This is another Training Tracks blog post from the No Train, No Gain archive. It originally posted March 29, 2005. Any updates from me are in bold. It includes links to a couple of my favorite stories and some outstanding narratives by other writers.
When a reporter asks for help, a writing coach needs to respond with helpful advice right away.
When I was writing coach at the Des Moines Register, a reporter asked me to take a look at a draft of a story he was working on. I said I’d take a look and get back to him. But I was busy. I can’t remember what I was busy with, but a day slipped by, then a couple of days, then a week or two. Then I found out I would need surgery and I was off work for a little more than a month. As I was sifting through the mound of stuff that accumulated while I was gone, I found the reporter’s story. It was an enterprise story that hadn’t run yet, so I responded with some advice and an apology. The reporter was understanding, probably giving me a pass because of the surgery. But he never asked for my help again.
The best training opportunity is when someone wants to learn. Ever since I blew off that reporter, I try to drop what I’m doing and respond right away when someone asks me for help. Pride of authorship keeps too many reporters from asking for help. When one does request help, that is an excellent opportunity for a writing coach or editor to have an impact and teach a new skill.
Recently a business reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, Jonathan Wegner, sent me an e-mail asking, “I’m wondering if you have any resources that advise how to end without a quote when writing long features. The quote is the done thing, I know, but I’m hoping you have tips for other ways to go out with a blaze.”
It was late on a Friday afternoon and I was just getting ready to leave for an appointment, so I couldn’t help right away. But I did respond right away, promising to get back to him Monday with advice. Now, if I was developing a workshop on ending stories, I might have worked on and off for a couple weeks on the handout and it would have been much more polished than my response to Jonathan but not as helpful.
This was on his mind at that moment, so I needed to respond when he was most interested and open to the help. I quickly went to Roy Peter Clark’s “Writer’s Toolbox” series of columns, recalling that Roy had written about endings. I presumed correctly that Bob Baker had taken up the matter on his “Newsthinking” web site, too. That gave me a couple of resources to pass along to Jonathan. Then I looked at some stories I had ended strongly with and without quotes and explained how I try to end a story. I wrapped up with links to a couple other stories that end effectively without quotes:
First, let me tell you that Roy Peter Clark can answer this question much better than I can. Here’s his column, “Write Endings to Lock the Box,” Tool #30 in his Writer’s Toolbox series. The link I provided in that blog post is no longer active, but Roy compiled his Toolbox columns into a book, Writing Tools, also the title of a blog Roy writes.
And Bob Baker gives you a great example here, with a first-person how-to. Alas, the link I provided here is no longer active, either, but I do recommend Bob’s Newsthinking site.
Now, some of my own thoughts, with some examples:
I don’t think of a quote as the way to end a story. The way to end the story is to resolve the conflict or to answer the central question that you raised early in the story. If a quote does that, then by all means use it, but often a quote doesn’t do it. I’m going to give you some examples from personal experience (where I can tell you exactly what I did and why) and some from other stories, where I can observe the result of the writer’s craft (and might try to read the writer’s mind a little):
1. One of the best stories I’ve ever done (Jan. 26, 1997) was about the effort to save twin 3-year-old girls who nearly froze to death when they left their house on a cold night. It starts with one of my best leads ever: “Jennifer’s tiny heart gave up. But no one else would.” In those 10 words, I set up the conflict of the story: This girl was near death and lots of people were trying to save her. The top went on to say that her heart stopped beating in the emergency room as they were going to transfer her from St. Joe’s to Children’s where they were going to use special equipment to pump blood out of the girls’ bodies, warm it up and then pump it back into them. About 70 inches later, the ER crew at St. Joe’s is calling over to Children’s to see how they’re doing. And here’s my end:
“She’s doing terrific,” the Children’s nurse told Ms. Alexander. “She’s off pump. She’s pink. She’s making urine. We’re a little worried about her toes.”
It was the best news Ms. Alexander could have hoped for. She hung up the phone and walked out with her arms raised over her head, like an athlete celebrating a victory, and spread the joyous news.
Her toes? The worry had moved from Jennifer’s heart to her toes.
See how that echoes the lead? Each is short, two sentences, the second responding to the first. The first sets up the tension, centered on Jennifer’s heart. The second resolves the tension: Now we’re a little worried about her toes. By coincidence, I blogged about the rescue of the twins in January.
Here’s another one of my best stories, ending in a quote. But you’ll see that the quote does exactly the same thing. It’s a story that ran Nov. 9, 1997, telling the story of the four people in that famous WWII homecoming picture that you see all over this place that won our last Pulitzer. Here’s the lead: “The homecoming was joyous – an exuberant hug frozen forever by a camera’s flash.” Two hundred inches later, I’ve told the story of the four people in the picture, wrapping up with the funeral of the soldier in the photo, in the same town as the depot. I liked the quote because it took us back to World War II and because it was a subtle echo of the “frozen forever” reference to the immortality of that photo: “Outside the Presbyterian Church, the message board quoted one of World War II’s most famed generals, Douglas MacArthur: ‘Old soldiers never die.'”
Here’s the ending of a story I did about some Afghan teachers who visited Nebraska in 2002. I did several stories during their five-week visit. This was about the cultural exchange between the Americans and Afghans. I closed with a scene and decided description was more appropriate than any quote that I had:
At the farewell potluck dinner in Scottsbluff, Suraiyaa led the women in singing a patriotic Afghan song. Though the Americans couldn’t understand the words, they found the melody enchanting as Suraiyaa sang four verses a cappella, with the rest of the Afghans joining for a chorus.
After sustained applause, translator Raheem Yaseer of UNO explained that the song first described the beauty of pre – war Afghanistan and then the destruction it has endured, listing places such as Bamiyan and Kabul that are in ruins.
The final verse, addressing the motherland, says the people are “hopeful and working hard to rebuild you and bring back the old glories.”
The Americans responded with “America the Beautiful.”
Smiles, goose bumps and moist eyes around the room indicated that the familiar song had taken on new meaning.
Another of the stories about the Afghan women told how they continued teaching during the Taliban regime, risking their lives to hold underground classes in their homes for girls or leaving the country and teaching in refugee camps. This quote wrapped it up nicely:
Saleemah, who has taught for 30 years, fled to Pakistan to escape the Taliban. Until after the Taliban were defeated, she taught at Maryam High School in the Naserbagh refugee camp. “I couldn’t live without teaching.”
This delightful story by Lisa Pollak ends with a paragraph of observation.
The Roy Wenzl piece that I sent you a link to last week showed perfect use of a quote (“It’s a girl”) to resolve the question (mystery child) raised in the lead.
Steve Rubenstein crafted this perfect ending for a story about the funeral of a rat:
Jupiter is survived by his brother. His body will be buried in the Room 106 planter box on the playground, beneath some sage.
Clearly Rubenstein played off the deadpan tone of an obit with his ending. A quote won’t do that for you. You have to do it yourself.
I hope this helps,
I cleaned up a couple typos in reading through that note for this post. Timeliness was more important than polish. Jonathan wanted help enough to ask for it. Good writers sometimes struggle along too long without asking for help. When they’re ready, that’s when they need the help. In less than an hour, I could find some helpful material for Jonathan to read. I could recall some of my better stories and show how you can resolve the story with or without a quote. I could remember a few other pieces that make the same points and find them quickly.
The fussy writer in me who likes to rewrite and polish didn’t feel like letting it go yet. It was just a note, not the full-fledged examination of how to end stories that I wanted to write someday. Someday that will be fine. But Jonathan’s response reinforced my belief in the importance of timeliness:
Thanks Steve. This is exactly what I was hoping for, and what a good way to conceptualize the closing, not as a story’s end but as its resolution. Sometimes you get in a rut such that you stop asking the right questions. I’m going to pass this on to some friends if that’s alright with you. Thanks again – Jonathan
The best time to coach is when the writer asks for help.