All’s Well That Ends Well

December 5, 2017 § 27 Comments


Your ending should be one singular sensation

Flash memoir is much more difficult than “only 750 words” suggests. As readers, we see finished pieces. Work that’s had a writing buddy or teacher or group say, “I don’t understand that bit,” or “There’s a problem there. Fix it.” But as writers, we’re wading through the murky middle, trying to believe in the Santa Claus of “All the professional writers you love write terrible first drafts! So terrible they will never show you!”

Without seeing, it’s hard to believe.

That’s where reading for a literary magazine (if we can) or reading fellow writers’ work in a group or class serves us. We get to see the pages that need another draft. As a freelance editor, I see similarities in short nonfiction-in-progress. Often, pieces don’t resolve, or don’t have the key story moments of beginning, middle and end. Sometimes the narrator tells what they experienced instead of making the reader feel what they felt. But the most common challenge in flash essays is the very last line.

About half the essays I see could cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper, tighter, cleaner “button” to make even a short piece feel satisfyingly finished.

Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps as writers we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we’re so used to slogging forward it’s hard to stop that inertia at word 739. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have felt a need to work on that element of our craft.

This example is mine, for the purpose of this post—but I’m copying the structure of the issues I see most often.

[Imagine this finishes an essay about a couple visiting India, trying to get on a blocked-off beach to watch the sunset. They’ve irritated each other throughout the story in small ways; he wants to protect/insulate her, she wants to be a little dangerous/culturally insensitive.]

The policeman tried to stop us, but I’d yammered at him in English I knew he didn’t understand and ducked under the plastic tape. “He won’t shoot us, we’re tourists,” I said, and Mark ducked under, too, his face twisting into sorry at the cop and exasperated with me. We sat on piled broken concrete on the dirty beach while the sun vanished behind an oil tanker.

How can we wrap this sucker up, in a way that says something emotionally meaningful happened here, and it was a big enough deal that we bothered to write about it?

Some things to avoid:

  • Don’t summarize.

The rest of our trip had been terrible, too—if only I could have made this evening work, maybe I could have made our marriage work.

That’s when I knew I had to leave him if I was ever going to enjoy my life.

  • Don’t explain.

I hated that he wasn’t ready for the adventure I wanted my life to be.

Even in India, we were destined to clash, our different backgrounds never letting us truly understand each other.

  • Don’t justify.

As the sun set, I realized I couldn’t stay with him—I needed a partner who didn’t judge me.

If he didn’t want to travel wild, he shouldn’t have gone with me, and I wasn’t taking him any further.

  • Don’t excuse.

I wish I’d been nicer, but I was twenty, still unaware of privilege easing my way, unappreciative of what Mark meant by “relax honey, just relax.”

Thank goodness I outgrew that stage, even if it did take until our 40th wedding anniversary.

Summarizing and explaining are subconscious manifestations of our fear of not writing well enough. They tell the reader, I’d better spell it out for you in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.

Instead, use the last line to either gently enfold the reader in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. You could:

  • Take one step further than the reader thought you’d go. Go to a higher/deeper emotional level.

I wished one of us would fill our pockets with ragged cement shards and step into the waves.

[NB one line too many is a challenge for every single writer no matter what level, because I originally added It would be easier than breaking up, then realized that was one too many.]

  • Twist. Show us the opposite of everything the narrator has felt or done so far.

I wanted the cop to say no, I wanted Mark to say no, I wanted someone—anyone—to stop me, send me home, tell me where that was.

[I don’t love the “that” in the last line, so I’d wrestle more with that in a real essay.]

  • Admit guilt/fault/complicity.

“See, it’s fine,” I said, and we both knew it wasn’t—it wouldn’t ever be.

Mark’s shadow slumped on the sand, and I missed the man I’d ruined.

  • Undercut/empathize.

I reached for Mark’s hand, and we squeezed hard, each hoping we were doing something right.

Sure, there are other ways to end a flash piece strong (feel free to share examples in the comments!) But these are some techniques to get started. Once the emotion is on the page, sharpen your pencil and ask of your last line, what purpose do you serve? Let the sentence tell you if it belongs.

_______________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She just returned from scouting locations in India for a May 2018 writing workshop, hence this example.

 

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§ 27 Responses to All’s Well That Ends Well

  • Sarah says:

    Always. So. Good.
    Thank you.

  • Reader Runner Writer says:

    The ending can be the most difficult but the most delicious part. I love that last sentence I wasn’t expecting that breaks me out in goosebumps.

  • bethfinke says:

    Funny. The writers I work with (adults over 65, for the most part) seem to have much more trouble with the opening line of the personal essays they write for class. So many would benefit by cutting the first sentence, or sometimes even the entire first paragraph, of their essays. Many of them tell me they were taught in school to start every piece of writing with an introduction that explains what they’re about to write. You know, rather than just getting right into it from the start. A lot of what you’ve written here can apply to introductions, too, so I thank you so much for this post -especially the example towards the end, very helpful. Now time for me to start looking harder at their endings!

    _____

  • I trick I used to impose on my students writing creative nonfiction was to have them cut the final paragraph and move it to the beginning, and then edit from there. They hated this process at first, but they almost always improved both parts of their essay. I suppose taking my own advice and yours would serve me. Thank you.

  • Karin Gall says:

    Great article. Thanks.

  • Yowza! Thanks, Allison!

  • corazon181 says:

    Very helpful. Now the hard part, putting into practice for myself. Thank you for a great article.

  • Joanne says:

    Fabulous. And great comments above, too!

  • […] Brevity covers this topic in one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time Here’s just a sample of the Don’t tips you’ll learn from,  All’s Well That Ends Well.   […]

  • twobytour says:

    These are really strong tips. I’m a little embarrassed to admit the piece I just wrote is guilty of some of your don’ts. It’s funny, I could tell the line was weak, but you really did a great job of illustrating how to fix the problem. Thanks!

  • herheadache says:

    More to think about as I write. Thanks.

  • Yes, yes, yes! I appreciate how straightforward this post is Allison and couldn’t agree more, especially about the dreaded summarized ending – drives me batty.
    I write memoirs, essays and shorts and am ashamed to admit that many of my shorts are unfinished because, while writing the story, I fell in love with the characters and I don’t want their stories to end. I suppose it’s no wonder I end so many flash pieces with a cliffhanger. 🙂

    I’ve been on hiatus for quite some time and am just now getting back into the swing of things with my work. One exercise that’s helped me improve the shorts is similar to the paragraph shifting that Janprid describes; I cut each paragraph [of the physical hard copy] and then shuffle them about without looking at the words (lay them face down as you would a deck of cards). It’s interesting to note that the end result of most of the stories is when the last paragraph is inserted around the 2/3rd’s mark. This can also create a boatload of laughs in case your kids are bored. 😉

    Creative nonfiction: Deanna Schrayer
    Short fiction: Roslyn Fain

  • I often find my beginning writers try to moralize their stories in the end. (Something we all learned to absorb via our childhood bedtime stories!) Hack the writing off at the moral, and the ending is usually just right.

  • Susan Rowe says:

    Great article for writers and teachers of writing.

  • Ahmed Saeed says:

    All is well indeed

  • ALTON POWELL says:

    A LOT OF THESE WAYS ARE HELPFUL TO THE WRITER .ENDING A WRITING IS VERY HARD SOMETIMES .THE WRITER HAS GIVEN US MANY DIFFERENT WAYS TO END . THIS HAVE HELP ME . YET AND STILL I AM NEW AT ALOT OF THIS SO LORD PLEASE BE WITH ME.

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