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Writing Creative Nonfiction: Beginning and Ending

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August 2012
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By Dave Hood

The most important sentence is often the first one. It is often called the hook or lead.  If it doesn’t inspire the reader to proceed to the second sentence, and then the third….your personal essay, or memoir, or any other form of creative writing is dead. That is what William Zinsser tells us in “On Writing Well”, a how-to guide for writing creative nonfiction.

Your opening must capture the reader’s attention and motivate them to read your entire piece of writing. You do this by writing a compelling lead, opening, or entry point.

There are many ways to create an entry point, or lead, or beginning for a piece of creative nonfiction. One way is to just begin “telling the story.” Sometimes writers begin with a “quotation” or “interesting fact.” Another way is to ask a question. For instance: More than 20 million people have purchased Fifty Shades of Gray. What does this suggest about women?

And once you’ve written your piece of creative nonfiction, you must end with a bang.  Otherwise, the reader is inclined to be disappointed. The lousy ending is like a film that ends poorly. And so, you’ll want to end with a one final point, which the reader can take away and ponder.

In this article, I’ll discuss the following:

  • How to write an opening or lead or entry point into a story
  • How to end a piece of creative nonfiction

Writing an Opening

As mentioned in the introduction, there are many ways to begin writing a piece of creative nonfiction. Some writers begin by telling a story. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell did when he wrote “Slackers” for the New Yorker magazine. (July 30th, 2012)

William Zinsser, author of the splendid writing-advice book, “On Writing Well”, identifies a few other ways. You can begin with:

  • A question
  • A quotation
  • A fascinating fact
  • An Anecdote

Laurie Oliver, author of the how-to book, “The Story Within,”  identifies many other ways to begin:

  • With a list
  • With a memory
  • With a scene
  • With a reminiscence
  • With a reflection
  • With an assertion
  • With a diagnosis
  • With a general statement

One of the simplest ways to begin is by asking a question. For instance, what made Andy Warhol a fascinating artist? What was his contribution to the world of art?

Another easy way to begin is with a list. For example, here are the reasons why I write…

Another is to begin with a quotation. For instance, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”—St. Augustine.

An interesting fact can also introduce a good piece of creative writing. Writer David Remnick, the author of the profile “We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two” (July 30th, 2012) begins with an interesting fact:

Nearly half a century ago, when Elvis Presley was filming “Harum Scarum and “Help!” was on the charts, a moody, father-haunted, yet uncannily charismatic Shore rat named Bruce Springsteen was building a small reputation around New Jersey as a guitar player in a band called the Castiles.

Usually, the form of creative nonfiction you are sitting down to write will define the how to begin. For instance, a personal-narrative essay will usually begin at the beginning of the story. A meditative essay often begins with a question. For instance, What is the meaning of life? A travel essay can begin with a memorable scene. A literary journalism essay often begins with an interesting fact, generalization, assertion.

Writing the Ending

Writing a good ending is as important as writing a compelling opening. You need to know when to end and how to end a story. You should give as much thought to your ending as your opening. That is what William Zinsser tells us. There are several ways to end. The personal narrative usually ends when the story ends, often with some epiphany. Some writer’s end by referring back to the beginning of the story.  If your entry point into the essay is a question, then you can end with one final answer. Many writer’s end with a final quote.

In the essay, “Slackers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he ends with the following quote: “None of the doctors who treated me, and none of the experts I’ve consulted since the day I collapsed, have ever heard of anybody being gone for than long and coming back to full health,” he writes. He was back on the track nine days later.

David Remnick, author of “We Are Alive”, ends with the following quote: Springsteen glanced at the step and stepped into the spotlight. “Hola, Barcelona!” he cried out to a sea of forty-five thousand people. “Hola, Catalunya!”

Other ways to end are to make a judgement or recommendation or share an insight.

In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser makes a few suggestions about ending a piece of creative nonfiction:

  1. “When you are ready to stop, stop. In other words, don’t write too much.”
  2. “The positive reason for ending well is that a good last sentence–or last paragraph, is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.”
  3. “The perfect ending should take the reader slightly by surprise.”
  4. “What usually works best is a quotation.”

Zinsser also tells us not to end by summarizing. For instance: “In summary…or “To conclude…”

Why? A summary is repeating yourself by compressing details that were already shared with the reader. Instead, you ought to make one final point that resonates in the mind of the reader.

There are no rules on how to end, only suggestions. It is up to the writer to decide how to begin and how best to end a piece of writing. Whatever methods you choose, be sure to capture your reader’s attention when you begin. A good beginning draws your readers into the writing like a magnet.  And end your work with some important final point. A good final point is like a knockout punch.

Resources

  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Story Within: New Insights and Inspirations for Writers by Laura Oliver
  • The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction by Francis Flaherty
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1 Comment

  1. Jane says:

    Lots of good suggestions and recommendations. Lee Gutkind (the Godfather of creative non-fiction) has just published a new book that touches on the subject of memoir writing http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0080K3CHA/ref=docs-os-doi_0 I just purchased it and can’t wait to dig in. Jane

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