Thursday, July 7, 2016

Reverberate in Your Reader’s Soul: The Art of Writing Endings for Nonfiction

By Jenny J. Chen

At the Creative Nonfiction Conference I went to recently in Pittsburgh, Kristin Kovacic, author of House of Women, said, “You must stick the ending.”

As a reporter and creative nonfiction writer, I agree. Endings are so incredibly important, not only because they are the final note of a piece, but also because they give it a reason for being. A good ending should reverberate like a gong within the reader’s soul long after they’ve put the piece down.

Of course, crafting such an ending can be tricky. What defines a good ending? At the most elementary level, an ending should drive home the point without being too obvious (but what’s too obvious?). It should arise organically out of the material that came before so that it feels earned and “right.” There are also many great endings that break all the rules. I set out to examine some of my favorite endings in an expedition to figure out what makes them so powerful. Warning: obviously, there are spoilers here.

Steroid Nation
By Shaun Assael
This book follows the rise and fall of Dan Duchaine, “godfather” of the steroid movement in the U.S., as he deals in steroids and accidentally ruins the lives of several girlfriends along the way. He finally succumbs to cancer at the age of 48. Duchaine is the author of the Underground Steroid Handbook, which catapulted steroids into mainstream athletic communities. Assael expertly crafts a tale that is both riveting and meticulously researched.

The ending is no less spectacular. In the last chapter, Assael concludes by saying the steroid community Duchaine built has grown uncontrollably to become a “steroid nation” and then a “steroid world.” The last paragraph reads:

“In 1981, Dan Duchaine had a simple idea for a book that would galvanize the new world he wanted to create. The words he helped write in the Underground Steroid Handbook sound as urgent today as they did then: ‘Although we will antagonize many of you, we thought we should tell the truth about steroids.’”

The “truth” in the original context is that steroids are effective and safe if used in a knowledgeable way. Assael has co-opted Duchaine’s words to drive home the message that his book tells the “truth”—steroids ruin lives and Duchaine’s in particular. If you can find a way to circle back to a key, multi-dimensional theme in your piece, do it. It can be difficult to find something that fits so perfectly, so it is also important to note other features of this ending:

  • It circles back to the beginning of the story but doesn’t “bookend” it. Most endings do this and it gives endings a feeling of completion—that they’re arising organically from previous material.
  • It drives home the theme that Assael has been carrying throughout the book. Note that the theme is different from the argument. Many people will say that the ending should emphasize the take-home message, but the technique can be crude because it lacks subtlety and bangs the reader over the head with a take away. 
  • I can imagine Assael telling his buddies over a drink that he wanted to write this book to tell people the truth about steroids. And so he leaves us with that thought.

Welcome to Dog World!
By Blair Braverman
Blair Braverman’s esasay for The Atavist is one of the most amazing personal essays I have read in a long time. Braverman details a claustrophobic experience working at a luxury tourist spot called Dog World in a remote part of Alaska. Braverman is in charge of taking the tourists out on mushing expeditions. Behind the scenes, however, she and her fellow female musher have to endure bullying and sexual harassment from their male co-workers.

In the middle of the story, news breaks that the tourists are stranded in Dog World. It becomes the staff’s job to keep the tourists calm and happy with bright smiles and endless rounds of Parcheesi. At the end of the piece, when the helicopters finally arrive, Braverman writes:

“…in the moment, mid-rescue, the dogs were in a frenzy, yelping and leaping on their chains, and the pilots were shouting, and the noise of the rotors drowned everything else.

I remember this, though: When the helicopters first came into view, all of the guests, as if by instinct, raised their arms, reaching. And without realizing it, I did, too.”

This ending left me breathless. It spiraled organically from the central tensions running through the piece: Braverman’s desire to get out of Dog World and the disconnect between the tourists’ experiences and the staff’s experiences.

Not all endings need to include commentary (in fact, the best ones don’t), and this is an example of how a scene can do the job in a much more subtle way. Avoid being too heavy-handed with this approach by carefully examining the scene for details and images that echo your themes or tensions, instead of trying to force a scene into that role. I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that Braverman has a book coming out called Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Check it out—you won’t be disappointed.
The Story of a Year
By David James Poissant
David James Poissant’s essay, published in the spring 2016 issue of Ecotone, details in sparse, beautiful language, the struggles of the author’s family move to Florida. Throughout the course of the piece, Poissant reveals both big and small events in a matter-of-fact way. The family buys multiple fish (as they die one after the other); his little girls grow up; an armadillo makes a nest under their house; and the mother is diagnosed with breast cancer and survives treatment. There’s a strong sense of the march of time. In the last lines, he writes:

“And then it’s toothbrush time and pee time and prayer time and story time.
And the children are nestled all snug in their beds.
And before long—but let’s not get to before long. Before long will come soon enough.
And under the house, the armadillo digs and digs.”

The return of the armadillo not only echoes earlier material but it also conveys the central theme of the piece, which is, simply, life goes on. It even matches that theme in rhythm and tone—“digs and digs” suggests both the continual and often repetitive nature of daily life. As with Assael’s book, this ending reflects the theme of the piece, not necessarily the take-home message.

It may seem blasphemous for a blog post on endings not to have a great ending lined up, but good endings take time. They need to marinate in musings before they emerge. I hope that, at the very least, this post has given you something to muse about.

Jenny J. Chen is a science and health reporter based in D.C. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic,, NPR, Washington Post, and others. She moonlights as a poet and creative nonfiction writer.

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