There are more than enough online guides about “How To Begin Your Novel” or “How To End It”. Yet ne’er the twain shall meet, right?
I mean: beginnings and endings require separate treatment, as distinct, unconnected problems or pleasures, yeah?
Some will argue that a book’s beginning and ending are bound to be different. Two extremes of a story, polar opposites, poles apart with a long journey in between.
What happens when you have the opposite – where the ending deliberately echoes the beginning? Not necessarily ending up in the exact same time or place (as it were), yet still with a sort of underlying symmetry?
Movies and music often make connections between their beginnings and endings – connections that are sometimes subtle, almost subconscious, or other times more explicit – so why can’t novels too? Let’s get rough with the analogies…
1. Film endings
Baltimore filmmaker Jacob Swinney has taken 55 movies, mostly from Hollywood, and edited together each one’s first and last frames in order to compare them side by side. It’s a mesmerising montage: watch, enjoy, analyse.
Some end shots are vastly different from their opening shots. Others are strikingly similar – some directors even use a virtually identical shot.
What does this “Make the end like the start” thing signify? What is the director or film editor trying to convey? Our compulsion for narratives to be neat and tidy and tie up loose ends? Or does it make us look anew at the same thing to reveal an uneasy symmetry, a lack of progress rather than order restored?
(I won’t answer all that here. Whaddya want? Narrative closure?)
2. Music endings
Or how about music? I don’t mean to generalise and make it seem all Mills & Boony, but Western music does have this fierce inclination for sweet happy endings.
There is even an oft used technique called the Picardy third, aka the “happy third”, to do this very thing.
Picture the scene: your tune is loitering around in what might be called a modal (moody) or minor (sad) key. Sad sad sad sad relentlessly sad sad sad more sad. Then at the final bar it switches to one last chord or tonic, and it’s… a major! The Picardy third has done its job, everything is resolved, happy ever after.
How strange the change from, er, minor to major. That final chord or note signals the musical equivalent of “Reader, I married him.”
So that’s the Picardy third, and in the first book of JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, 23 out of the 24 movements end in one. You can fast-forward through this rather breakneck rendition of BWV 847 to about 2:40 to catch its Picardy third ending…
Picardy thirds aren’t just confined to the end of a piece, but that’s where they often make the greatest impact.
Once you know what they are, you begin to notice Picardy thirds everywhere, from Bach to the Beatles. The Fab Four were big fans of it in their early recordings such as “A Taste Of Honey” and “I’ll Be Back”.
“And I Love Her” has a dramatic Picardy third type thing going on, right through to the dramatic final guitar chord strum thing at the end.
Elvis Costello also plays with Picardy third type minor-to-major techniques, such as in the “I know” refrain at the end of “Accidents Will Happen”.
3. Mad and bad endings
Now, what’s the opposite of the Picardy third? How about the “Last Note Nightmare”? TV Tropes has an excellent definition of this:
So you’re listening to a nice, pleasant song about bunnies and rainbows and running in the rain with your best girl by your side. Then the final note of the song falls and, instead of a nice soft, resolution, it’s a heavily played Sting note in a minor Scare Chord. Then the music fades into a series of dissonant arpeggios with a creepy mechanical voice muttering some nonsensical gibberish that sounds like Satan reciting an Edgar Allan Poe story…
Spot on. And what about – I don’t know any technical term for this – the sudden cut-off ending? Again using Beatles examples, “Her Majesty” from the Abbey Road album ends on what by rights is the “penultimate” note, if you know what I mean.
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” on the same album does a similar trick – it doesn’t so much end as cut off off bang in the middle of that last note, as if somebody has pulled the plug in the recording studio. It’s a jarring, disturbing effect.
4. The fade-out or fade-in
Film and music share another device for endings: the fade-out. While it’s commonplace today, imagine how audiences would have reacted to a musical fade-out in an era before widespread recorded sound.
I’ve come across one such example: Holst stipulated at the end of the orchestral score for the “Neptune” movement in his “Planets” suite that the women’s choruses were
…to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed”, and that “the final bar (scored for choruses alone) was “to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.
Fade-outs soon became a common cinematic device to make a scene end. Jazz recordings began to do the same around the same time. Maybe the technique cross-pollinated between film language and music; which came first is anyone’s guess.
The reverse effect, the fade-in, is far less common in music. People are still arguing about whether The Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” or The Supremes’ “Come See About Me” did the first fade-in on a single. They are both from 1964 but I bet there’s something older out there.
In the 1960s there was also a fad for songs not just to fade out but to fade back in again, such as in the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds”.
5. Back to book ends
So what does this all have to do with how a book begins and ends?
- A book’s ending can echo or mirror the beginning.
- Or it can be the diametrical opposite.
- It could try a Picardy third type twist for a sudden happy ending.
- Or do the literary equivalent of a “Last Note Nightmare”.
- Or suddenly cut off, deliberately leaving readers in the lurch.
- It might fade in at the beginning, or fade out at the end.
- Or have a false ending.
Must give that lot a whirl. Which reminds me. “Suspicious Minds”? Smart title. Bet it’s been used for hundreds of books already though.