I’ve read hundreds—more like thousands—of essays and memoir pieces over the years. Granted, a significant portion of them have been written by seventeen-year olds who are applying to college. (I spent over fifteen years as a college counselor; I still meet with seniors every fall to coach them through their personal statements.) But in addition, I’ve been in two writing groups for several years, and actively participated in weekly essay workshops throughout my MFA program. Every single essay I’ve read has an ending—or at least, the essay ends at some point. However, I’ve seen many essays in which the final words do not add up to a satisfying ending.
If I had to name the most challenging aspects of writing—no matter if we’re talking about fiction or nonfiction—nailing the ending would come at the top of the list, followed by “getting started” and “doing the middle bit.” Coming up with the right ending can throw a writer into a tizzy.
Did you watch any of the gymnasts perform this past summer at the Olympics? They did that last flip or somersault off the apparatus and then assumed a position that defined the end of the routine. Commentators have an expression for that: sticking the landing. The gymnast lands where she or he needs to land, keeping feet firmly planted and arms up in a gesture that signals triumph. The whole routine leads up to the landing. But sometimes a gymnast stumbles, falling off the mark or teetering a little. If the ending is less than perfect, the gymnast knows it and everyone else can see it.
The writers I know all seem to agonize over endings. They juggle words around, looking for words that feel right and sound right too. Sticking the ending can be an elusive goal.
I recently ran across an excellent article about endings written by Bruce DeSilva, posted on the Neiman Storyboard—a project of the Neiman Foundation of Journalism at Harvard. DeSilva writes, “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.”
And while DeSilva speaks more to the problems reporters face with the structure of their articles (i.e., the inverted pyramid: by ordering the information so the most interesting and important stuff comes first, the story gets less interesting as it goes along, and so readers rarely finish an article), his ideas about endings can easily apply to creative nonfiction. Here are the three things DeSilva says a good ending must accomplish:
- It must let the reader know the story is over.
- You as the writer must leave your readers with the thought you want them to carry away from your story by “sticking” the central theme or point of the essay in your ending.
- Your ending should resonate with your readers: you want it to stay with them, to leave them thinking about it when they’ve finished reading.
And, he says, “The very best endings…surprise you a little bit. 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.”
Say you’re writing memoir. You have a story you want to tell. Naturally, you begin at the beginning, write about what happens in the middle, and then—when you get to the end— you stop. Maybe you think the story ends here, but does it really? Take another look. And another.
DeSilva reminds us that our storytelling must have a structure: a character (or you, the narrator), has a problem or faces a struggle. Something has to happen, or there’s no story! And by the end of the story, the reader should see the narrator (or the character the narrator is writing about) resolve this struggle somehow—successfully or not—or show some change. Otherwise, the reader will wonder, what’s the point? What have I learned from this story? What’s the takeaway? I tell the kids I work with that their personal statements should be thoughtful and reflective—that it’s not enough to merely tell a story about themselves; they must also come to some sort of resolution that lets the reader see how they’ve changed or grown in some way. The main pitfall to avoid here is tacking on a clichéd ending that doesn’t get to the heart of the story. A too-neat ending sidesteps deeper emotions and insights; as a reader, I feel let down when this happens. As I mentioned, I’ve read a lot of essays that just stop and don’t really end.
One last point about endings, but first, a little detour. Like a lot of people these days, my husband and I use a GPS when we drive anywhere. For one thing, we no longer need to “discuss” how to get there. We know where we’re going to end up; we can see our destination on the little map. Our progress is easy to follow, whether or not we listen to the mechanical female voice that tells us where to turn. We could also use another method of navigation and print out our directions from a reliable online source. It’s the same principle: the destination is clear. So, what does this have to do with writing endings? Hang on, I’m getting there.
DeSilva suggests that—since you already know the resolution to your story and how it ends—you actually start there: write the ending first. He says, “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 be easier for readers to read, too.” And isn’t this how our memories work? We remember what happened, but need to reach back to fill in the details leading up to the way the story ends.
When you begin by writing the ending—and then start to write your story—everything you include in your piece gives the reader confidence that you know exactly where you’re heading.
It’s an interesting idea. I’ll try it next time.