Starting at the end…

Something only my earliest critique partners know is that the first draft of Give Up the Ghost started with Cass preparing to go to prom while talking with Paige — an extended version of the scene that now appears in the last chapter of the book, ending with her reminiscing about how she came to be planning to go to prom at all, and looping back to what is now the beginning of the book.

The technique of starting with an intriguing or tense scene from the end of the story before going back to show how it all began is a well-loved one. Heck, Twilight does it. But it didn’t end up feeling right for GHOST. The risk with giving away part of the ending is you leave the reader knowing something that’s coming, so that part of the ending can no longer be a surprise. Basically, the suspense created by wondering how the character will get there has to be greater than the suspense lost by knowing where they’re going.

Now I have a new idea that might start at the end. I love the idea of using this particular scene as the opening. But I’m also wondering if it’s definitely worth the risk.

So I’m curious to hear: How do you feel about books that start with a glimpse of the end? What makes that work or not work for you? Any favorite examples?


Starting at the end… — 9 Comments

  1. I love books that start with a glimpse of the end and then slowly reveal how the characters got there – as long as it’s not too much info and it isn’t cheaply done. I loved WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, but felt really cheated because the end isn’t exactly the same as the glimpse at the beginning. There is nothing I hate more as a reader than being duped.
    I can’t think of books that did this really well off the top of my head, but I LOVED the movie MEMENTO. That counts, right?

    • Oh, yeah, I had the same reaction to WfE. It really does feel like cheating if you give outright wrong details in the opening just to misled. Memento is great, though! Did you know Mandy Hubbard has a book told the same way–backwards through time–BUT I LOVE HIM (written as Amanda Grace)?

      • Oh, I didn’t know that about Mandy Hubbard’s book. What a great concept-I’ll add that one to my giant TBR pile. I’d love to do something cool like that, but my brain is so linear, I’m not sure I could pull it off well.

  2. It’s tough to pull off. My general preference is not to do that, but that may be a reflection of my (now) extreme paranoia about spoilers. I hate hate hate spoilers, and an end-of-the-story-first scene is basically a spoiler.

    Which rings up the corrolary: you can get away with it if you can write the scene such that it _doesn’t_ spoil too much. Which ain’t easy.

    The other time I think this can work is when the front-loaded scene shows something that readers will basically take as a foregone conclusion anyway, but can be shown in such a way as to _raise_ one or more compelling questions in the reader’s mind. Usually, questions along the lines of “I wonder how it ended up _that_ way?”

    That’s really vague and abstract, so let me clarify. I wrote a novel once where the outer plot centered around the protagonist’s quest to obtain a high-end, ultra expensive wristwatch (and if that sounds familiar, Megan, it’s because it was inspired by some spam you RT’ed a couple of years ago). Ironically, as it’s contrary to my own feelings about such scenes, I wrote it with a flash-forward scene at the beginning, in which the character is shown with the watch. Only, he’s shown in a pawn-shop, hawking the watch. The scene spoils the “does he get the watch” question, but it _raises_ the (hopefully more interesting) questions of _how_ he gets the watch, and having done so, _why_ does he then choose to pawn it?

    As the watch only concerns the outer plot, I didn’t consider that to be too spoiler-ish. It’s the inner plot that matters, and the inner plot is what answers that ultimate _why_ question.

    But for most stories, it’s better to start at the beginning and end at the end. That’s the only novel I’ve written (out of 8, so far) for which that kind of structure made sense.

    • That’s a great example of how a spoiler can raise more questions than it answers. (And I’m glad my mocking of spam was creatively useful to you. 😀 ). It does seem that the most important balance, to do it right, is how much info to give, to avoid both being annoyingly vague and obscure, and annoyingly obvious. Tricky!

  3. Hi, Megan. You answered your own question quite well: “Basically, the suspense created by wondering how the character will get there has to be greater than the suspense lost by knowing where they’re going.”

    A fine example of pulling this off is the movie The Barefoot Contessa. (Not a book, but the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar in 1954.) For reasons I don’t understand, I watched this film for the first time a couple of week ago.

    The movie starts out with a funeral. I’m thinking, funeral! Hello, talk about starting with the ending! But gradually the story of the young woman’s life unfolds, and the mystery begins: Why? Why did she die so young? How does this happen to one so alive?

    It was similar to a “page-turner” for me. I couldn’t wait to find out the how and why after knowing the what. Excellent writing by Joseph Mankiewicz.

    • I haven’t seen that movie, but I’ll have to check it out! The “how does this happen?” question can definitely create a lot of suspense. I find with stories like that I’m often torn between trying to figure out how the tragic ending is going to come about, and desperately hoping it’ll turn out to be some bizarre misunderstanding and everyone’s really okay after all! Heh.

  4. The Barefoot Contessa! Of course! I should have remembered this Bogie movie. It’s also a good example of looking at seeing the same scenes/events from different points of view, sometimes with ironic effect.

  5. I enjoy a glimpse at the end…it keeps me hyper alert and reading into everything that could relate to my little knowledge as well and keeps me reading (even if it is all night until I am satisfied with the resolve) but it also has a stressful quality about it for all of the same reasons.

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