BE MY GUEST: How To Write Gripping Openings & Endings By Dan Coxon

Before I hand it over to Dan who tells his viewpoint on this topic as an “author”, I cannot resist but tell my opinion as well, being an eclectic reader.

Here are my two-cents as a reader and reviewer of books:
Whenever I read a story, be it short story, a novella/novel or even non-fiction like memoir or say travel book (Yes, I do like to read a variety of genres!), the first thing that I judge as a reviewer is: was the writer able to pull me in the story from the very first chapter? In fact, I can gauge from the opening lines or sometimes by reading first few paragraphs of the book, that whether the story is going to be engaging or not (with few exceptions of course, where the story does get interesting after a slow start!).

That being said, when I am nearing the finishing chapters, I am always intrigued and desperate to find out as to how the writer put all the strings of the story together and gives a coherent and satisfying resolution. For example, in most of chick-lit, it is simple stuff like: was the girl able to establish her own career and be independent? Was the boy successful in winning over the girl? Will she choose guy A or B?

In a memoir, it depends mostly on which phase of writer’s life is emphasized and at which stage is the writer going to finish it? (Read “Unimagined” to know what I am talking about!) If it is theme based, then I want to know the stance of the writer, which side is he/she taking? What is his/her opinion? How he/she perceives that topic/phenomena/dilemma? The perfect example could be Caitlin’s book, “How to be a woman” or “The Funny Thing Is…” by Ellen Degeneres.

Okay, so that was how I felt on writing the first and the last lines of a book, needless to say, a very subjective opinion as I am not the expert writer who knows all the tricks of the trade. I felt it was important to share my thoughts so the readers of my blog can get a full picture: from a book reader’s viewpoint as well as from a book writer’s viewpoint.

So, now let’s move on to Dan who is not only the author of travel stories but also has a wide experience of writing on variety of subjects, which means he knows what he is talking about! Over to you, Dan! 

Guest Post:
How to give your stories gripping Openings and Endings 

By Dan Coxon 
How to give a gripping opening:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

“Call me Ishmael.”

We’re all aware of the great opening lines of classic literature, and at times my family used to turn it into a guessing game at holiday gatherings (for the record, the origins of the four openings above are as follows: Pride and Prejudice, 1984, Lolita, Moby-Dick). It’s a well-known truth that books can stand or fail on the quality of their opening, and a strong beginning acts as a promise to the reader that we’re in safe hands, that this writer knows how to reel us in and keep us guessing.

My personal favourite comes from Iain Banks’ The Crow Road: “It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.” Who wouldn’t want to read more of that? 

Giving your own stories – either fiction or non-fiction – this kind of gripping opening isn’t quite as easy, however. We all know that we should start with something intriguing, something that compels the reader to read on, but that’s harder than it sounds. As always, the best idea is to learn from the classics.

If you look at the examples above, they all pose questions and puzzles that will be answered during the course of the story: Why did his grandmother explode? Is it really a ‘truth universally acknowledged’ that a man must want a wife? Why are the clocks striking thirteen? Try to include an element of mystery in your opening and the reader will want to continue with it – if only to discover where you’re heading.

Strong openings rely on more than just a single line, however, and if you want your story to truly grip the reader then you’ll want to think long and hard about your opening page, or pages. You’ll want these pages to immediately give your readers an impression of the world the story inhabits: the kind of story it is, where it takes place, who the main characters are.

If you read beyond that curt opening line of Moby-Dick you’ll find that Melville quickly tells us that his narrator is a seafaring man, and a philosophical one at that. We already know that this will be a book about the sea, and that its narrator will sometimes be given to philosophical asides.

We also come to realise that Ishmael feels compelled to take to the sea, and it’s this concept of compulsion and obsession that drives the rest of the novel. We would do well to learn from Melville here. Not only is it important to set the scene and the characters in the opening pages, but you’ll want to set the tone and the themes too.

If you’re writing a memoir about growing up in China, then you’ll want to make that clear to the reader from the outset; but you’ll also want to hint at your future themes too, such as the interplay of foreign cultures, or the difficulties facing a Westerner in an unfamiliar culture.

One of the ways to achieve this is to think of your opening as posing a question, and I’m not just talking about the mysteries posed by the opening line. The first few pages of your book should set up the theme for your story, and if this isn’t already clear in your mind you should give it some thought. It can be as complex as ‘How can mankind live together in peace’, or as simple as ‘Will our heroine find love’ (Jane Austen uses that one quite a lot). 

Depending on the length of your story, you’ll want to have at least a couple of questions posed at the start, and identifying what they are can help you plan and structure the rest of the story too. You don’t have to explicitly ask them (although you can), but you should drop hints for your readers so that they recognize your theme and can become engaged with it.

How to give a gripping ending: 

Of course, the joy of setting questions is that they lead you to answers, and it’s here that the gripping ending comes into play. If you’ve done your job well, and posed questions at the start of your story, then you’ll want to make sure that you wrap them up at the end too. Usually this will involve your protagonist undergoing a number of ordeals and adventures, then returning to the setting or outlook that you used in the opening – but with some new information or self-knowledge.

To use a simplistic example from modern storytelling, The Lord of the Rings trilogy opens with the question “Can a small, unassuming person conquer evil?”, and the answer at the end is “Yes he can – but only with a little help from his friends”.

If you’re struggling to find a satisfactory ending to your story it’s worth going back to the questions you posed at the beginning, and making sure that they’ve all been answered. Naturally, you won’t want to spell the answer out for the reader (they should have to work a little too, after all), but if you haven’t tied up all the themes of your story then the reader will usually feel that the story is unresolved or unsatisfying. They’ll be looking for a resolution – even if it isn’t the one they expected at the story’s outset. (In fact, especially if it’s not the resolution they expected – there’s nothing more satisfying than a story that surprises us).

There’s far more to writing than this, but if you can bear in mind these techniques then you should at least have something to draw the reader in, and leave them satisfied after they turn the final page. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

Note from Dan: The ideas used here are drawn in part from Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers. If you don’t already own a copy, you may want to invest in one!

About the Author:

Dan Coxon has recently moved to the Pacific Northwest, having spent ten years living in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the author of Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand and The Wee Book Of Scotland, and he currently works as the Seattle Editor for CultureMob.com, while also contributing to The Nervous Breakdownand Spike. His fiction has appeared in the anthology Late-Night River Lights, and in numerous small press magazines and journals. To know more about him and his writing, visit his website, http://dancoxon.com/ or read my exclusive interview with him as we talk about writing, travel places and more! To read this interview, simply click here. 

About the Book: 

The New Zealand All Blacks are one of the most recognisable team franchises in modern sport, and their performance of the Ka Mate haka prior to international matches is known across the globe. But how many of us know anything about the Maori people to whom this haka belongs?

Ka Mate: Travels In New Zealand takes us on a three month journey around New Zealand, through the vineyards, over the glaciers, and across the fields of boiling mud. Freelance journalist and writer Dan Coxon does more than simply entertain us with anecdotes of his travels: he unravels New Zealand's complex history of migration and settlement, and reveals an intriguing story of British colonisation that still has repercussions today. Plus there's time for a rugby match or two along the way.

To buy his book, “Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand” on Amazon, click here

To read my detailed review of this book, click here. 

International Giveaway!!! 

Open till 11th March, 2012 

Prize: “Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand” E-Book to FOUR lucky winners!!! 

To enter, just write a genuine comment on this article. 
Yes, it's that easy!!! :)
If you are a writer, share how important you find the openings and endings of a book and what are your tips to make those interesting for the reader. If you are a book reader, tell which book made an impression on you because of its engaging beginning lines or a surprise ending. Share what you feel on this topic. After the comment, please leave your name and valid e-mail address so I can contact you if you are one of the FOUR lucky winners. 

You do not have to be a follower to participate, share this giveaway through Facebook or Twitter, it will be highly appreciated. Thanks so much! So write your comment and get a chance to win this fantastic travel book! 

Good Luck Everyone! :-)

Only the genuine comments will be published and counted for the entries. The winners will be chosen through Random.org. They will be notified by e-mail. A BIG thanks to Dan for providing four copies of his e-book for this giveaway!


  1. Iian Banks opening is powerful--a sort of more fleshed out Camus first line from The Stranger: "Maman died today."
    As far as novel endings, I always rejoice when the end comes to me early-ish on. It serves as a beacon for charging ahead with more focus.

    1. Great thoughts! I hear you on early outcome of a story. I like books with unpredictable endings.

  2. I liked the part about end with the answer from the opening statements or questions. "Call me Ishmael" is answered at the end of the book and tells us why and what he is. My granddaughter called me one day to ask me the opening of Moby Dick because she was talking to her father about the book and they could not remember the opening words. Good blog.

    1. Yes, both books have classic opening lines. Its strange how we remember a book just because some of its lines carve such a great impression on our minds. I have to say 1984 is one such book.

      Thanks for liking my blog!:)

  3. What makes a great start to any book is the first line should be a quotefrom a character in the book.A quote will lead you right inside a character's heart

    1. You have made a good point. It is right that dialogues let you straight in the head of the character, it can be true for lots of stories but maybe not all.

      I read in one of the books on writing that a good story starts "in the middle of the things". So, if the reader starts to wonder "what happens next" or "who is that character" or "what is this character upto", it means the writer is successful in hooking the reader into the story!

      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Excellent information and loved all your views.

    Thank you

    Jennifer Garcia


  5. I'm a big Austen fan... P & P is one of my favorites so that opening line is perfect.

    Thanks for the advice and ideas.

    Jennifer Garcia


  6. I'm a particular fan of travel memoirs and even memoirs in general. I love travel and have traveled a lot as well as through various jobs I've had in the tourist industry. Also I've always said that everyone has a story to tell. I enjoyed this post! Lots of interesting and helpful tips. Who knows maybe one day I'll turn those travel journals which are collecting dust into a book lol!

    New Zealand being a country I have not travel to I would love to read this! Thanks!


  7. As a narrative travel author, I realize the importance of openings and closings. I always want to stir up curiosity with my opening, and leave the reader inspired with my closing, so that the atmosphere and message of the story stay in their heart. A great post, and I love the examples of famous openings and closings!

  8. My favorite openings are from Austen and Dickens, particularly 'A Christmas Carol':

    "Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that...Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

    Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail..."

    I first heard this when I was 7 or 8, and appreciated it even then. :-) Thank you for the lovely blog post.

    jcsites2002 at hotmail dot com

  9. Very good article. Congratulations.

  10. I agree with the fact that it takes more than a good sentance to make a good opening. I don't know how it is for others but I prefer if the narrative goes straight to the story without too much descriptions.

    my favorite opening line is "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”


  11. What a fascinating post! Opening lines are so interesting to compare. I love the game Dan's family played at holidays about guessing the opening lines. I do judge a book by the first chapter. Lots to think about!

    GFC: Old follower (Jessica Haight/DMS- it changes bc of Google)
    haightjess at gmail dot com

  12. Thanks to all the commentators for sharing their views and opinions. I enjoyed reading all your comments as much as Dan's article itself! :)


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