Why You Need To Set Up Your Novel Ending In Your Opening Scene


It’s often said that people (or more importantly, literary agents) will stop reading your book if you haven’t hooked them within the first sentence.

I suspect that this is probably a little pessimistic, but it’s true that given the intensely competitive nature of getting published in fiction, starting strong is critically important.

But the opening scene has another important role, as well as hooking a reader. You need to set up the ending.

“What?” I hear you cry. “That’s all backwards! I’m going to work up to my ending.”

Well, yes. But also, no. A satisfying climax cannot just come out of the blue. Everything has to be foreshadowed, and a truly elegant novel will have given you all the clues right at the outset.

All satisfying stories are in essence about how a character changes (feel free to disagree with me about this statement in the comments). I like to define this change in terms of what a character wants, and what they need. Read more about this 'character journey' here.

What a character wants tends to be external – such as money, a particular partner, a job, etc. What a character needs is about personal fulfilment, and is usually some form of compassion or courage.

In the final climax, your character should be faced with a difficult challenge, where they must choose between finally getting what they’ve wanted all along, or sacrificing that in order to be who they need to be – and in doing so, realising what they actually needed all along.

In order to give this climax impact, the opening scene should foreshadow the entire thing. That means you need to introduce your protagonist and establish what they want and what they need.

Then there should be some kind of challenge – this may or may not be the inciting incident (or call to action) to which they make the wrong decision – i.e. their response is fully motivated by what they want.

This (usually selfish) decision then leads to a cascade of mishaps and challenges which they spend the rest of the book dealing with, until finally, at the end… well, we’ve already been through this.

Take another look at your opening scene from this perspective and you may find you're able to strengthen it by ensuring these elements are there.

Please leave any comments or thoughts on this below.

21 comments:

  1. Thank you for this great article! Setting up the story with intrigue and empathy is so important, something a lot of writers forget when they get swept up in the excitement of putting pen to paper. Here is an article I wrote called "Introducing a Character, Not a Bore" that I thought you might enjoy: http://catehogan.com/introducing_your_character/

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  2. Hi Katja,

    This just helped me pinpoint my opening scene. The current one was too weak and didn't get to the heart of the issue. After reading this I started asking questions and realized I just needed to swap my opener with a scene in the next chapter. (Insert happy dance here). Oh! By switching my opening line becomes a really good hook. So excited.

    Do you have a few book recommendations that utilize this well?

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    1. Hi Diane, So glad to hear it was helpful! I'm afraid I don't know of any books that cover this, but I'd highly recommend reading this blog post: http://www.crackingyarns.com.au/2013/11/18/great-endings-step-1-hero-shouldnt-get-what-they-wanted/ Hope that helps!

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    2. For this type of beginning, you should have a look on Robert Langdon series by Dan Brown.

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  3. I agree with you to a point, for some fiction. I write mostly mystery fiction myself. Lots of foreshadowing goes on throughout a mystery novel to set up the ending but, since the protagonist is most often a sleuth and might only 'change' a smidge over the course of an investigation, it's rather difficult to set up the ending at the beginning of the story. Your sleuth just doesn't know what he or she is getting into at that point and you don't want your reader to be able to refer back to that every time you throw a clue or a red herring their way and know exactly where you're going.

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    1. Hi Anne, of course, no writing rules are going to apply to everything, and I agree with you, if you have a sleuth in a series of books, you probably don't want them completely changing in every book or they'll get emotional whiplash! However, I don't agree that them not knowing what they're getting into has an impact on demonstrating what they want versus what they need - or that it will or should give away the ending.

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  4. Hi Katja,
    Subconsciously, when I started writing my novel ten months ago, the dramatic scene I set up first was just too good to discard. Although I didn't have a clue back then, today it seems to be the perfect ending to my literary fiction novel. Somehow the ending makes sense, and I'm currently scripting my story to culminate towards the final scene.
    So yes, I definitely agree with you. I enjoy leaving clues along the way, and making sure they all tie up towards the end.

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  5. "Everything has to be foreshadowed, and a truly elegant novel will have given you all the clues right at the outset." Yes! This one sentence is probably the best piece of writing advice I've read all week! All of my favorite stories have masterfully used the art of foreshadowing. I may not always catch it the first time, but after the second or even third read, the foreshadowing seems to jump right off the page, and I'm amazed by the author all over again. Definite goals I want to achieve in my own writing. Thanks for the great article! It was just what I needed to read this week!

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  6. This is something that I've been struggling with. Do I start my book with where the story actually begins? No, that's too... I don't know, twee...? But then... where DO I start my book? Does it start on a Heads scene, or a Tails scene, or maybe an Incident? I know that the 'hook' is in how it's put across, but how do we decide (let's face it, in a story that we ourselves know has loads of highlights, lowlights, tensions, what-ifs etc.) where to actually bring the reader in...?

    As an example, let's say a story takes place between 1980 and 2040. Of course there are going to be heads and tails galore in the intervening years. But is there a rule about where to begin the storytelling? I know in photography, there is a rule that your subject should never be in the center of the frame (I often ignored that 'rule' if I felt I needed to) and that the subject should never be facing away from the light source in a portrait shot (again... meh...) but is there any specific such 'rule' in writing?

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    1. If I may be so bold? The best advice I've ever received for writing is "start late finish early". In other words, start closest to the main action of the story and end before you've lingered too long. For example, come in as the heist gets underway and leave right after they drag their wounded partner into the getaway car. Or come in as the gladiators' weapons clash for the first time and exit right after they simultaneously hurl them at the presiding dignitary. Not sure if the examples are clear but start late, finish early. It really works. Hope this helps.

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  7. I'm sorry, I've just come up as 'Unknown' and I didn't realise that I had to register. Hello :) Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Jyl. That's better :)

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  9. Would appreciate some feedback on this opening, if any would be so kind! :) I hang around supportive friends, not honest ones...lol

    "Phul delighted in the fact that this one small act would eventually give him his destiny of ruling them, or it would destroy everything that his companions valued, and warred over. He cared little that his act was forbidden, only that he wasn't caught. He would have grinned if he had a form."

    Thanks!

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  10. Don Kane from wonderful Halifax NS Canada26 December 2016 at 13:31

    I agree! Strength comes from believing in you know the answer. Yet! With a book in your hands. 350 pages long. The next few sentences have to grab your imagination into lingering you into finishing the paragraph. ... And then reading trough the page..... And can't wait to turn the page to read onward... Because you just have to know more. .. Be sure! Etc.etc.etc...

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  11. I've done this a number of times. With westerns, it's a prologue that then is echoed in the Epilogue. For the first in a fantasy series FLORESKAND: WINGS the ending is definitely set up in the beginning, though the reader doesn't know it until the end, happily!

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  12. I would say while that maybe true you don't want to reveal too much of the ending where it ruins the climax obviously. I also say it probably don't always have to be the ending you foreshadow, you could use one of the most interesting crucial bits of the story. Again without revealing too much. I don't think I've foreshadowed much but remember everything goes both ways, while it's a good idea to listen to famous authors, they aren't always right. I've not even published a book yet, yet so far people inside and outside of my family have barely said my stories have an issue with it's plot and I've told them I'm open to criticisms so i can improve. I've had a professional author tell me I seem to have trouble keeping the reader interested. Other regular people say they're hooked. So in my top opinion on how to sell a good book is: listen to professionals but listen to the readers more as the readers are the people to tell you the book is good.

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    1. You are right in some point of view. What's most important is to give the readers what you want in the way you want. And you can never know where's the trap or where's the gold idea. The fact is that you have to be exprienced in the structures. "Know the rules, then break them."

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  13. Great post. I always begin with the ending.

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  14. This is far beyond fantastic. Going through a lot of my novels I realize that a lot of it isn't as strong as I thought and this truly helped with my upcoming Halloween novel

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  15. I just read another great article which says something very similar yours. Beginning with the end in mind and laying the foundations for that beautiful, circular closure is part of what makes writing so engaging for me. It makes for engaging reading as well. You've just convinced me that in my next re-write I should consider writing the opening chapter from my main protagonist's p.o.v. Here's hoping it strengthens the opening. Thanks for the brilliant post!

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