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How to End a Story, Part II

Posted on Friday, January 29, 2021 at 1:57 AM

The final tips for putting a strong ending on your article.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Vivid narrative mesmerizes -- if it's vivid as is Diane Ackerman's in her extended article on bats for the New Yorker:

Sodium lights from [another hotel] cast a trail of copper coins across the water. Suddenly, smoke billowed from underneath the bridge. No, not smoke, but a column of bats. Then two columns soared high and flew in parallel, like the long black reins of an invisible sleigh. Bats kept surging out, and soon, four columns stretched miles across the sky. A few strays looped and fed near us, passing like shuttles through the weave of trees. The night was noticeably free from insects, but that was no surprise. These bats would eat five thousand pounds of insects that one night alone.

In a medieval simile of Venerable Bede's [from the Dark Ages], life is depicted as a beautiful and strange winged creature that appears at a window, flies swiftly through the half-lit banquet hall, and is gone. That seems about right for a vision of creation as beautiful as this one was, which soon included the city lights, the sunset doing a shadow dance over the water, and the four columns of bats undulating across the sky.

Ackerman is holding those prisoners in a special realm, one she has re-created from experience into a verbal experience we are not likely to forget.

Concluding with "Pointers"

A last list of points can take us out of the story. Sue Zesiger, in "Off-Road America" for Men's Journal, has urged us to go to Owyhee County, Idaho. "This isn't the end of the world, but you can see it from here," one resident of the place says. Zesiger concludes with "a few Owyhee tips":

Don't leave gates open. Don't call ranchers and farmers. Wait out storms -- they pass quickly and the ground dries within an hour. Don't stay out past dusk, unless you're prepared to camp -- time and distance are distorted by the endless landscape. And if you hit a cow, you bought it ($1000 a head).

Philosophical Endings

In the same magazine, the crusty P. J. O'Rourke takes the reader on a bird hunt. "Brave Hunter, Stout Woodcock," the article is called. And the point of the piece is emphasized in the subtitle: "For a man of refinement, bird hunting has its indignities. Few of them, however, are perpetuated on the birds." O'Rourke proves his point, believe me, and then he ends with this touch of philosophy, a point of view he's developed since looking into the subject:

It is only natural that war and hunting are of a kidney. Hunting has been intimately connected with warfare since the beginning of civilization. And before the beginning of civilization there probably wasn't a difference. The traditional leisure activity of archers and lancers and knights and such, when not killing people, was to kill other things.

We don't need hunting in the modern world. It makes the wilderness so primitive. It upsets actresses and undergraduates. And, anyway, we can easily bag a cheeseburger out the window of our car. But we do need war. At least I assume we do -- to judge by the amount of it that's going on in the world at any given moment. And it's my theory that the entire purpose of the annual hunting trip is to make war look, comparatively speaking, like fun.

Predictions Bring Closure

Is prediction a useful part of your article? Well, then looking ahead might serve to bring matters to a close. That's what Richard Rhodes chose to do in an old Omni article, "Imitations of Immortality":

No one knows how much increased lifespan those future generations are likely to get. The body changes with chronological age in ways that aren't affected by its rate of aging. Waste products accumulate regardless. The ultimate human life span might be 350 years or it might be 1,000 years or it might even be the fabled 20,000. It won't be forever; that's still the prerogative and the curse of the gods.

But you know us. We'll give it a shot. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who hated the title the world correctly gave him, Father of the Atomic Bomb, made the point about this near the end of his painful 62 years of life. "It is a profound and necessary truth," he said, "that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them." If it is possible to find a way to redesign mankind, to improve the model, to give it a little more time, to cheat death, mankind will.

Anecdotal Finales

A little story, an anecdote, perhaps with a touch of humor, or at least the lesson of sorts, may do the trick. Winthrop Sargent, in his profile of the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini for Life, drew the curtain this way:

Again and again Toscanini has been criticized for unearthing some tawdry little operatic overture or piece of ballet music and performing it on a serious symphonic program. But even his severest critics have had to admit that he always managed to make these trivial items seem like polished gems before he was through with them. There is perhaps a grain of truth in the popular anecdote that has Toscanini meeting the Italian composer, Respighi, on a street corner in Italy: "Have you heard me conduct your Pines of Rome?" inquires the Maestro. "No, I haven't," admits Respighi. "You really should," replies Toscanini drily. "It's wonderful. You wouldn't recognize it."

Note Its Purpose

Ask yourself: What should the ending do? Respond accordingly.

Should it complete, give the sense thereof? Should it satisfy, leave pleasure or pain on the palate? Should it sum up, either leave no questions or highlight questions for the reader to ponder? Should it suggest the future, imply what may come next?

Be Concise

But also remember, by the time readers get to that point in an article, they may be getting a bit tired or satiated. So, with your ending: make it lean.

Not as a Rossini overture ends, which is extensively and repeatedly. But rather, as in Leoncavallo's opera, I Pagliacci, in which Canio, the clown, having killed his faithless wife and her lover, breaks from the script of a play within a play and mutters: "La commedia è finita." The comedy is finished. Curtain.

Say what must be said in the way that you must say it. And then step away. A final climax or fade-out. Whatever. But stop. Here's my final ending: We are done.

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter P. Jacobi, longtime EO writer and author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It.

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