On Endings

Lately I’ve been trying to wrap up a story—without success—and every time I take another run at it, I think of something I read recently about endings, that good ones “shine a point of light on the writer’s best attempt at truth.”

I love that, because it’s how I envision endings. You direct a shiny, narrow beam of  light, or aim a long, sturdy arrow, at a pinpoint of a target. Summations, surprise twists, sudden epiphanies—these are not arrows or beams of light. Their scopes are too wide. 

Stuck, I did what any smart writer should do—I asked Gotham teacher Nelsie Spencer how she knows when she’s found the right ending.

Nelsie—novelist, screenwriter, stand-up comic—is working on a one-woman show she’s calling Day of the Dead Daddy. (I mentioned Nelsie teaches Humor Writing, right?)

Set at her father’s funeral (obviously), Nelsie struggled with the ending for awhile, because she kept looking for it in that single day. The show’s true ending, though, took place ten years later. Nelsie needed to widen her beam, and not only chronologically.

I had to find that moment for my character, but also for the audience. There’s a huge population out there who have lived through trauma—are they living life as a survivor? Or as a victim? Because there’s a huge difference. The ending needed to reflect that. 

Another approach is to bring the world into your mother’s hospital room, as former Gotham teacher Clifford Thompson did in “Love for Sale:”

Each of us, I feel, has a duty to try to see things as they are, not as we would like to think they are. But each of us must also, of course, make it through the day. It is possible, where my mother is concerned, that I failed at the very last moment. But I had a good relationship with her, and she knew I loved her. I had to remember the first fact without losing sight of the other two, and without forgetting what all of them together signified: that I was, after all, merely human. 

And one more way, Brian Doyle’s in “Dawn and Mary:”

…if we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then? What good are we then?

It’s another paradox of writing— sometimes, for your light to reach your target, for that light to touch off a seismic wave, you need a counter-intuitive tool. Sometimes, you need to go wide.
Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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