question is to grab reader curiosity. Once it’s done that, its primary purpose is accomplished, and the question itself may be answered later in the same scene (so long as another question—and another reason to keep reading—is promptly raised in its stead).

The question that will be answered in the ending is your story question. This is the question that will fuel the entirety of your plot:

  • Will the heroine find true love?
  • Will the anti-hero be redeemed?
  • Will the bad guys suffer justice?

Of course, your story’s own unique question will be even more specific:

  • Will Margie stop her self-destructive lifestyle of drugs and liquor before she loses her soulmate Tom forever?
  • Will mercenary Mike learn to fight for a cause more worthy than just money and power?
  • Will the Mafia be taken down by the intrepid undercover work of FBI agent Neal?

Your story question might be a plot question or a theme question—or both. But it must be presented in the beginning of the story in order for the ending to resonate.

Your Story’s Ending: Answering the Right Question

Once you’ve set up a powerful question in your story’s opening, you have to follow through by deliberately answering it in the finale. Finding that answer in the story’s ending is the only way to create continuity and resonance.

If your story about Neal’s undercover work in the Mafia ends by answering a question about Neal’s marriage or his daughter’s autism or his newfound talent for breakdancing, it’s going to fail. These answers may tie up loose ends on subplots, but they ultimately don’t matter to the story arc unless the main story question is answered as well.

When you choose to answer the main story question is also important. The moment you answer this question, your story is going to be effectively over. Answer it too soon, and what’s
left of your plot and your character’s arc will die a slow and lingering (and boring) death.

Figuring out how to properly link your beginning and ending takes a little forethought, but once you’ve identified your main story question, you’ll not only know what your story is about, you’ll also be able to strengthen your plot, your theme, and your character development all the way through the book.

Tell me your opinion: Will your story ending answer the question presented in its beginning?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Thanks for another informative post K.M. I just read the other day that you should write your final chapter first, that way you can make sure you tie up all the loose ends. Hmm.

  2. I’ve never personally gone to the extent of writing the last chapter first, but I always know what it will be from my outline. Endings never turn out exactly like I think they will, even after outlining, which is one reason I prefer *not* to write them first. But so long as they answer the story question, it’s all good.

  3. Your excellent blog reminds me of why English teachers always wanted you to begin and end your essay with the same quote or sentence. Their reasoning was that it tied up everything together and the reader would now have some new insight or understanding of what you wrote. Carl Barks, the “Duck Man” who wrote and drew Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics from the 1940’s through the 1970’s, started his stories with a question, a claim or problem to be solved. By the end of the tale it was answered by a humorous, ironic and/or incredible solution that “wowed” the reader. It would even give an insight on life. Barks would write the first and last scene and then work backwards. He storyboarded everything. Rod Serling in “The Twilight Zone” would start his episodes with an introduction that hooked his viewers. The ending would resolve the “Hook” but in an unforeseen and ironic way. Charles Dickens in “A Tale of Two Cities” started with the quote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”. The ending showed the truth of the quote in a way both heroically and tragically. Your point of asking and answering the right question is right on the mark. If the answer and even the question can be interpreted and analyzed on many different levels then….woooohoooo…bonus points! Your excellent blog reminds me of why English teachers always wanted you to begin and end your essay with the same quote or sentence.

  4. One of my all-time favorite examples of this is the 2005 adaptation of Peter Pan, which opens with a line written on the bottom of the screen and ends with the same line spoken by the narrator. It brings the story to a beautiful and meaningful full circle.

  5. Excellent advice once again :).

    Like you, I rarely go so far as to write out the very end before I start, but I found myself doing that for this particular WIP. I know how the very, very end is going to go–i.e. the last big sequence at the end of the trilogy. Knowing where it’s going to end up is so incredibly helpful because I know that the road that I take from here needs to lead to there.

  6. Actually, yes! I’m happy to say your series on story structure was instrumental in that bit of rewriting 🙂
    At the outset of the novel, my protagonist learns that her family and friends have been keeping secrets from her, potentially dangerous secrets that will result in undefined harm and “trials to come.”
    These secrets haunt her throughout the novel as she tries to uncover them and they effectively become a kind of MacGuffin for her. While they are not overtly plot in and of themselves, they are intrisically tied to it. In the climax, she uncovers several, though not all, of her secrets and they are pivotal to her empowerment.
    Love WordPlay! I learn something everytime I visit (and I share with all of my networks!).
    Novelist-in-progress, and rampant wordplayer,
    Mel.

  7. I wonder what would be your approach towards twist endings. Without giving out too much, the book I’m working on currently has “two endings”. By the first one, you think you got the answer, in a very superficial manner. But then the book continues, perhaps confusing you for a second, and then bad stuff happens. Only in the final chapter you finally understand the deeper answer, which makes a whole lot more sense with the beginning than the “fake ending”. I wonder what would you say to that.

  8. For me, connecting beginnings and endings seems to be innate: I even do it in casual conversations.

    As for my story, since the initial concept, the beginning and ending have been planned and linked. What has happened is I keep changing the beginning and ending as greater insights come to me about the story and its meaning.

    In early drafts, the beginning was, “I hate humanity and I don’t care what happens to it.” The ending was, “I love humanity and will risk my life to save it.” The story was about the experience that changed the protagonist.

    The current draft begins, “I love no one; I don’t even believe in love.” The ending is, “I now know love, and I believe.” The story is still about the experience that changed him.

    Another complication is the single book concept has evolved into a five book series. Now I need hooked beginning and ending for the series as well as hooked beginning and ending for each book of the series.

    This is hard work, but fun. I like connecting beginnings and endings, it is a part of who I am.

  9. @Melanie: Although plot questions are often most common, I actually prefer thematic or emotional questions, since they resonate on a deeper level. So I like that a lot!

    @Adam: You’re spot on. The final ending, not the twist, has to answer the question. It can present interesting layers to have the twist ending answer the question I’m an incorrect or misleading way.

    @Lester: Nice. Both are great examples.

  10. This may sound like a crazy scheme to some writers but this works for me. At the end of each chapter I write a synopsis, so I keep track of where the questions come up as the story progresses, and also to tag characters’ actions/development etc. Then, once the MS is finished. I read my synopsis right through gving me an overview of what/when/how/why. Then I read the entire MS backwards, starting from the last chapter and working towards the first. It’s amazing how everything falls into place. Well…it’s supposed to and if it doesn’t then one has missed a connection somewhere!

  11. Fiona, that is an interesting way of doing it – and almost sounds like the writing version of the film Memento.

  12. Hi K.M.

    Your post has got me thinking that my third book needs a more romantic twist to it than it currently has. I think I need to make the theme more about finding true love as well as a new career for my character. Thanks for this thought.

  13. Brilliant post! 🙂 I’m currently writing a fantasy trilogy; I just finished (draft #1) of the first book, and the ending definitely answers the question posed at the beginning. I’ve started book two, so reading this post was a great reminder to link my beginning and ending as well as I did in the first book. And then, after doing the same with book three, the biggest challenge will be to make sure that the story arc as a whole ties together–will the end of book 3 answer the questions posed at the beginning of book 1? Still working on that one…

  14. Thanks for yet another helpful post! 🙂

    My plot question: Our heroine, Emmi Jones, is being pursued by a supernatural entity. Will she find out why, and become strong enough to overcome her adversary?
    The answer: Hell yeah! 😀

    My theme question: Emmi is seeking her roots and a sense of belonging – will she find them?
    The answer: Yes; but where she belongs is not where she expected.

    The two questions are woven together throughout the story, and one could not really be answered without the other one. 🙂

    I also like what @Lester says about how a series ending can resonate with its beginning – I’m gonna work on that in the series I’m currently plotting out, of which this is the first book. 🙂

  15. I hope the beginning and ending of my WIP connect with each other, and I think they do, but while reading your post I got a great idea to make that connection even stronger. Thanks for giving me a clear concept presented just differently enough to spark my imagination.

  16. @Fiona: Sounds like a great system. Reading backwards is a great way to force our brains out of their comfortable patterns and get them to see familiar stories in a new light.

    @LK: Glad it was helpful!

    @Grace: As if writing one book was complicated enough, series throw all kinds of new complications into the mix. Sounds like you’ve got a handle on it though!

    @Ruth: When the plot and theme questions are so integral to one another that one simply can’t work without the other, it’s a sign of a strong and cohesive story. Good job!

    @ChiTrader: When imaginations start sparking, the possibilities are endless. Thanks for reading!

  17. This is a great post and something I’m definitely going to implement on my next run through my WIP.

    My problem is, as I’ve written I’ve introduced more questions (completely by accident). Once my first draft is complete, I then study the story and think through what it’s really about.

    Know that I know I have to address that as a question and ensure that it’s posed at the beginning. Going through my story with this focus in mind should help a great deal.

  18. A story can (and inevitably will) raise many questions over the course of its whole. But analyzing which is the most important or overarching is a good way of finding and solidifying both the plot and the theme. Once you’ve found those, the story question that needs to be asked in the beginning is usually obvious.

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