A Good Ending

Most stories change once a writer finds the end. How could it not? The end is a story’s destination, the emotional and spiritual target toward which all action is aimed. Often, once a writer finds the story’s true ending, she must go back and remove those bits not affiliated with the conclusion, or fill those gaps the in story’s narrative architecture. A story must stand firmly, and move surprisingly but inevitably forward.

Yet the ending is also the story’s meaning, the reason it was told in the first place. In every story the hero or heroine will suffer. In every story a character we hopefully love will be chased by killers, or watch a loved one die, or go hungry, or be thrown in prison. Without suffering, there is no story. The story’s ending is the reason for that suffering.

Did the hero suffer to exact vengeance? Did the heroine suffer so that she might at last be crowned queen and have her subjects bow down to her as they rightly should? Or did the hero suffer to learn compassion? Did the heroine seek love so that she might love herself? The answer should inform all your narrative choices throughout your story.

All of which reminds me of the stories we tell about death. The more I read, and the more I write, and the more I talk to writers who have written about death – either their own near death or the death of a loved one – the more I have come to understand that the story we tell about death becomes the story we tell about life. How can it not? Death is this story’s inevitable conclusion.

I used to fear death for precisely this reason. It wasn’t the actual dying I feared, but death’s message. All my life would be lived toward this one moment where the meaning or meaninglessness of everything I had done would be revealed. Now I would learn if I have lived correctly or incorrectly. This was a terrible and incurable uncertainty. What choice had I but to select my own story about death and live toward it, and how glad I was to find that the message I believed awaited me at my end was delivered the moment I chose it.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Never Ending

I have always loved to tell stories, particularly stories from my own life. When I was a boy and a young man, however, I frequently ran into a recurring problem. I would begin my tale with great enthusiasm, launching into whatever incredible event I felt demanded both my and my listener’s attention. Everything would usually go swimmingly as I mimicked my character’s voices, paused for dramatic effect, and allowed myself to feel again the joy, shame, or frustration of that moment.

Then I came to the end. Then I arrived at that moment I had somehow never anticipated, that moment that, like it or not, asked, “And why are you telling this?” My answer usually amounted to: “Can you believe the kind of crazy shit that happens to me?” This was not a horrible ending, but it made my life feel like the tale told by Shakespeare’s idiot, just a bunch of sound and fury.

And so perhaps it was. I sulked about the world for a time, disappointed with stories and with life. It all ends with a whimper, doesn’t it? Why, it hardly even seems worth writing about. I would not be the one to disappoint others; let them figure out Santa isn’t real themselves.

But life itself does not end merely because you have become disillusioned with it. It goes on and so did I, and from time to time in my sulking I would remember those stories I used to begin with such enthusiasm. I could still feel within me that same pull to tell them. At my gloomiest, this pull felt like a relentless siren song, a stubborn betrayal, and I would see myself as a kind of tragic hero doomed with unfortunate insight.

Self-pity is a drug with a very short high, and even I grew sick of it. Meanwhile, these stories still asked me to tell them. Perhaps, I thought, the true ending was in the beginning. Perhaps I’d had it right from the start. So I began telling the stories again. This time, however, I didn’t try to end them. Instead, I merely looked for a point on the horizon that confirmed my enthusiasm, an excellent vista from whose perch the rest of life was still visible.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

World Without End

I wrote yesterday about the trouble with middles. Equally troubling, I believe, are endings. In fact, as I have written many times in this space, I believe ends are the difference between a good story and a great story. To me, the ending is why the story was written, a promise fulfilled that the reader will be left in a better place than where he or she started, whether that ending is comic, romantic, or tragic.

There is no such thing as a formula for a good ending, but the one piece of advice I have read on the matter came from one of the best story-enders I’ve read: Ernest Hemingway. To me, what separated Hemingway was as much his endings as his “style,” from stories like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” to the novels, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea. In A Movable Feast, Hemingway wrote that in Paris he “discovered” the technique of “ending a story before the ending.”

I like this. For one thing, you avoid the horrible, tedious trap of the story that won’t end, a symptom of the writer not being certain the reader yet understands what he was trying to say or worrying that he has not yet left his reader in the best place possible. So it’s economical. But more than that, it actually puts the ending in the imagination of the reader, which is where I think it belongs.

Life doesn’t actually end, after all. Someone may die, but someone else is always born; after the wedding, there is a marriage and maybe children and then maybe a divorce. Endings don’t actually exist. But our stories must end, and the question for the author is how quickly can I get out and leave the reader with the feeling of what has been learned, and what is to come.

That feeling is the gift. Because as your reader finishes the story in her imagination, feeling the message you haven’t spoken but have inferred, the character’s change becomes hers. Now you have done more than merely tell a story; you have ignited the spark of potential within a stranger by appealing to the power of her own imagination.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Ending That Already Was

One of my hobbies when not writing fiction or blogs is to write music. This morning I decided to wrap up once and for all a piano piece that I had been putting off finishing for several months. I seemed to remember leaving the thing hanging on an unresolved chord and not sure where to go next.  So I cracked my knuckles, sat down at the computer next to my 10 year-old son, and had a listen.

The piece was going along fine, and my son was listening with me and I was explaining how I’d been so annoyed that I didn’t know how to finish it, and maybe it wasn’t meant to be, when the song reached the end of what I had written with a tidy, happy little chord.

“It’s finished!” said my son.

He was right. It was finished and I hadn’t even realized it. I had been living with the idea for several months that the piece had lots of potential but had nowhere to go, while apparently it had already arrived.

It often seems that we are simply seeing and hearing what there is to see and hear. The tree is green, the siren is loud—these are the immutable qualities of the world around us that we dutifully perceive. Yet whenever I write I become more aware of what a constant filter for the world I actually am. It is not that nothing is at it seems, it is that nothing is anything until you say it is.

Translation is all. That a flower is alive in your hand one moment as you inhale its smell and then dead the next because it cannot speak. That your husband is rude one moment for ignoring your hello kiss and then distracted the next as you remember his impending deadline. That a song you call finished today was called incomplete yesterday because you wanted more from it than it could reasonably give.

More Author Articles