|A story can be circular.|
Strong stories have a distinct beginning (introducing the main character and problem), middle (where the character tries to solve the problem), and end (where the character succeeds or fails, and possibly learns a lesson).
A story can feel especially satisfying if the end clearly echoes the beginning. Perhaps a character has gone on a journey, and at the end he returns home. Maybe she starts by struggling with some physical task, like hitting a baseball, and at the end she succeeds. Or he’s resisting a change, such as a new sibling, and the story ends with them connecting.
When the final setting or situation is similar to the opening, creating “bookends” to the middle, the pattern feels satisfying. It also ensures that the story is tied together and hasn’t wandered off on tangents.
Carolyn Meyer often uses a prologue and epilogue as bookends for her historical fiction. Cleopatra Confesses (Simon & Schuster) includes a prologue where Cleopatra hears that her enemy, Octavian, is at the gates of Alexandria. The body of the novel shows her remembering her life as she waits. In the Epilogue, Octavian has arrived, demanding her surrender.
An Echo, Not a Copy
While the ending echoes the beginning, it shouldn’t duplicate it. With a few exceptions, a story requires change. Quite likely, a problem has been solved. Hopefully, the main character has grown. The traveler returns with a new appreciation for his home. The girl who thought hitting a baseball was impossible is satisfied with her progress. The boy who wanted nothing to do with the new baby appreciates the advantage of having a sibling. They haven’t just solved the problem; they’ve changed how they feel about the situation.
Bookend scenes may illustrate the changes by using a scene or language similar to, but slightly different from, the opening. If you open with a girl trying to hit a baseball, close with her back at the same park, swinging at a baseball again. Try making the circumstances as similar as possible, with the same weather and other characters present.
The bookend format doesn’t work if you end at a different point, such as with the character at home telling her parents what happened, even if the problem was solved in the same way. You want the echo of a similar scene. This can help you figure out where to end, so you don’t stop too early or drag on too long.
You can also experiment with using similar language, with small shifts to show what’s changed. In the opening scene of Uma Krishnaswami’s The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (Atheneum), the narrative reads, “Two happy sighs float off the couch....” Of course, something quickly intrudes on this happiness. But after a madcap adventure, the narrative concludes, “There are many kinds of sighs. The one Dini sighs now is wrapped in contentment.”
Nonfiction and Art Bookends
Bookends can work with all kinds of writing, including nonfiction. In Jennifer McKerley’s early reader Amazing Armadillos (Random House), the book begins and ends at the same point in the yearly cycle of the armadillo’s life, but with a twist. The beginning features an adult armadillo, while the end shows her pups in the same situation.
Shirley Raye Redmond’s Pup’s Prairie Home (Picture Window Books) starts with the lines, “Pup and his mom lived in a prairie dog town. Their home was a deep dark hole in the ground.” Although his mother insists this is the best place for him, Pup wants a more exciting home. He changes his mind after a close call with a hawk and ends by saying, “A deep, dark hole is the best home for a prairie dog pup like me.”
Illustrators can use bookends as well. In Robin Koontz’s wordless picture book Dinosaur Dream (Putnam Juvenile), the story begins and ends with the child sleeping in bed, framing the dream adventure with dinosaurs.
Using bookend scenes is one form of showing rather than telling. The reader can see how things have changed, and whether or not the change has satisfied the main character. This typically suggests the theme, so you don’t need to explicitly point out the lesson learned.
Bookends aren’t necessary for every story, but by thinking about bookends, you may find a natural ending point for your story. Don’t end too early, before you’ve had a chance to echo the beginning. And don’t go on too long, traveling past the natural bookend. With bookends, you can illustrate the change in the character or situation subtly but clearly, while using a repetition pattern that’s especially appealing to children.
Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs.
Chris's writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.