Tag Archives: endings

How to End a Story

7 Feb
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Essay Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

How to Give the Ending Away Without the Reader Knowing

31 Jan
Shannon Perri's story "The Resurrection Act" was published in Joyland.

Shannon Perri’s story “The Resurrection Act” was published in Joyland.

The best endings feel both surprising and inevitable at the same time, but in early drafts of stories, we tend to focus on one or the other: surprising or inevitable. We throw in a crazy twist, shocking readers but making them feel as if we were holding something back. Or, we set things too clearly and neatly so that the ending feels like a letdown. We need to do both, which requires showing readers the elements of the twist or final drama without them knowing recognizing what they’re seeing.

This is what Shannon Perri does in her story, “The Resurrection Act.” It was published at Joyland, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a locksmith who performs as an amateur magician at night. As the story begins, the first thing we’re shown are keys:

Earl set the keys to the ash-colored minivan on the motel room’s nightstand. He moved the keys to the desk made of fiberboard, and then proceeded to place them on the dresser near the door, with a prominent jingle.

It’s a weird detail to focus on right away, but we see him focusing on other small objects not long after:

He’d never performed for more than fifteen people, and he was told this audience could be upwards of a hundred. Clipped to his lapel, he felt the weight of his gold American Magician Association pin. A glossy picture of his wife in a red sweater from when they first met hid in his pocket, along with a lock pick.

We eventually learn that the trick he will perform for this unusually large crowd is an escape act. He will be handcuffed and buried alive in a coffin. Naturally, the story returns to the pick:

He slipped his fingers into his pocket and felt around for the lock pick. His fingers frantically searched around the waxy photograph of his wife, which felt strangely sticky, but the lock pick wasn’t there.

We’re shown the pick again, but I won’t tell you how because it would ruin the story and the ending. Their exact whereabouts is pretty dramatic. I also didn’t see it coming (but I also had no idea what would happen in The Sixth Sense). But even if I was blindsided, I was able to go back and see where I’ should have seen it coming. We literally see the lock pick before it’s important. And we know that he’s a locksmith. And the beginning starts with keys and his concern in where they’re placed. The keys are thematic, which is useful, setting the stage for what is to come. That thematic move works because it’s tied so closely to character and an impulse we all understand very well: not wanting to misplace our keys. Through practical strategies, Perri sets up a killer ending.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s lay the groundwork for a great ending, using “The Resurrection Act” by Shannon Perri as a model:

  1. Know your ending. This exercise works best if you know where your story is going. For some writers, that’s easy. They know right away. Other writers don’t know the ending until they write it at the very end of the final draft. If you’re the latter, go walk your dog or rake some leave. (I live in Texas, and we rake leaves in January.) But if you have some sense for where the story is headed, write it down. Be clear. What particular items are involved in the ending? Anton Chekhov wrote that a gun on the wall in the first act must go off by the third. This applies to all explosive elements in endings. What proves to be important?
  2. Show readers that element early on. Be practical about it. If it’s present at the end, it’s probably present earlier. Let us readers see it—sitting on a table or in a pocket. Show it in the most benign way, just something that’s present because it’s required.
  3. Connect an emotion to that element. Now, you’re hinting to the reader why the detail is important. Earl obviously cares a great deal about the lock. One, he’s a locksmith. Two, he can feel it in his pocket. Notice how both of these elements create an emotional attachment to the object. It’s part of his professional gear, and his mind is drawn to it, even when it’s thinking about other things. How can you show both a professional or practical need for your object and a kind of obsession with it?
  4. Hint at it thematically. Earl doesn’t use keys to open his cuffs, but keys serve as a pretty clear metaphor. What objects might your character be attracted to because they serve a similar purpose (literally or in the character’s mind) as the object you’ve chosen? Force your character to interact with that object.

The goal is to set up an ending by showing readers objects that are part of it before they’re relevant. You can do this both practically and thematically.

Good luck.

An Interview with Tom Hart

21 Jan
Tom Hart is a cartoonist best known for the comic strip Hutch Owen. His new book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

Tom Hart is creator of the comic strip Hutch Owen. His new book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

Tom Hart is a cartoonist and the Executive Director of The Sequential Artists Workshop, a school and arts organization in Gainesville, Florida. He is the creator of the Hutch Owen series of graphic novels and books and has been called “One of the great underrated cartoonists of our time” by Eddie Campbell and “One of my favorite cartoonists of the decade” by Scott McCloud. His strip, Ali’s House, co-created with Margo Dabaie, was picked up by King Features Syndicate. His newest book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning, about his daughter Rosalie who died just before turning two years old.

To read an exercise about giving characters a frame of reference and an excerpt from Rosalie Lightning, click here.

In this interview, Hart discusses loosening structure to escape strict chronology, editing out details to create an intended effect, and finding an ending buried in the middle of a book.

Michael Noll

The book contains several storylines: your grieving, the sale of your apartment in Brooklyn, your move to Florida, moments with Rosalie. But it also contains moments that stand alone from these narratives—events or thoughts or images that exert a gravitational force on your memory beyond their place in the sequence of events. For example, there is a single frame with this text: “Before we leave for New Mexico, I will pay for my daughter’s cremation with an ATM card like I’m buying a bag of bananas.”

You mention in the book and on your blog that you wrote and drew constantly after Rosalie’s death and the you had to piece those disconnected writings and drawings into a book. Was it difficult to find the right spot for moments like the one above? How did you find a structure that could contain both narrative and individual moments that stood out from whatever story they were apart of?

Tom Hart

At some point (when I drew a panel of me saying “This would be the only thing in my head when I entered the funeral home”) it occurred to me I could jump forward in time and never worry about revisiting the moment again. Previously I thought I was on a straight ahead chronology and that if I foreshadowed or even detailed something, I would revisit it when it’s time in the story had come (to some grand effect). Then I realized I didn’t have to do this. It was a loosening of the structure that I thought I needed, one which already was unraveling as I was working.

So in answer to the question, the structure is incredibly organic, and really I just followed my natural slow-moving thoughts. Since I’m telling a story, chronological became a sort of default, but I always welcomed digressions from the main story for thought. So, in the case you mentioned, I thought, “How am I going to get this atm/banana incident in there so it reacts against this moment I just drew out?” and then the answer was, “Put it in now.”

Michael Noll

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart's graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart’s graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Throughout the book, you quote or paraphrase books, comic strips, songs, and films. Some, like the Beatles songs, are things that you encountered unexpectedly, and others are encountered intentionally, like the Herzog film. And then there are others, like the book about Louis, that are important from the beginning but whose emotional resonance changes over time. In these moments, your touch is so light. With the Beatles, for example, you give no explanation, only saying that you heard the song on the plane and didn’t recognize it. Then you give a snippet of the lyrics. But with the Louis book, you show Rosalie engaging with it. In other words, sometimes you let these other narratives and pieces of art speak for themselves, without explanation, and other times you engage with them. Did you have an approach in mind for each, or did you have to figure out for each one how much or little to explain?

Tom Hart

Thank you.

Each one was handled singly except for the ones that were stories that informed Rosalie’s imagination. I wanted to draw those out more fully, in time and faithfulness but also visually: most of the redrawn cartoons have a consistent, clean greyscale under the lines. Elsewhere in the book there is a larger attempt at visual expressionism—come what may.

But in the other instances, again, I just followed the thoughts and edited out anything that was too much.

(Side note—the Beatles line needed a light touch partially for legality sake! I think in my original draft I had a line or two more of the first song. The Tim Buckley song near the end was intentionally elided for the same reason, but I think it worked best this way.)

There were times when I had to edit down my real-time impressions and go for a literary rendition. For instance, the Titian painting is a painting of St. Christopher (I think) carrying the Baby Jesus. It’s all about Jesus, but I wanted to focus on the thought I had, which was about the heaviness. Removing some of the words from the myth. So I purposely never mention Jesus, which is quite a fib since it is very clearly a painting about Jesus.

Michael Noll

Because you’re writing about grief and shock, you’re inherently writing about things that defy an easy, simple portrayal. I really admire the way you capture this, especially how abruptly feelings can change or appear. For example, you spend several pages describing your trip to New Mexico to stay at a retreat for people who’ve experienced sudden loss. The weather is terrible, you’re filled with despair, the logistics seem overwhelmingly complicated. In one panel, there is only one word—“Malfunctioning”—and an image of a steering wheel within what appears to be a brick wall. And then, at the end, you and your wife Leela rush into the motel “and try to make a baby.” It’s a stunning, devastating switch. How do you carry the reader with you as you make decisions when the logic of them is so intensely personal and, perhaps, not fully understood even by you and your wife?

Tom Hart

Thanks for being such a rigorous reader.

That switch was just descriptive, I just described it exactly as it occurred. Or at least it felt that fast. Again, I edited out what was unnecessary (presumably we took our winter clothes off).

Like most writers, I thought only what would be the most effective language to me and assumed there would be readers like me to follow it.

It’s certainly true that scene was set up by the previous mention of a baby—as it was in life.

In this instance, though there also may be more specific answers. For instance, I think I wrote that minimalistic “malfunctioning” line in there much later, not really knowing what to do with the text in that panel. And the image in the final panel was increasingly abstracted over iterations as I realized no representation was needed. So, there was some intention there—the text becomes more short and abbreviated, and a wildly unreadable drawing is the climax of that whole scene.

Michael Noll

Since the book begins with the death of your daughter, it’s natural for the reader to assume that it will end with some kind of emotional resolution. Yet the resolutions that we often expect in books don’t always exist in life. So, I was interested in how you end on two difference scenes, one (the kiss) that is, in a way, more emotionally satisfying and one (the call from your friend) that resists resolution. How did you find these endings? Was it a matter of writing until you found them, or did you know, at some point in the process of writing the book, where you were headed?

Tom Hart

That kiss came in real life, exactly when I detailed, and at that moment I knew it was time to stop “collecting material”—to stop writing. I knew that was the end of the book. After that, I tried to put my more meditative, less shocked brain onto the larger problem of the book, which itself was a method of deepening my understanding of the event and events. So, presented with some short-term revelations and intellectual understandings, I took to the longer, slower task of internalizing them.

The second part of the ending—the phone call—was edited out of the darker (visually so), chapter early on (Chapter 5). It was too long, too different in tone and didn’t say anything about our state of mind. But it was a powerful moment I thought should be in the book. Eventually, far into the writing, I realized that the connection to the outside world it brought, the contrast to another way of grieving—and just the use of her name—made it the right springboard into the final pages.

January 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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