Write endings to lock the box.
From our earliest years as readers, we learn that stories have endings, however formulaic. The prince and princess live happily ever after. The cowboy rides off into the sunset. The witch is dead. The End.
For the journalist, the ending presents a problem. Old, but still reliable, story forms resist the pointed ending. News stories in the inverted pyramid style stack information upside down, from most important to least. In this form, the reader creates the ending by choosing to stop. The busy copy editor cuts from the bottom without fear of deleting something vital.
When it comes to endings, we face a dividing line. Some journalists think of themselves as reporters, while others aspire to the title of writer. While these labels more often refer to self-image than exercise of craft, the idea of an ending often divides the reporter from the writer. The writer wants to craft an ending. The reporter just wants to stop.
One way to write good endings is to read them, and few works of literature end with power of "The Great Gatsby."
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...And one fine morning --
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald plants the seeds for this ending early in the novel, at the end of the first chapter when narrator Nick Carraway sees Gatsby for the first time:
I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn't call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone -- he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward -- and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far way, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.
Powerful lessons are embedded in this passage. Look at the phrase "unquiet darkness." The author shows us that sentences and paragraphs have endings too, even as those endings foreshadow the book's final scene, some 160 pages later, when the green light, the dock, the outstretched arms will return, freighted with thematic significance.
These techniques are not for novelists alone. My colleague Chip Scanlan wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times in which he argues that journalists should take lessons from citizens when it comes to asking good questions of politicians:
As Bob Schieffer of CBS News polishes his questions for the final presidential debate tomorrow, he might want to take a page from Daniel Farley. And Randee Jacobs. And Norma-Jean Laurent, Mathew O'Brien, James Varner, Sarah Degenhart, and Linda Grabel.
In that lead paragraph, Chip lists the names of citizens who had asked effective questions in the previous presidential debate. In his final paragraph, Chip closes the circle, replaying the chords he struck in the beginning:
So tomorrow Mr. Schieffer can serve the public interest and teach his fellow reporters an important lesson about truth-gathering. He can model his questions on those asked by a handful of Missourians who understand the toughest questions are those that show the country what a candidate won't -- or can't -- answer.
There are endless ways to begin or end stories, but writers rely on a small toolbox of strategies, just as musicians do. In musical compositions, songs can build to a crescendo, or fade out, or stop short, or echo the opening. In written compositions, the author can choose from among these:
1. Closing the circle. The ending reminds us of the beginning by returning to an important place or re-introducing us to a key character.
2. The tie-back. Keith Woods says he enjoys how humorist Dave Barry ties his ending to some odd or off-beat element in the body of the story.
3. The time frame. The writer creates a tick-tock structure with time advancing relentlessly. To end the story, the writer decides what should happen last.
4. The space frame. The writer is less concerned with time than with place or geography. The hurricane reporter moves us from location to location, revealing the terrible damage from the storm. To end, the writer decides our final destination.
5. The payoff. The longer the story, the more important the payoff. This does not require a "happy ending," but a satisfying one, a reward for a journey concluded, a secret revealed, a mystery solved.
6. The epilogue. The story ends, but life goes on. How many times have you wondered, after the house lights come back on, what happened next to the characters in a movie? Readers come to care about characters in stories. An epilogue helps satisfy their curiosity.
7. Problem and solution. This common structure suggests its own ending. The writer frames the problem at the top and then offers readers possible solutions and resolutions.
8. The apt quote. Often overused, this technique remains a sturdy tool for ending stories. Some characters just speak in endings, capturing in their own words a neat summary or distillation of what has come before. In most cases, the writer can write it better than the source can say it. But not always.
9. Look to the future. Most stories and reports are about things that have already happened. But what do people say will happen next? What is the likely consequence of this decision or those events?
10. Mobilize the reader. The end of a story or report can point the reader in another direction. Attend this meeting. Read that book. Send an e-mail message to the Senator. Donate blood for victims of a disaster.
Your endings will be better if you remember that other parts of your story need endings, too. Sentences have endings. Paragraphs have endings. As in "The Great Gatsby," each of these mini-endings anticipates your finale.
I end with a warning. Avoid endings that go on and on like a Rachmaninoff concerto or a heavy metal ballad. Just as leads can be buried, so can endings. Put your hand over the last paragraph. Ask yourself, "What would happen if my story ended here?" Move it up another paragraph until you find the natural stopping place.
1. Review several of your most recent stories. Place your hand over the last paragraph and ask yourself: "What would happen if my story ended here?" Is the natural ending for your story hiding?
2. Begin reading stories, listening to music, and watching movies with endings in mind. Pay close attention to details or themes that are planted early in the work to bear fruit at the end.
3. Some journalists say they report for leads. Fewer say they report for endings. The next time you are out in the field, begin to watch and listen for opportunities to end your story effectively. What happens to your writing process when you begin with an ending in mind?
4. Just for fun, take some of your recent stories and switch the beginnings and the endings. Have you learned anything in the process?