Putting Endings First

June 16, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

The quote has become the default ending in American journalism and readers and writers are all poorer for it.

The other day I randomly picked
some news websites, clicked on stories, and scrolled to the bottom. Try
it yourself. Open a newspaper, pick a story, and let your eyes drift to
the end. There they are, those disembodied voices that bring way too
many news stories to a close.

Ending a story with a quote is
a reflex action, understandable especially in the crush of deadline,
but overused to the point of cliché. Worse, the kicker quote deprives
writers and readers of other, more effective ways to make their stories
memorable.

In the world of newswriting, leads get most of the attention, but endings are equally, if not more, important.

If leads are like “flashlights that shine down into the story,” as The New Yorker’s John McPhee once put it, endings can be eternal flames that keep a story alive in a reader’s head and heart.

Anne Hull used a fact to convey
the impact of a street crime on a woman police officer at the end of
her three-part narrative series, “Metal to Bone” in the St. Petersburg Times:

Lisa rarely thinks of Eugene, although she refuses to leave
her back exposed, even while having dinner at a restaurant. Her back is
always against a wall.

Sam Stanton of the Sacramento Bee could
have quoted any number of observers when he witnessed an execution in
1992, but he chose a declarative sentence — “After 25 years and nine
days, California’s gas chamber was back in operation.” — to signal an
end, and a new beginning.

“You can’t have a decent story if it doesn’t leave you with a strong
feeling or sense of image,” Rick Bragg told me when I interviewed him
in 1995, the year he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the ASNE award for
feature writing.

Bragg’s Pulitzer Prize-winning package of stories offers an object lesson for writers and editors looking for different options for a story’s ending.

Two stories end in quotes. A profile of
the southern Sheriff who persuaded Susan Smith to confess that she
drowned her two children and blamed a black man for the crime concludes
with a comment from the cop: “Susan Smith is smart in every area,” he
said, “except life.”

The story
about an Alabama prison for elderly and disabled inmates ends with a
comment about undertaking students at a local university who prepare
prisoners’ bodies for burial: “They make ’em up real nice,” the warden
said.

In a profile of a black Indian of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Bragg certainly had the material to use the same device.

Mr. Bannock sits and sweats in his house, working day and
night with his needle. He has never had time for a family. He lives for
Fat Tuesday.

“I need my mornin’ glory,” he said.

Most
writers would have ended the story there with that colorful quote, but
Bragg chose a detail instead that struck the chord of his theme: one
man’s devotion to a tradition larger than himself.

A few years ago he had a heart attack but did not have time to die. He had 40 yards of velvet to cut and sew.

There are several reasons why when faced with a blank space at the end of a story, most reporters plug in a quote.

One is expediency; it’s a quick and easy way to finish.

But there’s another subtler
explanation that has to do with the process of reporting. Reporters
often begin in the dark, uncertain about the meaning of the events or
issues that they must chronicle or explain. At least once during this
confusing journey, the reporter hears — or reads — something that
produces a moment of sudden clarity.

The words jump off a page or
emerge from a source’s mouth and into the notebook or tape recorder,
and suddenly the reporter grasps the meaning. The squawky violin plays
a true note. The piece slides into the puzzle. All that’s missing are
the quote marks. And the very next thought is, “Whew! I’ve got my
ending!”

That moment helps the
reporter understand the story, but it doesn’t have the same effect on
the reader who hasn’t come along on the same journey of discovery and
who needs different kinds of information to satisfactorily complete the
reading process.

“A good ending absolutely, positively, must do three things at a minimum,” Bruce DeSilva of The Associated Press told participants at the 2001 Narrative Journalism Conference co-sponsored by the Nieman Foundation and Poynter:

  1. Tell the reader the story is over.
  2. Nail the central point of the story to the reader’s mind.
  3. Resonate. “You should hear it echoing in your head when you put the
    paper down, when you turn the page. It shouldn’t just end and have a
    central point,” DeSilva said. “It should stay with you and make you
    think a little bit. The very best endings do something in addition to
    that. They surprise you a little. There’s a kind of twist to them
    that’s unexpected. And yet when you think about it for a second, you
    realize it’s exactly right.

In some cases, the writer just needs to reorganize. Take
that kicker quote and move it up higher, to buttress a description, or
punctuate a section. Find something else that reinforces the story’s
theme. Think harder about the ending, as Bob Baker does here.

Write the ending first, as Jon Franklin advises, so you’ll have a destination to aim for. Or at least know what it is.

“My advice to young people is to know what your ending is before you start writing,” Ken Fuson of the Des Moines Register says.

Whatever ending you choose, don’t make it an afterthought. Very few
readers will return to that brilliant lead you sweated over. The last
thing they’ll read, if you’ve done your job right, is the end. Make it
count.

Several years ago, Jack Hart, the veteran editor, coach, and writing
teacher, helped writers and editors see myriad possibilities for
beginning a story with his “Lexicon of Leads.”

In that spirit, I propose an Encyclopedia of Endings. Here are a few sample entries, drawn primarily from Don Murray.

Anecdotal ending
“The anecdote is a brief
story,” Murray says. “It combines character, place, dialogue, action,
and reaction. It summarizes by implication and demonstration.”

    Detail ending
    “The writer uses a specific
    detail, a concrete image, a fact, a statistic to conclude the story by
    implication. The part stands for the whole and allows the reader to
    take a specific piece of information away with him,” Murray says.

    Face ending
    “This ending allows the writer to
    stand back and let the camera focus on a significant person in the
    story,” Murray says. See detail ending.

    Narrative quote ending
    Most
    quotes in newspaper stories are contemporary, made usually in response
    to a reporter’s questions, rather than narrative, those “made at the
    time of the events being described,” a distinction James B.
    Stewart draws in “Follow the Story.”

    Quote ending
    “A quotation in itself is a piece
    of information,” Don Murray says. “Its authority comes from the
    speaker, not the reporter. It gives a sense of objectivity to the
    story, and it allows for a conclusion in a manner that the reader will
    accept and believe. It lets the writer get out of the way.”

    Scenic ending
    “This ending allows the writer to stand back and let the reader see the story,” Murray says.

    Schwab ending
    Columnist Tommy Tomlinson coined this name in honor of a Charlotte Observer editor named Gary Schwab who taught him to look for the unexpected ending.

    In a story about a young fishing star who died in a plane crash,
    Tomlinson ended with a description of his family scattering his ashes.
    “That’s the ending I expected,” Schwab told the reporter. “Can you give
    me an ending I didn’t expect?”

    In the interview I conducted with him for the upcoming “Best
    Newspaper Writing 2004,” Tomlinson described going back to his notes;
    he found a scene where the fisherman’s parents were playing a video of
    their son the day he caught his first fish.

    “When I put that down there, I thought, that is such a better ending
    to the story because it … brings it back to the beginning, and
    it adds such a richness to what is going on not only in this kid’s life
    but in his family life.

    “Any time I have a big story like this, I try to think, ‘Is there a Schwab ending that I could put on this story?'”

    [ Add an entry to the Encyclopedia of Endings.
    Name the ending, define it, and if possible, provide an illustration from a published story.
    ]