Compare the First and Final Scenes
This fantastic video on Vimeo (below) from Jacob T. Swinney could be the best five minutes you’ll spend today. It shows the opening and closing scenes of famous movies, displayed side by side.
I’ve written a few posts here about beginnings and at least one post about endings. But once you have your story finished, whether it’s a piece of fiction or creative nonfiction, take some time to compare the first page or so to the last. What is the first image you’ve created for the reader and what is the final image you’re leaving behind?
The Vimeo video is all about movies, but go now to your book shelf and pull down a couple of your favorite novels, short stories, or essays. Read the first page and then read the last.
Here’s one from my shelf: Stewart O’Nan’s novel, A Prayer for the Dying (which by the way, is a beautiful example of second person). The opening scene presents a small, active town in the heat of summer.
High summer and Friendship’s quiet. The men tend the shimmering fields. Children tramp the woods, wade in the creeks, sound the cool ponds. In town, women pause in the heavy air of the millinery, linger over bolts of yard goods, barrels of clumped flour. The only sound’s the freight drumming through the south, tossing its plume of cinders above the treetops, the trucks clicking a mile off. Then quiet, the buzz of insects, the breathless afternoon. Cows twitch and flick.
You like it like this, the bright, languid days. It could stand to rain, everyone says, the sawdust piles at the mill dry as powder, the great heaps of slash in the woods dangerous, baked to tinder, but there’s something to the heat, the way it draws waves from tarpaper, stifles sound, closes town in.
In these opening sentences, we are generally introduced to the town of Friendship, the people, the summer drought (“It could stand to rain”), the danger of the dry sawdust and heaps of slash in the woods baked to tinder. We are even introduced to the train, which along with the heat, plays a major role in the plot and the ending.
I won’t give the ending away, but let’s just say that whereas the narrator is among a town and people he loves in the beginning, he finds himself alone by the final scene. And some of the elements of the opening scene—the people, the train—are in the final scene, but they’ve been altered by the events that’ve unfolded.
O’Nan also repeats a line in the end that he used in the opening, and the effect is subtle but helps the ending resonate with the beginning.
You sit in the cave, opening and closing the knife by candlelight, the Hermit’s world spread around you. You’ve turned the bedroll over, twisted a cigarette to chase the smell of blood. The knife’s sharp, and for a second you’re tempted. Both wrists, then the throat, deeply.
No. You fold it closed, set it on his dented tin plate.
Because you still believe, isn’t that true? Because you do love this world.
You’re not sure anymore, are you? It’s easier to be by yourself.
Yes. Alone, with no one else. Don’t lie. You like it this way.
Feel free to share your favorite beginning/ending pairings in the comments below.