Where Did January Go? (A reflection on the end of the beginning….in fiction)

the-end-2-1327659-mJanuary 31st seems like a good day to reflect on those moments in fiction that constitute the end of the beginning….

For me, the best fiction is that which throws, early on, a protagonist that we know something (but not too crazy much) about into a crisis. That’s the beginning that eventually must end: the big turning point AS a turning point, as something new and different. The beginning is a crisis situation (or at least, a situation that constitutes a substantial change from what was before) as a crisis rather than a “new normal.”

The end of the beginning is usually a crucial part of the rising action in fiction. It’s that moment when a character rises to the challenge the crisis represents or accepts the changes that have occurred, and from there, can go about becoming master of his or her life.

You can mark “the end of the beginning” in a few ways:

  • There is a change of tone and perhaps of pace. Things settle down. They feel a bit calmer, maybe even slower.
  • Characters’ actions shift from being reactive and responsive (to the crisis or change) to being proactive (taking steps to get ahead or to initiate a new pattern of change). This doesn’t happen all at once; it might be a gradual shift, as some actions may still be reactive. But that change to proactivity happens. And it starts to be noticeable.
  • It’s a great moment for an epiphany or revelation… For a determination to better oneself, or act differently, or to consciously make adjustments.

CRISIS EXAMPLE: LES MISERABLES

“Les Miserables” is my favorite book of all time, so of course, I have to use it here :-)

The opening of the book gives you background on the Bishop of D—, to set the reader up to understand who he is as he interacts with Jean Valjean. I’ve always found it interesting that that interaction, so pivotal in Valjean’s life, the spark that ignites a desire for love and salvation in his existence, can be seen (for the bishop) to be just a normal day, one work of mercy and love among many.

We learn that Valjean has been released from jail on parole. The only person who will give him a place to stay is the Bishop of D—. Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and flees, but is caught. Then….

The bishop tells the police he gave the silver to Valjean. He tells Valjean that he forgot the candlesticks, and gives him a pair of silver candlesticks as well. The police let him go, and the bishop tells him to “use this silver to become an honest man.” He says he has bought Valjean’s soul for God.

Valjean has a couple of crises: his newfound freedom, his arrest, the bishop’s pardon. And he needs a while to understand what he is called to, what his life can become. He robs a boy on the road before…. at the end of the beginning…. he breaks down in tears and repentance and determines he will change his life. That he will not steal again.

EXAMPLE OF SIMPLE CHANGE: DON QUIXOTE

Don Quixote leaves home determined to be a knight…. in an era where knights are no more. He is excited, until he remembers, “I haven’t been knighted. I need someone to knight me before I can use arms and practice chivalry.”

So, after a series of hijinx he gets an innkeeper, the “steward of a castle,” to knight him. Once knighted, Don Quixote’s purpose changes: he no longer has to worry about becoming knighted. He longer has to respond to that situation of being unable to act as a knight would. He can now chart his own course and go where he will, living the code of chivalry as he sees fit. And that is exactly what he does, determining to return home to get money and necessities (and to procure his neighbor Sancho as his squire) before setting off.

In this case, Don Quixote does not accept or adapt to the crisis. He solves it. He solves it becoming knighted. That is another way to “end” the beginning, and that is why I call his situation “change” rather than “crisis.” The crisis ends. After the “beginning,” it no longer exists.

NOT ALWAYS LIMITED TO THE START OF A NOVEL

You can have various “beginnings” with their “ends” throughout a novel: especially a long and complex one such as “Gone with the Wind.”

In some way, each new crisis or setback characters face is a new beginning that, at some point, needs its “end.” The burning of Atlanta in the middle of “Gone with the Wind” is such a crisis. It changes everything about the life Scarlett knew. And she finds her “end” to this new beginning when, after reacting to the situation by fleeing Atlanta with Melanie and the baby, by returning home, and by doing what she can to establish what basic stability she can, she determines (famously) that “With God as my witness, I will never go hungry again.”

That end of the beginning is pivotal for her character. It hardens her. It is a moment of taking charge of her life with a stated aim that determines all her future actions in the book.

So, what are your thoughts on this? Do your characters have ends to their beginnings? Do you have an example from a favorite book, or a moment in film that constitutes such an end, an adjustment to and an acceptance of circumstance that shifts a character from REACTING to ACTING AS HIS OR HER OWN PERSON?