Tag Archives: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos

How to Write a Story Ending

17 Apr
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 Story 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!

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How to Distinguish Fact from Fiction in an Essay

15 Apr
Óscar Martínez's book of essays about migrants, The Beast, was published in English by Verso books and in Spanish by Icaria Editorial.

Photo Credit: Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau                                 Óscar Martínez’s book of essays about migrants, The Beast, was published in English by Verso Books and in Spanish by Icaria Editorial.

Some stories have been told so many times that they become a genre with rules: when a particular thing happens, the character reacts a particular way. But what if those rules are wrong? For some stories, it’s not enough to tell the truth. You must also consciously distinguish the facts from the fiction that your readers expect. What hangs in the balance is often the humanity of the people you’re writing about.

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez is telling this kind of story in his book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and collected in an edition published first in Mexico and now, in English, by Verso Books. The original title in Spanish—Los migrantes que no importan (The Migrants Who Don’t Matter)—gives a sense for what is as stake in the essays. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many migrants, and, taken as a summary with only names and basic events, some of these stories begin to sound like a certain kind of fiction. For instance, Martínez interviews three Salvadoran brothers traveling to the U.S. to escape gang violence. The youngest brother is Pitbull, a 17-year-old who watched his friend Juan Carlos get shot in broad daylight. The next day, he found and put on a police uniform and “went to downtown Chalchuapa looking for the murderer’s accomplice who had gotten away. All day he searched through alleyways and makeshift street shops.” He eventually identified the killers to the police, but the killers recognized him, too, and soon threats were made against his life. If you’ve watched any gang movies, you may have an expectation for what comes next, but this is the point where fact and fiction part ways, as Martínez explains:

If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.

But Pitbull lives in the real world. He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.

Once Martínez establishes that this story will depart from the usual story line, he explains why this departure matters:

What’s more, not even the police reports contain many details. When they killed Juan Carlos—January or February, he doesn’t exactly remember – nine other men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five were killed, just in Chalchuapa. And Pitbull doesn’t even know if Juan Carlos was his friend’s real name.

“That’s what he called himself,” Pitbull says. “But he was in a gang and he had problems in some of the other barrios. I heard people call him a lot of different names.”

William, José, Miguel, Carlos, Ronal, Unidentified, any of these could have been Juan Carlos. All of these young men were murdered in Chalchuapa in the same month. And even if one were to know the facts of the murder, I have a hunch that, like the facts of so many other migrant murder cases, the details would be so scarce they’d simply disappear. Evaporate. It’d be as if nothing had ever happened.

The risk of turning “true” stories into a fictional genre is that the real people involved are turned into stock characters. When Martínez distinguishes fact from fiction, then, he is, in a way, giving life to the people in his stories.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to distinguish fact from fiction, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model. This exercise may be most useful as a tool for revision:

  1. Boil a character and story down to a tagline. To do this, choose a character and story (or person and essay) you’ve created and simplify everything about them. What is the quickest version you could tell someone. For help, think of movie posters. They use simple images that show you the essence of the main character and a phrase or short sentence to state the stakes. For instance, the new movie Draft Day has a poster that shows Kevin Costner in a suit and holding a football in front of signs for the NFL draft. The tagline is “The Greatest Victories Don’t Always Happen on the Field.”
  2. State the movie version. Imagine if your character and tagline were put in the hands of a movie producer hoping for a blockbuster—in other words, someone who will likely hew to convention. How would that person pitch your story, especially the conflict? Try to write the pitch as a series of actions in a single sentence. Here’s how Martínez does it: “If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.”
  3. Explain how your character lives in the real world. Keep the explanation short and focused on the nature of the world and how it’s different from the world of movies. You’re basically tweaking the tagline you wrote earlier. Martínez started with barrio contacts and turned them into this: “He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.” How can you sum up your tagline so that it’s not about a character’s individual action but, instead, about the larger forces that operate around that character.
  4. Show how the world impacts the character(s). What choices do the characters make in reaction to the world you’ve just described? In Martínez’s essay, Juan Carlos created aliases to avoid the pockets of violence all around him. These aliases have the effect of making him hard to officially identify by the authorities—or even by the people closest to him. As a result, when he’s found murdered, no one can say for certain who he is. His identify has been spread so thin that he’s rendered almost invisible. Think about the choices your characters make. What are the consequences of these simple, necessary decisions? What impact do they have later on? Or, how do these choices affect the character’s actions once he/she is dropped into the plot or story you’re writing about?

This exercise should work for both fiction and nonfiction. In both, you’re keeping in mind the readers’ expectations about your story due to the previous way it’s been told.

Good luck!

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