Wrap Up Your Story in Style
[This is an excerpt of a discussion at the Tel Aviv Writer's Salon]
Let's think about the two stages of writing.
As hard as we work in the creation/writing stage and the rewriting/editing stage of our story or novel, sometimes we forget that the ending be as powerful, entertaining and memorable as the opening.
How many of you have picked up a book and read the first couple of sentences?
Aside from factors like whether you know this author or have heard good things about the book - those first few sentences are what hook you - or not.
Consider some of these opening lines:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. (The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath)
A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. (A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984, George Orwell)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. (A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens)
This is where you reader hopefully gets hooked and reads the next few sentences and then can't put your book down.
But the ending - the ending is what we'd call in Hollywood, the pay off. I know that can sound crass, as if there has to be a PAY OFF to reading literature - and yet, when you really think about it - you'd like people to read your story or book, right?
And when your reader has stuck with you throughout your story, whether that means a story you share here, that is 500 words long or your novel - your reader deserves that finishing touch, that high note in the end, that cherry delicately balanced on top.
Humans crave resolution and closure. In real life we so rarely obtain it.
Life continues to unfold messily and it is only in a biography or fiction that a life can be shaped into the structure of story and imbued with meaning.
Which is why we read and go to the movies - we love stories and we love to create patterns and meaning out of stories that we just can't seem to do in real life.
I usually try to avoid teaching about various aspects of writing in pat, rule-bound, over-simplified ways. I don't like to teach, say, Three Tips for Writing a Great Ending!
Writing really cannot be reduced to tips and rules. It is an organic, flowing thing and I like to encourage writers to go with the muse and really let the writing take over.
But are some fundamentals of storytelling and drama that Homer knew, and St. Augustine knew, and Shakespeare knew and you should know.
And you do. Because story is hardwired within humans.
There's really only one thing you need to know about story from academic perspective:
Beginning, Middle, End - or, set up, conflict, resolution.
There's only one thing you need to know about story from a craft perspective: just effing entertain me.
There's one thing you need to know about story from a monetary perspective: keep your day job.
But I digress.
The beginning is where you hook your reader with the promise of a good tale to come.
The ending is where you pay off, or if you prefer, resolve the themes and character arc of your story.
This does not mean that every story has to have a pat ending or god knows, a happy ending - but it needs to END and it needs to go out on exactly the note that you the writer intended all along.
Let me repeat that - the note that you intended all along.
I find that writers often know, in the first sentence, in the first impulse, as they begin to write, what they are wanting to ultimately say - what the piece is ultimately about.
And we work backwards from that emotional resolution or conclusion and we begin at the beginning.
So again - it is often the first impulse you had as you began to write, that first response or glimmering you had to the prompt or to the idea that you had.
Which is very often, not really conscious.
Everything works back toward first impulse, that bottom line for you, that emotional thread that you are following.
This is one of my favorite last lines in all of literature:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
From the Great Gatsby - about the futility of reaching for that which is always just out of reach - which is how Fitzgerald saw the American dream, as ultimately morally corrosive.
Can you write a last line like Fitzgerald's? Probably not. I don't think I could. I'm also pretty sure that wasn't his rough draft of that.
Don't hold yourself to that gold standard just yet.
But you can learn to wrap up your story better. But what are you wrapping up, exactly?
Well if you set something up - some event or conflict - you need to resolve it. Even if your resolution leaves a big question mark.
You can't very well just stop writing, now can you?
You need to resolve the central conflict and you need to show us just where your main character arrived to in the end.
In other words, what has been revealed to your main character as a result of the story that unfolded around him or her?
Or - perhaps more commonly in prose writing - what are readers to take away from the story that unfolded?
In screenwriting the story is frequently told from the point of view of the main character. In fiction, the story can be told from many points of view and what we mostly see in this group is the omniscient.
So again - what are WE supposed to make of this story? What are we to think?
In Revelation by Flannery O'Connor, our main character is 100%, totally unable to receive the lesson she has experienced about the fact that she is a bigot. She just cannot process it. She never will.
The first line:
The Doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence.
The last line:
At length, she got down and turned off the faucet on her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her, the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
Interestingly, the first and last lines of the story rather mirror one another. The world is smaller with Mrs. Turpin in it.