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Endings To Remember

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 2:07 PM

Conclusions are just as important as the leads.

By Peter P. Jacobi

We haven't dealt with endings for a while. They're important, unless you're writing a news story in inverted pyramid structure and that sort of meanders away, your having stacked the critical information up high and then the rest of the material in descending order of value.

Endings wind up. They may also sum up or leave tantalizing questions for the reader to ponder. They may engender future action on the part of the reader, or so is the hope of the writer. They may simply be stop-action material, needed because the writer has to call a halt somewhere in the proceedings, even though the life or the event or the situation pursued in the story rolls right along without stopping.

A quote, an observation, dialogue, an anecdote, a descriptive vignette, an informational repeat, or a coalescing point may serve as means to an end. Your task is to determine the appropriate means, depending on the tenor of the story, its purported purpose for a chosen audience, and what you have provided in content and attitude during the unfolding of the story.

In other words, the end should suit what came before. It should not be a mere tag or verbal toy but a meaningful conclusion. It should be a natural part of the story's weave.

Ending with a Quote

Take this summarizing quote in a USA Today article, "Ideas pour in to help BP handle Gulf oil spill." Writer Brian Winter, after covering the flood of suggestions that concerned folks have sent in for BP to consider, tell us: "The offers of help don't always center on cutting edge technology. Sister Jenna Mahraj, director of the Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual organization with roots in India, is calling on her supporters to hold a minute of silence every hour to 'express our well wishes toward the Gulf. The power of pure thinking can accomplish many things,' she said. 'And every little bit helps.'"

The quote draws the story to a satisfactory conclusion.

The Ending Ends the Article, but not the Story

Shawn LaFraniere's in-depth story for The New York Times, "Hidden Misery: A Glimpse into North Korea, Tales of Hardship and the Toll of a Failed Policy," emphasizes the isolation of that nation's people. As the article unfolds, we discover that some citizens are beginning to break their silence in questioning the country's long standing regime and leader Kim Jong-Il. One woman recalls her sister's most recent visit and whispered comment, "People follow him because of fear, not because of love."

LaFraniere then writes: "Since the currency devaluation, she and others say, people are noticeably bolder with such comments. "Now, if you go to the market, people will say anything,' the construction worker said. 'They will say the government is a thief - even in broad daylight.'

"His wife was not among them. For weeks after the devaluation, he said, she lay on a living-room floor mat, immobilized by depression. 'I had no strength to say anything to her,' he said.

"Finally, he told her to get up. It was time to start over."

The ending sheds light through a family's experience and its aftermath, which is still ongoing.

Leave the Reader with Something to Think About

Time magazine's cover package, "The Problem with Football - Our favorite sport is too dangerous. How to make the game safer," ranges across the medical and psychological waterfront. The coverage ends with a second story authored by Buzz Bissinger, creator of the TV series Friday Night Lights. He concludes with this admonishing paragraph:

"There should be an ambulance at every high school game. There should be trainers. But don't bet on it, as school districts cry a lack of money. Kids will continue to suffer serious head injuries. Kids will continue to become paralyzed because they never learned how to properly tackle, with their heads up. The game's violence will continue because that's exactly why we like it, our gladiatorial lust still intact 16 centuries after the Romans. The bigger the hit, the greater the roar."

We're given something to think about and, perhaps, also a push to take action.

Descriptive Narrative

Virginia Morell's study for National Geographic of New Guinea's bower birds, "Build It, and they will come," finishes up with a mating situation, with a male the naturalists have named Donald hoping that a female they call Mary, or perhaps another bird, will come to him. Donald is waiting at his tower.

Says one of the scientists: "I'd guess that wasn't her first visit at Donald's. And I'd bet she'll be back." Writer Morell follows with: "Perhaps Donald thinks so, too. Or perhaps he hopes another Mary will come. Either way, he doesn't dither but gets to work again. He tucks his party crest away and putters around the base of his tower, carrying off bits of broken moss and twigs. He rearranges the nuts and straightens up his beetle pile. As a last touch, he adjusts the garlands of caterpillar feces. He steps back and eyes the whole structure, deciding, it seems, that the tower is ready for another visitation. Then Donald jumps back on his perch and starts the song again. Rat-a-tat-tat, he calls. Rat-a-tat-tat."

A descriptive narrative has served to bring this story to a close.

Choose what works for you and your story.

Which leads me to a final point: Leads have reasons for being, the big one being to cause the reader to enter the story. Endings should cause that reader to remember the reading.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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