[Note: The following is an edited transcript from a talk at the 2001 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. It first appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Nieman Reports.]
The ending is something special. The ending is the last word. It’s the writer’s final chance to nail his or her point home to the memory of the reader. It’s the moment when you give the reader something to take away from the story and think about or when you fail to achieve that.
Every story has to arrive at a destination as well. That’s the whole point of the story, to get to that destination. Yet in all the years I’ve been attending writer’s conferences and speaking at them, I’ve never seen a workshop on endings. I’m not quite sure why that is.
Judging from the way most nonfiction reads, especially in newspapers, this is something we could use some help on, most of us. Most newspaper stories just dribble pitifully to an end. Often they really don’t have endings at all. And newspaper people seem to be the only ones who have this fundamental problem with understanding that endings are important and figuring out how to make them work. Or if they get it, they don’t seem to practice it. And the reason for this is pretty obvious: the inverted pyramid.
The inverted pyramid makes endings impossible. You simply can’t have an ending in an inverted pyramid. You have to order your information most important and most interesting first. The story becomes progressively less interesting and less important as you go along. The theory is that we must do this because people don’t read to the end. Well, of course they don’t! It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We teach readers not to read to the end of newspaper stories.
There are a number of things that the inverted pyramid makes impossible. One of them is drama and suspense. You can’t have drama and suspense if you order your information in its order of importance. Drama and suspense have to do with chronology. The inverted pyramid is one of the reasons why the world is so incredibly interesting until you read about it in the newspaper. It makes things boring. It makes things dull.
A good ending absolutely, positively, must do three things at a minimum. It must tell the reader the story is over. Must do that. It also needs to nail the central point of the story to the reader’s mind. You have to be leaving him with the thought you want him to be taking away from the story. And it should resonate, it really should. You should hear it echoing in your head when you put the paper down, when you turn the page. It shouldn’t just end and have a central point. It should stay with you and make you think a little bit.
The very best endings do something in addition to that. They surprise you a little. There’s a kind of twist to them that’s unexpected. And yet when you think about it for a second, you realize it’s exactly right.
I want to talk about a couple of the special problems of ending pure narratives. Real stories. Pieces that are stories in the true sense of the word. Character, problem, struggle, resolution. Every true tale as opposed to an article has the same underlying structure, whether it’s written by Shakespeare or Tracy Kidder. It doesn’t matter. It has the same basic underlying structure. Character. Character has a problem. He struggles with a problem. Most of the piece is about the struggle, and then you get a resolution in the end in which the character overcomes the problem or is defeated by it. Or sometimes is merely changed by it in some way, which gives us this necessary resolution at the end.
If you want to write narrative, your stories must have resolutions. You can’t have your character struggle and struggle and struggle and struggle, struggle right off the page. Doesn’t work. It’s very unsatisfying to the reader. If you find yourself doing that, you probably need to pick a different structure and maybe you need to write an article and not a narrative. You need a resolution in a narrative.
When you get to the resolution, the story is over. That’s why people read stories, to find out how the problem will be resolved. So when you hit the resolution, and then you find yourself writing another 20 inches, we have got a problem. And this happens a lot. You see a lot of narratives published this way. The problem’s resolved and there’s 20 more inches of type. Don’t do this. But what if you’ve got this additional 20 inches of stuff and it’s really important? Maybe you picked the wrong resolution. Maybe the resolution truly exists in that extra stuff at the end.
Or maybe you’ve picked the wrong problem. That’s one of the most important things for people to understand about narrative storytelling: picking the problem. The writer picks the problem, not the situation in the world, not the source. At any situation that exists in life or any character’s life, there are many possible problems.
The one last tip I want to offer you is counterintuitive for most people. It has to do with what you write first. So many people write the lead first. They slave away at the lead and spend lots of time on it before they write the rest of the story. Don’t do that. It’s almost always a bad idea. It is rarely the thing you should write first.
When I write narratives, I always write the ending first. Try it. Try it. You usually know what your resolution is. You don’t know yet if you even have a story, right? You really know what the resolution is. Write that resolution, probably as a scene, as a cinematic scene. When you write the ending first, then when you go back to the top of the story and start to write it, you know what your destination is. You know where you’re going. Pieces in which you know what your destination is and you know what your point is are just easier for you to write. And they tend to end up being easier for readers to read, too. You feel that the writer truly is in control because he knows where he’s going every step of the way.