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1405 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Beginnings and Endings

by Duff Brenna

More often than not, I struggle to start a new novel. I might luck upon the right beginning (it’s happened), but usually I end up trying several approaches. My openings are always in flux for a while. I keep a ruthless eye on them to make sure they’re not luring me into a false sense of self-satisfaction.

Time and again, you, dear writer, may find that your second paragraph makes a better opening than your first, or that the second (maybe third or fourth) chapter is where you should start, and whatever you wrote before you found the “real” opening should be deleted. Or, perhaps, put somewhere else. Maybe your first chapter or paragraph should be in the middle of your book. Then again, maybe it’s the ending of your book. First drafts of novels are wicked deceivers. They refuse to expose themselves until they realize you’ve found them out and you actually know what you’re talking about. At that point, you root out your mistakes, you slash and burn, and rewrite the entire thing if you have to (God forbid). You’ll know what to do because the story and its creatures will start speaking to you. This will happen when you’re far enough in to REALLY know your characters. At that point you’ll find the right tone of voice, the best point of view(s) and the cleanest style in which to tell your tale.

My third novel, Too Cool, provides an example of what I’m saying. The first draft began with my main character, a sixteen-year-old juvenile delinquent, being arrested for car theft. I gave a page or so of background on him and then went on to describe his days in the juvenile section of the county jail. It wasn’t a bad opening, but after finishing an entire draft, I realized that after the arrest on page one, I slowed everything down by going into the flashback examining the boy’s earlier years. I cut that chapter and started with the second chapter. This is how it opens now:

TRIPLE E IS BROKE. He cruises the streets of Gunnison searching for someone to roll. Jeanne has a buck and some change. Ava has two dollars. Tom has three. The car is almost out of gas. It has been a jittery day moving through the mountains, the tires skidding on patches of ice, slipping toward guardrails, jagged canyons. The radio has warned of another storm coming. They need to get gassed up and out of the Rockies, get to the plains of Utah before the storm hits.

From the first paragraph on, it’s one thing after another, boom, boom, all action until, pages later, the car gets stuck in a snow drift on a back road miles and miles from the main highway and far from anyone who could help them. As the narrative unfolds, we begin to realize that Triple E and his friends are in a life and death struggle and it’s not at all certain they will survive. That uncertainty hangs over the entire book. We won’t know their fate until the last chapter.

A good first page catches the reader’s interest and makes him or her want to read on. It often indicates to some degree what the story is about. An effective method for finding your own good beginning is to read several “good beginnings.” It will give you a feeling for what works. I would recommend:

Flashes of War by Katey Schultz: “It’s not quite sniper fire, but it isn’t random either. The hajis so much as hear me think, and they start gunning the water...”

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”

The Los Angeles Diaries by James Brown: “Winter is the season of the arsonist in Southern California.”

Midnight Rumba by Eduardo Santiago: “Every fall came the parade, after the carnavales and the circus had come and gone, just before the hot November rains made all the rivers overflow, flooding even the most joyous hearts and homes of eastern Cuba with despair.”

The World of a Few Minutes Ago by Jack Driscoll: “Doyle Laidlaw has never attended an execution, has never, one way or another, asserted a conviction—pro or con—concerning capital punishment.”

Not by Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life by Samantha Dunn: “It begins with a jerk and click, as if a projector is being turned on in the middle of a film. A winding canyon trail lies in front of me.”

The above are samples of opening lines that made me want to continue reading. Each author named is a brilliant contemporary that every serious writer should know.

As a side-note I should say a survey taken of professional writers claimed they spent 85% of their time on their first chapter.


In Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, there is that moment within sight of the last pages where Jane says, “Reader, I married him.” I’ve always admired that line as an inspired means of ending a long and sometimes ambiguous tale about female individualism and moral choices. Trouble is, Bronte doesn’t end it there. Rather, she goes on tidying things up and informing us that Mr. Rochester got some sight back in one eye and was able to see his newborn child. Of course we all understand that the novel is a Romance and readers are expecting a happy ending, but even so there is no excuse for the syrup that was added to Bronte’s tale. Not when the perfect ending had already been uttered: “Reader, I married him.” Which is my main point about endings. Don’t overwrite them. Often enough the ending is a few lines back, or a paragraph ago, or there on that penultimate page before you plunged on in hopes of something more uplifting. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

I don’t know of any axiom more penetrating than the one uttered by Isaac Babel: “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put in just the right place.” It is what all writers strive for, not a fade to white or a little lyrical thrill, but a conclusion that ties things up and feels inspired and leaves the author feeling he delivered what he promised. The reader may or may not feel satisfied, but that is something the writer must not dwell on, lest, like Bronte, the words roll on and on and the optimum ending gets drowned in logorrhea.

I work as hard on my endings as I do on my openings. I will fiddle with the words until my eyes blur and my mind shuts down. I will read the last page over and over to see if I have overwritten it and left the heart-stop somewhere else. And frequently that is exactly what I’ve done. I should have cut the last sentence or the last paragraph or page. I should have ended with the next to last chapter.

Sometimes I get fortunate and the ending seems to write itself and I know not to touch it. Only once in the eight books I’ve written has that lucky moment happened to me on the first draft. Though some readers might not agree, I don’t think Too Cool, which I quoted above, could have a better ending. On the day I sat down to write the final pages, I had so many versions in my head, I honestly didn’t know what to do. It came to me full-blown, so to speak, saying: “Here’s an offer,” and then giving directions to my character Ava’s house, so any reader who wanted to could visit her and “get the rest of the story.” “And she’ll tell you what you need to know,” the last line reads. I sat back satisfied that the tail of my tale was as inevitable as death itself. All the other books and stories I’ve written have endings that were fussed over for many worrisome days, while I prayed for inspiration that seldom came. Endings can be endlessly frustrating, but you’ve got to work them until that yes moment presents itself. When it happens you’ll know. You’ll probably be smiling. And maybe you’ll clench your fists, like a fighter who has knocked out his opponent. It’s a moment of triumph.


SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Duff Brenna

is the author of nine books, including:

  • The Book of Mamie, which won the AWP Award for Best Novel
  • One of his favorites, The Holy Book of the Beard, which was re-released in 2010 (New American Press) and reviewed by The New York Times: “It is loaded with all the ingredients of an underground is nearly impossible to put down.”
  • Too Cool, a New York Times Noteworthy Book
  • The Altar of the Body, given the Editors Prize Favorite Book of the Year Award from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and also a San Diego Writers Association Award for Best Novel 2002

Brenna’s collection of short stories, Minnesota Memoirs (Serving House Books, 2012), was awarded Best Short Story Collection at the 2013 Next Generation Indie Awards in New York City. His memoir, Murdering the Mom (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2012), was a Finalist for Best Non-Fiction at the same Independent Publishers Awards.

He has received a National Endowment for the Arts award, Milwaukee Magazine’s Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Prize Honorable Mention.

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury