A while ago, I learned about the Hero’s Journey archetype for stories. I’m not going to glorify it or condemn it here, but one thing that struck me was the way things came around in a full circle. The first scene was mirrored in the last scene, contrasting what was lost and what was gained, showing the character’s growth through the story. Not only that, it made things feel resolved— everything is as it should be.
Thrilled with that concept, I used it in my 2013 NaNoNovel Stakes, mirroring the first and last scenes so they wrapped up well. I really enjoyed doing it, and I think it turned out well. I did the same in my last episode of Phil Phorce, which you can still read on the blog, with a soap fight. I had a lot of fun with that too. However, I discarded the technique for Desolation, Gifts of Rith, and Lend Me Your Ears. Desolation begins with the main character running from a giant beast, which is eventually destroyed and thus unavailable for the denouement. Similarly, Gifts and Ears begin with battles, which cannot be replicated at the end. All three began with battles and action— Phil Phorce and Stakes began with calmer scenes to introduce people, then ended with calmer scenes to wrap everything up, like bookends.
However, beginning those other three novels with action was imperative. None had plots that would benefit from a calm beginning— to get the correct feel of the story in the beginning chapters meant starting with a bang. However, that hook meant bookends wouldn’t work.
Obviously, both are viable options, and necessary for different types of stories. But what are the advantages and disadvantages? How do you make each work, and when should you use them?
Advantages and disadvantages are easiest to spot, I think. The bookend style, as stated, creates a sense of fulfillment as the beginning is mirrored in the end. It has come full circle, the main character has grown, and the statis quo is restored. Just as the calm beginning allowed characters and conflicts to be introduced in their own time, the calm ending allows the emotions to wind down and final conflicts to be resolved. It allows for reflection on the greater theme of the story. It gives time to end the book firmly and decisively, but having fulfilled all the right promises.
The hook often destroys that possibility. If you’re writing a series, perhaps you can have another giant beast appear and begin chasing your hero around, just as it happened in the first scene of the novel; but if you’re writing a stand-alone, that isn’t what you want. Indeed, in most stories, the denouement will be slower than the rest of the book, time to reflect on everything that happened in exactly the same way as the bookend technique allows you to do. The only difference is that the story began with action. You’re going to have to cast a little further to find a setting for the scene that will feel natural and promise-fulfilling, instead of promising something else or fulfilling a promise you didn’t make. In fact, instead of relying on parallelism as you would with the bookend technique, you’re going to rely on fulfilling promises more intentionally.
Since stories are, in essence, a chronicle of things being in motion or out of balance, the denouement is going to show things being back in balance. Using the MICE quotient, for instance, a Milieu story (showing off the setting, usually by a journey) begins with the characters leaving their home on a journey, and ends with them coming back. The characters are in motion for most of the book, but the denouement comes when they return home. An Idea story (exploring an idea) ends with the idea being implemented as a part of daily life, or else showing how it changes daily life. The main character doesn’t know how something works for most of the book, but eventually figures it out— how has that changed them, or their life? A Character story (a character setting out to change their station in life) ends with either the character settling back into the old way of things, content, or the character settling into the new way of things. The Event story (a big problem arises) begins with the big problem happening (the hook) and ends with the results of the solution being shown. Has everything about this been solved, or is there more to do? How is the main character recognized for their efforts?
Not everything falls neatly into the MICE quotient, however. The denouement is going to be different based on what you promised and what story lines you decided to use. Occasionally it will be the awards ceremony where Han Solo and Luke Skywalker get medals and wink at princesses. Other times, it will bookend nicely into parallelism, just waiting for a literary analysis class to pick apart all its metaphors and grand themes. However, this is not something you can dash off the same way every time— nor can you hope to do a bookend technique in a thriller. Make sure your ending is well thought-out, so you leave a good taste in the audience’s mouth.