Knowing when to end the story

Knowing when to end a creative nonfiction story can be challenging. Most writers new to the form, especially those immersed for two decades in “academic essayist” writing, will end with a “moral to the story,” or some kind of explanation about the greater lessons learned.

Don’t do that. Nobody likes to read a story that ends this way. In fact, if you are trying to publish, you will never get accepted if you end on “the moral of the story” explanations.

Endings can be challenging because if you end too soon, you leave the reader unsatisfied with too many unanswered questions. And the other end of the spectrum is what I call the “Lord of the Rings” endings – the story ends neatly . . . and then ends again . . . and again . . .and again with additional insights, “what I learned” moments, and more reflections.

Learning how to see the natural end to the story does come from experience, but is also reliant on instinct. Most writers have good instincts, but then they promptly ignore them and add more, say more, explain more…just to be sure.

Trust your instincts and understand that the story you are telling does not rely on what actually happened. As the writer, you are constructing a story from the most relevant pieces surrounding an idea or situation or experience in order to tell a story that shows us something – about a greater societal problem, about you, about something compelling. Remember that there are many moments and conversations and truths that exist outside the frame of THIS story and you can feel free to ignore those and leave them out because they pull focus away from THIS story.

For instance, let’s say you want to tell the story of your recovery from cancer, but you want to focus on the moment that you realized you would live. Put a box around that moment. You can see all of the events and decisions leading up to that moment, and everything that came after that moment, but the tough question then becomes “which moments and decisions are relevant to your realization that you would live?” A lot of writers feel the need to add in tons of extraneous details and scenes to be “true” to the story, but what ends up happening is the finished draft is a confused and unfocused mess.

Trust. Your. Instincts.

Very often, I hear students ask if this scene needs to be there, or if a new scene showing this aspect should be added. And I will tell you what I tell them. The fact that you are asking about it means that you already know the answer. You instinctively understand that this scene is irrelevant to this story’s purpose and you just want me to validate your choice. Or you instinctively sense that your story needs one more layer to humanize a particular character, and you just want your peers to validate that thought. But these are YOUR thoughts and instincts in the first place.

So when you look at a story that you’ve written and it seems to ramble on and on at the end; when the ending is not crisp and strong; start reading backward into your story for the strongest concluding statement or scene. It’s there. Because you’ve already written the end. Now it’s just a matter of recognizing it and trusting your instincts.

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