The Finest Place You Know
by Bill Kenower
One of the first pieces of advice a writer looking to find an agent will receive is to pay very close attention to the beginning of his or her novel. If the opening doesn’t grab the agent it won’t grab the editor, and it probably won’t grab the reader. So polish and polish those first five pages, we are told, and then scrub that first paragraph until it blinds you with its reflection.
Yes, yes, and yes. You must have a grabber opening, whatever that means for your particular genre. The opening is your invitation to the reader, so it needs to be as accessible and interesting as possible. In my own experience, I once had an agent ask to see an entire manuscript because she liked the first sentence of the sample pages I’d sent her. I grant then that your opening is not just where your story begins, but the first phase in the long process of marketing your novel.
But it is only your first and, in my opinion, not necessarily the best. I think that with enough practice anyone can learn how to write an engaging opening. Maybe not a fantastic opening, but certainly good enough to let the reader know they are in capable hands. Just as much attention must be paid to the middle, where almost every writer I have ever interviewed reports they eventually become mired trying to find their way from the beginning to the end. Readers will usually only tolerate so much muddling before they put the book down—so polish that middle, too, yes? Yes, of course.
Then we come to the end. I have read many novels where I close the book and feel like I have just stepped out of a rollercoaster. Which is to say, the story flew along then . . . just ended. It was as if the writer worked so hard to keep me engaged for the first 350 pages that they had nothing left for the last five.
Here the novelist has missed a great marketing opportunity. Reviews are good, store placement is good, interviews and email lists are good, but in the end nothing beats word-of-mouth. Being told by your best friend that you must read such-and-such book is the very best advertising I can think of.
And, in my opinion, it is the end that moves a book from good to great in a reader’s mind and induces them to become your own personal promotion engine. A good book can entertain you, but a great one leaves you someplace different than where you started, and it is the ending that defines where you are left. It is the reason the book was written in the first place.
I understand that there are some novels that, by the nature of their genre, have somewhat preordained endings: the girl will get her man, the killer will be caught, good will conquer evil. But even if you are writing in such a genre, push yourself at the end. Most great distance runners have what we call a “kick,” a hundred-yard sprint at the end of a three-mile run. Many a distance race is won in the final fifty meters.
Develop your kick. The ending is the gift to the reader, the punch line, if you will, of your novel. Why did you tell this story? If it was simply to make money, very well, perhaps this article is not for you. But if you told it for other reasons, the ending is the time to know why. And I am not merely talking about twists, though these can be memorable—I am talking about change. All stories are about people changing, whether they are falling in love, catching their first crook, or just finally understanding their relationship with their father. Without change there is no movement and without movement there is no story. To where are you moving?
It can be challenging, I know, because at the end of your novel you must ask yourself, in a sense, “What do I believe in?” The answers are not always what we thought. But no matter, share the ideas anyway. It is as if you have taken your reader by the hand and asked that they follow you. Where would you take someone you loved if they agreed to follow? Where is the finest place you could leave them? That is your ending.
Bill Kenower is Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine and a full-time freelance writer. He lives in Seattle.