Whether you spell them “ledes” or “leads,” opening lines get a lot of attention. And why wouldn’t they? Sitting at the keyboard, with all the tedious and sometimes annoying reporting done, a writer is spoiled for choice, a world of possibilities at his or her disposal. To be sure, that seemingly limitless choice can be daunting, but once you get down to it, the freedom is empowering and more often than not results in a fairly awesome opener.
Then you have to write the piece. With each word, sentence, and paragraph, the world of possibilities is constricted, until you find yourself with one more bit to write. Even if you haven’t painted yourself into an uncomfortable corner, you have to steer between being too obvious and too enigmatic. At the same time you feel you need to leave readers with something that will move them and stick with them, preferably for a long time.
The time-honored strategy is closing on a quote, and even if you end up having to cannibalize one from earlier in the piece and patch the hole that’s left, this is a graceful and efficient exit strategy.
But there are quotes and there are quotes. Joseph Mitchell’s 1940 New Yorker profile of a bearded circus performer, “Lady Olga,” starts off as a typical feature on an offbeat topic, with many odd and interesting facts about carnival life, but gradually changes into something more profound, with a subtle but insistent suggestion that we consider the circumstances under discussion insofar as they relate to the human condition — in this case, what it means to be a “freak.” By the time we get to Olga’s stunning last quotation (with its cascade of one-syllable words leading to a killer kicker), we have been prepared to accept it literally and unconditionally:
“If the truth was known, we’re all freaks together,” she says.
Where Mitchell fades in and out over the course of a piece, his friend and New Yorker colleague A.J. Liebling is a personable, voluble, and frequently boisterous companion from start to finish. One of his series of 1959 pieces about the colorful Louisiana politician Earl Long (collected in The Earl of Louisiana) ends with a simile that not many people other than Liebling could pull off. The reporter spies Long at the racetrack; the pol is happy because it appears that his election scheming has paid off, and because he has made a killing on the ponies. Liebling writes (and you need to know that Jimmie Noe was one of Long’s cronies, and Hasan and Husain were, in Wikipedia’s words, “the last descendants of Prophet Muhammad living during his lifetime and remaining after his death”):
As he stuffed the bundle of money in his pocket, another stout, jolly, ruddy man, also a winner, strolled up to his box and leaned over the edge, and they had a good laugh together. It was Jimmie Noe, and the two Companions of the Prophet looked as happy and well attuned as Hasan and Husain the Beatified, looking down from Paradise upon a world in which other Arabs sweated.
Mitchell and Liebling represent the two basic strategies: minimalist and maximalist. Those in the former camp usually close with a brief quote or a terse but telling detail or two, the latter with something lyrical. To pull that off, you need the courage of your conviction, plus chops.
W.C. Heinz had both. One of his most famous pieces was a 960-word column that appeared in the New York Sun in 1949. It was about, in the words of the title, “Death of a Racehorse” — the horse being Air Lift, who breaks his leg in the course of the sixth race at Jamaica. Heinz’s meticulous tick-tock shows us what happens after that, including, unflinchingly and respectfully, the killing of the horse. Only in the final sentence does he turn up the rhetorical heat, with Biblical cadences, the pathetic fallacy, and a searing final image:
Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.
A lot of good endings partake of what comedians refer to as a “callback”—an unexpected reference to a previous joke. In his 1957 New Yorker article about Marlon Brando, “The Duke in His Domain,” Truman Capote basically invented the modern celebrity profile — in particular the way the writer appears as “I” and the piece is structured around his encounter (often in a hotel room, as in “Duke”) with the celeb. But Capote’s leisurely pace and penchant for metaphor is anything but 21st century.
Somewhere in the middle of the piece, Brando describes his sudden fame after appearing in A Streetcar Named Desire: “It was like I’d been asleep, and I woke up here sitting on a pile of candy.” At the end of a long, rambling interview/conversation, Capote finds himself wandering the streets of Tokyo at two in the morning, trying to find his way home. Finally he sees a familiar sight: “Sixty feet tall, with a head as huge as the greatest Buddha’s, there he was, in comic-paper colors, on a sign above a theatre that advertised ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ [a Brando movie]. Rather Buddhalike, too, was his pose, for he was depicted in a squatting position, a serene smile on a face that glistened in the rain and the light of a street lamp.” And then the callback:
“A deity, yes; but, more than that, really, just a young man sitting on a pile of candy.”
Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1966, is an extremely badass piece of writing, what with its bow to the “hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves,” its disapproving sighting of The Forty Winks Motel, and its overall stern and unforgivingly ironic moral gaze. Didion tells a story straight out of Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain, of a housewife who embarks on an affair with a lawyer named Arthwell Hayton and ultimately is convicted of the murder of her husband; the implication is that she is also responsible for the death under mysterious circumstances of Hayton’s wife. Didion’s closing lines suggest (as does much of the article) a narrative about the principals who refused to talk to her, and the killer details she nonetheless unearthed. Her digging earns her the barefaced symbolism of the stunning kicker, which otherwise might have been a bit over the top:
Some people around San Bernardino say that Arthwell Hayton suffered; others say that he did not suffer at all. Perhaps he did not, for time past is not believed to have any bearing upon time present or future, out in the golden land where every day the world is born anew. In any case, on October 17, 1965, Arthwell Hayton married again, married his children’s pretty governess, Wenche Berg, at a service in the Chapel of the Roses at a retirement village near Riverside. Later the newlyweds were feted at a reception for seventy-five in the dining room of Rose Garden Village. The bridegroom was in black tie, with a white carnation in his buttonhole. The bride wore a long white peau de soie dress and carried a shower bouquet of sweetheart roses with stephanotis streamers. A coronet of seed pearls held her illusion veil.
Richard Ben Cramer was a digger too, and that plus his almost supernal charm got him to a great many restricted places, including intimate moments with presidential candidates recorded in his book What It Takes. True to form, by the end of his 1986 Esquire piece “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?,” Cramer is actually sitting around the kitchen table with the former ballplayer, whose orneriness is on a par with and perhaps exceeds his ability to hit a fastball. Even in calmer moments, he bellows and roars IN CAPITAL LETTERS. The meal over, Williams embarks on a train of thought that leads him to a meltdown of indiscriminate rage. “I feel I should leave the room,” Cramer writes, “but too late.” Eventually, the ballplayer’s companion, Louise, talks him down and his attention returns to the reporter:
… he tries to sneer through his grin: “WHEN ARE YOU LEAVING? HUH?
“…JESUS. YOU’RE LIKE THE GODDAMN RUSSIAN SECRET POLICE!
“…OKAY, BYE! YEAH, SURE, GOODBYE!”
Williams walks Cramer out to the driveway and the reporter starts to drive away. In his kicker he avails himself of a puppy. Normally this would be slightly cheesy, but, similar to the Didion, the unflinching view of Williams’ demons earns him, and Cramer, a Kodachrome moment:
Ted is bent at his belly, grabbing their new dalmatian puppy, tickling it with his big hands while the dog rolls and paws the air. And as I ease the car into gear, I hear Ted’s voice behind, cooing, very quiet now: “Do I love this little dog, huh?….Yes, this little shittin’ dog….Yes, yes I love you….Yes, I do.”
“Tennis, trigonometry, tornadoes: A Midwestern boyhood,” by David Foster Wallace, is a meditation about how “Between the ages of twelve and fifteen I was a near-great junior tennis player,” and how both geometry and the wind of Wallace’s native Illinois pertained to his life in the sport. Wallace was a master of changing speeds, and I don’t mean on the tennis court. The most noticeable thing was the way he’d go in an instant from highfalutin diction and metaphors to the most demotic shortcuts and slang; but he was also constantly wrong-footing the reader in lots of ways, including alternating short sentences and paragraphs with really long ones.
He closes this essay with a 1,136-word graf, about the time when he and his longtime practice partner and foe, Gil Antitoi, had their hitting session interrupted by a tornado. The penultimate sentence is 299 words its own self:
This all happened very fast but in serial progression: field, trees, swings, grass, then the feel like the lift of the world’s biggest mitt, the nets suddenly and sexually up and out straight, and I seem to remember whacking a ball out of my hand at Antitoi to watch its radical west-east curve, and for some reason trying to run after this ball I’d just hit, but I couldn’t have tried to run after a ball I had hit, but I remember the heavy gentle lift at my thighs and the ball curving back closer and my passing the ball and beating the ball in flight over the horizontal net, my feet not once touching the ground over fifty-odd feet, a cartoon, and then there was chaff and crud in the air all over and both Antitoi and I either flew or were blown pinwheeling for I swear it must have been fifty feet to the fence one court over, the easternmost fence, we hit the fence so hard we knocked it halfway down, and it stuck at degrees — Antitoi detached a retina and had to wear those funky Jabbar retina goggles for the rest of the summer, and the fence had two body-shaped indentations like in cartoons where the guy’s face makes a cast in the skillet that hit him, two catcher’s masks of fence, we both got deep quadrangular lines impressed on our faces, torsos, legs’ fronts, from the fence, my sister said we looked like waffles, but neither of us got badly hurt, and no homes got whacked — either the thing just ascended again for no reason right after, they do that, obey no rule, follow no line, hop up and down at something that might as well be will, or else it wasn’t a real one.
Wallace’s final sentence would have worked anyway, but by making the genius move of affixing it to the end of that mammoth sentence, rather than doing the expected thing of giving it a new paragraph, he makes your heart skip a beat:
Antitoi’s tennis continued to improve after that, but mine didn’t.
Here’s the thing. An opening line can be tricky or gimmicky or off-the-wall, or pretty much anything. Like I said, limitless possibilities. All you have to do is sort of follow where it goes, track it down, and lead it back to the narrative you want to tell. But a great ending isn’t about eccentricity or quirkiness or fancy. It can be plain as Wallace’s closer, as long as it follows from and is earned by what came before.
John Jeremiah Sullivan is something of a next-generation David Foster Wallace: The writing of both shares that loosey-goosey go-anywhere quality, a shrewd deployment of the first person, and a Federeresque command of many different sorts of moves. “Upon This Rock,” Sullivan’s 2004 GQ piece about a Christian-rock festival called Creation, covers a lot of ground (some of it muddy) in its 11,000 words, and contains some estimable sentences before the end, including:
- “I’d assumed that my days at Creation would be fairly lonely and end with my ritual murder.”
- “Somebody farted; the conversation about who it had been lasted a good twenty minutes.”
- “I was staggering through the food stands when a man died at my feet.”
- “We all ran down the hillside, holding guitars and—in Josh’s case—a skillet wherein the fried meat of some woodland creature lay ready to eat.”
The ending is a set piece in which Sullivan experiences an epiphany that I can’t adequately describe, so read the piece. For now, suffice it to say that he earns his kicker, with its pun on the shared name of festival and universe:
I left at dawn, while creation slept.
“The Marriage Cure,” by Katherine Boo, and “Enrique’s Journey,” by Sonia Nazario, are two remarkable pieces of immersion reporting about the lives and situations of poor people. In Boo’s 2003 New Yorker article, it’s a 49-year-old African-American woman who lives in an Oklahoma City housing project called “Sooner Haven” and is deemed eligible for a then-fashionable social-engineering concept called “the marriage cure.” In Nazario’s Pulitzer-winning 2002 Los Angeles Times series, it’s a Honduran teenager’s search for his mother, who had emigrated to the United States when he was a little boy. The ending for each is simple — seven words for the Boo, a six-word quote for the Nazario — and devastating. But they only work in context. Again, read the stories.
When I told my wife I was working on this piece, she said that not a week goes by that she doesn’t think about the ending of a New York Times magazine article by Michael Winerip, and the “new dress.” Winerip is one of the great feature writers of the last 30 years, and the fact he hasn’t won a Pulitzer is only a statement about the Pulitzers. The piece my wife was referring to, “The Blue Collar Millionaire,” begins as a rags-to-riches story about a Long Island guy who started out with nothing and built a $50 million commercial cleaning company. Almost precisely halfway through, it makes a 180-degree turn, enumerating the human costs of success. And by that I mainly mean the company’s minimum-wage workers, treated and talked about by the owners — whom we’d come to think of as such great down-to-earth guys! — with disdain.
Nowadays not many works of journalism, or of anything, have an O. Henry-style shock ending, as in The Front Page’s “The son of a bitch stole my watch.” Not only does it seem old-fashioned, but there’s also the pragmatic concern that by the end, the reader’s attention may be lagging, if it’s intact at all, so it wouldn’t do to withhold any jewels. Winerip doesn’t care. He ends with a scene at the ribbon cutting at a renovated airport for which the company has the cleaning contract. The on-site manager introduces a company V.P. (and I’ve changed the quote so as to refer the these two men by their titles) to Marie Baxter, the head cleaner:
She had worn a special dress for the ribbon cutting and was nervous about whether the airport would meet the V.P’s standards. Several times she had asked the manager, “What do you think he’ll say?”
As it turns out, the V.P. was impressed. “This place looks 100 percent better,” he said.
“It’d mean a lot to Marie to hear that from you,” said the manager, who told the V.P. that they never would have finished in time for the grand opening without Baxter. “Marie’s been unbelievable,” he said. “She worked 60 hours this week, on her hands and knees. I’m going to put her in for 50.”
“That’s fair,” the V.P. said.
In other words: The son of a bitch stole my watch.
Ben Yagoda coedited The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism and is the author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and the new e-book You Need to Read This: The Death of the Imperative Mode, the Rise of American Glottal Stop, the Bizarre Popularity of ‘Amongst,’ and Other Cuckoo Things That Have Happened to the English Language.