Even True Stories Must End

In her article “Goodbye to All That” in the March/April 2016 Writer’s Digest, bestselling Oprah Book Club novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard (whose latest novel is Two If By Sea  discusses ways to find the perfect ending for every fictional story. Here, in this online exclusive sidebar, she explores how endings are equally important in narrative nonfiction—and some ways to get them right.

Although we primarily deal with fictional endings in “Goodbye to All That,” the same elements pertain to the best creative nonfiction. One of the simplest ways to end a story (true or imagined) is with an anecdote that the author first simply shares, then takes apart to leave room for reflection, then carries forth to the end.

A good example can be found in the final paragraphs of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the story of doomed young adventurer Christopher McCandless: Krakauer recants visiting, with the young man’s parents, the abandoned bus where McCandless died, and describes their getting into a helicopter to leave the Alaskan outback. His mother Billie says:

“Many people have told me that they admire Chris for what he was trying to do. If he’d lived, I would agree with them. But he didn’t, and there’s no way to bring him back. You can’t fix it. Most things you can fix, but not that. I don’t know that you ever get over this kind of loss. The fact that Chris is gone is a sharp hurt I feel every single day. It’s really hard. Some days are better than others, but it’s going to be hard every day for the rest of my life.”

And then Krakauer’s story resumes, with metaphoric grace:

Abruptly, the quiet is shattered by the percussive racket of the helicopter, which spirals down from the clouds and lands in a patch of fireweed. We climb inside; the chopper shoulders into the sky and then hovers for a moment before banking steeply to the southeast. For a few minutes the roof of the bus remains visible among the stunted trees, a tiny white gleam in a wild green sea, growing smaller and smaller, and then it’s gone.

Whatever you aim for, or how you cast the coda, most important of all is that the integrity of the story is preserved. A tense story of psychological suspense doesn’t usually end with a jump scare; a book about manners and marriages in suburbia may begin with a murder, but doesn’t usually end with one—except when it does. However, as all good writers know, those conventions hold true only until someone figures out an intriguing way to slip out of one, and then all bets are off. In a general way, what follows the close of the action usually is low-tension in tone, which makes sense, since the ending is really the beginning, the beginning of the reader’s resumption of life in the real world. That passage through that vestibule between worlds may be sad, even tragic, but it should be accomplished rather easily, and rather quickly. Pace noticeably accelerates at the conclusion of any story, whether fiction or creative nonfiction, since, at that point, the reader will have little emotional tolerance for a lengthy explanation. Only one constant pertains: A great ending resonates.

To read the full text of Mitchard’s “Goodbye to All That,” check out the March/April 2016 Writer’s Digest.

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