EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final post in our focused series on the core elements of narrative by nonfiction writer and teacher Lauren Kessler. Previous posts provided an overview of the power of narrative, how to build a story through scenes and how to report and write memorable characters.
By Lauren KesslerWhen a friend returned the book I loaned her a few weeks ago, she said what I knew she would say: “I loved it right up until that ending.” She shook her head. “That ending.” We talked for a minute about the wonderfully quirky conceit of the book— “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus — the vibrant central character, the genius dog, the precocious child. But the ending? The ending, we agreed, was contrived. It took all the oomph out of the narrative, at least for us. “Why did the author think she had to wrap it up with a bow?” my friend asked.
Why did the author think she had to wrap it up with a bow? Why do we who write nonfiction, who work as (or are learning to become) narrative journalists, often feel compelled to create a tidy package to deliver to the reader? Why is it such a struggle to write ourselves to a satisfying ending?
Here’s a thought, courtesy of one of the finest writers of narrative nonfiction: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” That’s Joan Didion beginning one of her most memorable essays, “Goodbye to All That.”
Didion is writing about the beginning and end of a love affair — hers, with the city of New York — but I think it is an equally wise statement about writing. It is easier to know when and where to start than when and where to finish. And because of that, it is easier to write good beginnings than it is to craft good endings.
I don’t think it’s particularly mysterious that we struggle with endings. The final pages or paragraphs or even sentences of a story carry extraordinary weight. They can and should leave a lasting impression on the reader and often determine the overall success of the narrative. That is a lot of pressure. This could be why some endings seem forced or contrived. We must make our point! We must tie up loose ends! This is our last chance.
The challenge of endings may also be a matter of focus. Throughout the thinking, reporting and organizing phases of a piece of writing — everything we do before sitting down to actually write — we often concentrate on how and where our story will begin. We narrative journalists are suckers for a great opener. The lead — or lede, as some prefer — is the most important part of the story. We obsess over what that first sentence will be, that opening scene, that initial snippet of dialog, that quotable quote. That’s good.
But all that focus on beginnings means less, or in my cases no, concentration on endings.
Obstacles to a good ending
Some writers cling to the myth that once they figure out how to begin a story, the rest will just “fall into place.” Sometimes the magic happens. Often, not so much. Endings generally don’t miraculously materialize. And the danger of thinking (or hoping) they will means not devoting enough thought to them at the beginning.
The mechanics of the writing process can also stand in the way of creating a memorable ending. If we’re not batting out something on deadline and have a few days, or even a few weeks, to craft a piece, consider how that works. We invariable come back to the story by re-reading it. We read, re-read and then, of course, edit, and polish the beginning. Again and again. By the end of the process, we may have burnished and refined the opening paragraphs five, six perhaps a dozen times. But the ending — the last scene, the last paragraph, the last sentence we write — is the least edited. Of course it isn’t as strong.
And let’s not forget the hallowed “inverted pyramid.” Many narrative journalists, myself included, learned to write in journalism school, where we were taught that the way to organize a story was from most important element to least. Using this model, we pyramid-veterans might end the story when we run out of material important enough to include or, frankly, when we run out of allowed room or time. In other words, there is no ending — no considered, crafted way to bring a story to a close.
Thinking of stories as a whole
What to do? Maybe these suggestions will help:
The first is conceiving of the story as a story, by which I mean a narrative, a tale, rather than a coherently ordered collection of information. Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, all of which are important and purposeful and carefully molded. Once we frame an assignment as a story rather than a report, we immediately become attuned to endings. The news feature that was going to be a serviceable piece about a facility that helps feed the food-insecure becomes a vignette- and scene-powered story. When I approached “Shelter from the Storm” this way, letting the vignettes tell the story, the ending vignette was obvious.
Second suggestion is this: Although it is a mistake to believe that once we figure out how to begin a story, the rest (including the ending) will spontaneously generate, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the material we have gathered will lead to an ending as we write. The key is that we have conceived of the piece as a story and conducted our reporting to gather that kind of material. This is not “go with the flow” advice. It is, in fact, pro-active. It is being alert and attentive to the narrative structure, reporting with narrative needs in mind, then watching it from the outside even as we are writing it from the inside.
Occasionally a story will naturally and neatly conclude: the “and they all lived happily (or unhappily) ever after” variety. I don’t mean to imply that these kinds of endings are always trite but that they are definitive and conclusive — and, in real life, rare. Other stories naturally end in a mystery, a question unanswered, a conflict unresolved or unresolvable. Some narratives fold in on themselves or come full circle. When I wrote a piece about my love-hate relationship with the potato, the story began in the potato fields of Long Island with my mother cursing the volunteer spuds in our backyard garden and ended with me, 50 years later, embracing the diversity of the lowly spud and choosing to plant it in my garden. My most recent book, “Free,” which examines the challenges of reentry after long-time incarceration, opens when one man is released from prison, leaving behind a fellow prisoner, a close friend and mentor. It ends when the other man, three years later, finally gains his freedom. The two releases act as narrative bookends.
Here’s the third idea that may help illuminate the path to a good ending: Focus on the readers. We offer stories in the hopes that our readers will learn and care and question, empathize, sympathize, laugh, get angry. We write for them. And so, when contemplating how to end a story or when scrutinizing the ending we’ve written, it makes sense to ask:
- Does this ending deliver what I promised the reader at the beginning?
- Does this ending leave the reader with a sense of time well spent?
- Does this ending leave the reader smarter?
- Does this ending leave the reader with something to think about?
The contrived ending often does not. The tidy-little-package ending often does not. The non-ending ending (ran out of good material) often does not.
Ambiguity in endings ~ as in life
There are alternatives. Consider the power of a scene as an ending device. This can be a scene that captures the essence of the story or brings the narrative full circle — like the end scene in “Free” — or that presents a sort of cliff-hanger, leaving the reader to wonder and want to read more.
There is a difference between leaving the reader wanting more (curious, engaged) and leaving the reader unsatisfied (confused, cheated). When I was struggling with how to end my exploration of middle school, teen girl culture, and parenting a 21st century teen in “My Teenage Werewolf,” I knew the natural conclusion to the story was the end of middle school. But there was no tidy ending to the issues raised by the narrative. And so, in the final scene, at the eighth-grade graduation dance, the reader is left not with a “well, that’s over” feeling but rather wondering “what happens next?”
Ending with a conversation among the characters in the story or with one character’s monolog can also create a meaningful ending.
I also think there is a place for what I’ll call the “transparent” ending. This is when the writer admits, in exposition, that this story doesn’t have an ending. The crisis continues. The relationship remains unstable. The goal has not been reached. The jury is still out. It is a candid admission to the reader, whom you have taken along for the ride, that there’s no grand finale here. This can be the only credible and honest way to end.
I like to imagine my ideal reader. She is sitting in her favorite chair thoroughly absorbed in my article. She comes to the final few paragraphs. They bring the story into focus for her. They leave her with ideas worth pondering, with an image she’ll remember. She nods to herself, then sits for a long moment before she reaches for her phone. “Let me tell you about this piece I just finished reading,” she says to her friend.
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Lauren Kessler is an Oregon-based narrative journalist, teacher and author of 15 nonfiction books.