As you probably know, both the beginning AND end of a story can make or break the whole work. Whoever famously said “First impressions are everything” should have added: “But last impressions are everything else.” Just as frustratingly, the two can be much easier to get wrong than to get right. However, we learn from the best around here.
First, it’s good to understand the kinds of openers: Right after an important event, in the middle of an important event, right before an important event, or to begin when nothing’s happening. Those four criteria pretty much describe the beginning of every great story. The first three can set up some very interesting (and easy to make) beginnings, just enough to get the reader hooked.
If you choose to set your story right after an important event, the event should be slightly in the dark. The event should also be one of the most important things in the story, particularly to the main character. It helps if the event is the death of a loved one or the collapsing of an enterprise or a jailing, because these can all be personally tied to the main character in emotional ways. Since you’re basically riding around in the main character’s head most of the time, you want to make the setting-the-scenes event to be paramount in influence. Make it good and important, and make the entire story rest on it. Keep it in the dark at first, and reveal it as a shock to the reader in time.
If you choose to set the story right before an important event, one good rule of thumb is to establish all important characters. To put it this way: any character who is going to have significant impact in the story should be introduced BEFORE this event. Make sure all things around the main character are square and settled. If your main character has an adverse relation with his/her parents, BEFORE the aliens invade is a good time to mention that. One other tip: always hint at the coming calamity. It’d be cool to put a “prophet” character in there to warn people, or whatever. Always give your reader a hint though, so that you can draw them in. Other than that, starting before an important event can be very easy and very instrumental.
Starting during an important event is trickier than the last two. Unlike starting before, you don’t get a chance to mention all of the important details and characters, and unlike starting afterwards you’re not allowed to keep it totally in the dark. However, there’s a solution to this: when the story starts in the middle of the important event, give your readers, and the main character, only part of the story. Keep the main character in the dark about most of his super-important spy-op that went sideways, and, by extension, you’ll keep the reader in the dark as well. This way, you adopt elements of the first criteria while using pieces from the second: Explain all of the one, individual part in the story that the reader sees, and then establish characters immediately afterward. Then, you can begin to unfold the story of what REALLY happened in the beginning.
Beginning with nothing happening? That’s difficult, and kind of lame. If nothing happens until the end of the story, your readers are gonna quit on you before then. This has been used in a few good stories, but usually those kind were entitled like “The adventures of so-and-so” or “The merry exploits of what’s-his-face” and are less entertaining than a full tale in a novel. If you try this, make it sort of a prolonged event-after-the-beginning with extra hints. Other than that, try making a series of mini-adventures for your characters in your book.
The Greeks had a way of defining a story by its beginning. That’s powerful, given they could have classified it by the beginning. There are two main types of endings: Comedies and Tragedies. Every story that has ever been invented by mankind has an ending that is classified into one of these two groups.
By Comedy, I don’t mean ha-ha-very-funny comedy, I mean when the story has a “happy ending”. When the villain is defeated and the good guy is still intact and most of his friends still are, then we might call that a Comedy. A Tragedy occurs when the story is resolves but a terrible travesty has occurred: The hero has died, the hero’s best friend has died, their city has been blown up, whatever. These can both be used in equal greatness.
A Comedy is easy to use: a classic ending is to kill or jail the villain, square away any emotional conflicts, and marry the main character. There are multiple variations to this. A comedy may leave some threads untied for the sequel, but make sure the reader ends with a sense of “at least for now, the day is saved”. Make sure to address everyone to played a main role and dish out to them good or evil, depending on what they deserve. Think: “How would my main character like to resolve the problem?”
The Tragedy is trickier. A lot of times, it can just come off as sappy nonsense and annoy the reader. When done right, however, you can give the reader a good appreciation of the story and leave good room for a sequel. First of all: think twice before you decide to end it as a tragedy. If your story is flying high and the defeating of the villain is going smooth, DON’T just overturn the tables and kill the hero in a car crash just because you want to end it sadly. Plan up to that: use the elements of the situation to your advantage. End it gradually and give your reader a sense of the inevitable. Secondly: You may not want to kill off the main character. While it may make sense to kill the main character, it may make MORE sense to kill someone else, say, the best friend or mentor or girlfriend or spouse of the main character. Choose judiciously, and choose a likable character to get rid of. This makes a good tragedy.
So, treat the endings of your stories as important as the beginnings thereof. Okay, I’m coining this quote NOW: “Last impressions are everything.”
Good luck, and happy writing!