Clark Blaise in his essay “To Begin, To Begin” (to be found in the book How Stories Mean, edited by John Metcalf ) puts forward a fascinating hypothesis. He says that the opening of a short story always imply its opposite. A sunny day with daffodils, for instance, hides death in its folds. Just as a squalid whorehouse scene probably promises a shaft of redemption.
If I describe a sunny morning in May (the buds, the wet-winged flies, the warm sun and cool breeze), I am also implying the perishing quality of a morning in May, and a good description of May sets up the possibility of a May disaster.
– Clark Blaise
What makes this idea so useful is that you can check your own story to see if the beginning has the quality of suggesting (oh, so softly) its ending – in reverse form, a bit like an Escher painting. If it doesn’t, maybe you aren’t starting in the right place.
Almost any great story can be analyzed this way. If you listen, you can hear the end of the story in its opening lines, and feel the hidden pulse of the change that is to come.
– Excerpted from Beginnings — and their opposites, by Shaena Lambert [bolding added]; read the whole article at the link for more elucidating examples
Before anyone gets their knickers in a knot, I want to add three thoughts:
- Clark Blaise isn’t presenting a rule of writing, he’s talking about a particular way to think about the relationship between endings and beginnings–how to analyze them as a reader and, as Shaena Lambert goes on to point out, how test them and work with them as a writer.
- Note the key words that Blaise and Lambert both use: promises, implying, sets up, suggesting, oh so softly. No one is saying the beginning of a story should telegraph the ending, give it away, or hit your reader over the head with a mallet.
- Does this relationship between endings and beginnings apply to all stories? No, of course it doesn’t. But you’ll find that there is often a relationships between the beginning and ending of a story, whether they are opposites, book ends, one subverts the other, etc. The usefulness to you as a writer doesn’t lie in “following a rule” here but in looking at the beginning and ending of your story, analyzing the relationship, and asking yourself if the connection between the two could be stronger and serve the story better.
One of my favourite examples of opposite beginnings and endings from the world of film is the original 1971 version of Get Carter, where the movie starts with Michael Caine’s character drawing heavy blackout curtains across a window and literally wipes himself from view, and how that prefigures the ending of the movie (which I won’t spoil for you).
What are some of your favourite stories, in any format, that reverse the beginning and the ending?
Does the beginning of your story suggest its ending, possibly in reverse form? What does the beginning of your story suggest? What could it?