Endings: How to get there without pushing your readers off a cliff

Between drafting and editing and graphics-ing and, you know, living, it’s been a busy first week post-spring break.

On Tuesday, we talked about story structure, specifically as it pertained to the ending of the story “Netherland” by Rachel Aviv.

While many of us agreed that the subject matter was fascinating and her access brought about stories from compelling characters, we talked a lot about how she ended the story and how the whole piece was structured. The ending showed a scene where a formerly homeless young woman was comforting a friend by telling him everything would work out and be OK. Generally, my classmates had three views of it:

  1. It was ironic given the fact that not much had worked out for her.
  2. It was a glimpse into her new role as the caretaker of her street “family.”
  3. It was abrupt and felt resolution-less.

The third one was where I set up camp. Although I can see the problem with ending every story tied with a nice bow, in a piece wrought so full of problems, I wanted some more closure, or at least more time to adjust to the character’s new life before we left her.

Jacqui imparted this writing adage to address closure and how to take your subjects gently to the end: Long sentences read fast, and short sentences read slow. Basically, be aware of your pacing when you write and develop your structure. Don’t plop readers down in front of a cliff and expect them to walk off happily into the sunset. Approach the edge carefully, being mindful of words and phrasing and sentence length, so that when you leave your readers, they understand how they got to that point and why.

Generally, she advised, longer stories should pick up the pace in the last third or so. This can happen with more “muscular” and quicker scenes and action, but that should not change the fact that a good, satisfying ending still needs a lead-up.

From there, we moved on to overall structure and how to lay out a road map before you write. Somethings to think about:

  • What are the topics and sub-issues that need to be included?
  • How might they group together to form a natural structure, or at least, bigger sections?
  • How can I juxtapose scenes against the issues I need to illustrate?
  • How can I include multiple characters?
  • What pegs or mile-markers do I need to leave my readers so they can follow along comfortably?
  • What do I need to be reporting on so I have options if my structure needs to change?

All of these questions can help guide you toward an understanding of how to start placing parts of your story. For more complicated narratives, Jacqui introduced us to the braided narrative, which looks something like this:

  • Lede with all your characters, quickly and concisely.
  • Give a strong nut and summary section.
  • Drop back in with each character in scenes, showing one aspect of an issue they need to illustrate especially well.
  • Go back and forth with the characters, showing where they meet and connect with each other.
  • All throughout, weave in summary information and general or background information that works with the scenes.

Two of my favorite books, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and “The Devil in the White City,” make use of this structure. In the former title, the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman whose cancer cells spawned a tidal wave of change in the medical field, is juxtaposed against Rebecca Skloot, the reporter who wants to finally get the real story about HeLa cells and where they came from. In the latter book, the professional trials of Daniel Burnham, an architect who organized the building of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, is juxtaposed against the sinister life of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a man who became notorious after the fair for killing as many as 100 women in the hotel he built.

I’ve found just through my own recreational reading that the braided narrative makes for a very exciting, slightly suspenseful story. Because you’re usually always taking parts from one subject’s point of view or set of experiences, it can make what is usually drier information captivating because it is highly relevant to the character it’s connected to. Braided narratives with multiple characters work so well because our lives are little more than the connections we have with other people. What better way to tell a story than through those connections?

In the vague way we try to quickly sift through the hundreds of books we’ve read, I get the sense that I’ve happened across the braided narrative many times, but I never considered using it for my own stories. I suppose part of that is subject matter; there’s usually no “gotcha!” at the end of a school board story. However, I could try using the technique to reveal telling details and connections even if they don’t have that element of surprise. It doesn’t hurt to practice for when that “gotcha!” moment finally does arrive.

Up next!

Stay tuned for my post next week on my first editing session (took place this past Friday) and my rewrite experience (second draft due this coming Friday). The tentative title: My first editing session: In which I realize I might not be nearly as boring a writer as my journalism would have everyone believe.

How will I fix ALL the problems?

How can I eliminate ALL the jargon??

How should I rewrite ALL the nut sections???

Excited? Good, me too.