Put ends first

Craft Lessons

In the world of newswriting, leads get most of the attention, but endings are equally, if not more, important

Photo by Keith Johnston on Unsplash

The quote has become the default ending in journalism and readers and writers are all poorer for it.

The other day I randomly picked some news websites, clicked on stories, and scrolled to the bottom. Try it yourself. Open a story, and let your eyes drift to the end. There they are, those disembodied voices that bring way too many news stories to a close.

“It’s just an interesting old building.”

“People are scared,” Covington Allison said. “County government should make sure all people are taken care of. … Do the the right thing.”

“Some of these nighttime collisions are due to chance, but much more often the nocturnal migrants are lured to their deaths by the lights,” the lab reports.

Ending a story with a quote is a reflex action, understandable, especially in the crush of deadline, but overused to the point of cliché. Worse, the kicker quote deprives writers — and more important, readers—of other, more effective ways to make their stories memorable.

In the world of newswriting, leads get most of the attention, but endings are equally, if not more, important.

If leads are like “flashlights that shine down into the story,” as The New Yorker’s John McPhee once put it, endings can be eternal flames that keep a story alive in a reader’s head and heart.

Ending a story with a quote is a reflex action, understandable, especially in the crush of deadline, but overused to the point of cliché. Worse, the kicker quote deprives writers — and more important, readers—of other, more effective ways to make their stories memorable.

At the end of her three-part narrative series, “Metal to Bone” in the St. Petersburg Times, Anne Hull used a fact instead of a quote to convey the impact of a street crime on a woman police officer.

Lisa rarely thinks of Eugene, although she refuses to leave her back exposed, even while having dinner at a restaurant. Her back is always against a wall.

“You can’t have a decent story if it doesn’t leave you with a strong feeling or sense of image,” says Rick Bragg, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

Bragg’s Pulitzer Prize-winning package of stories offers an object lesson for writers and editors looking for different options for a story’s ending.

Two stories end in quotes. A profile of the southern Sheriff who persuaded a mother to confess that she drowned her two children and blamed a black man for the crime concludes with a comment from the cop: “Susan Smith is smart in every area,” he said, “except life.”

A story about an Alabama prison for elderly and disabled inmates ends with a comment about undertaking students at a local university who prepare prisoners’ bodies for burial: 

“They make ’em up real nice,” the warden said.

In a profile of a black Indian of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Bragg certainly had the material to use the same device.

Mr. Bannock sits and sweats in his house, working day and night with his needle. He has never had time for a family. He lives for Fat Tuesday.

“I need my mornin’ glory,” he said.

Most writers would have ended the story there with that colorful quote, but Bragg chose a detail instead that struck the chord of his theme: one man’s devotion to a tradition larger than himself.

A few years ago he had a heart attack but did not have time to die. He had 40 yards of velvet to cut and sew.

There are several reasons why, when faced with a blank space at the end of a story, most reporters plug in a quote.

One is expediency; it’s a quick and easy way to finish.

Anxiety is another possibility for rookies and veteran journalists alike. The ending will leave the reader with the most definitive statement on the takeaway from the story. It feels “safer,” and less like editorializing, to put that on a source than yourself as the reporter. But no one knows a story better than the writer; it’s their right — and responsibility — to end the story in a way that has the most accurate and powerful impact.

But there’s another subtler explanation, that has to do with the process of reporting. 

Reporters often begin in the dark, uncertain about the meaning of the events or issues that they must chronicle or explain. At least once during this confusing journey, the reporter hears — or reads — something that produces a moment of sudden clarity.

The words jump off a page or emerge from a source’s mouth and into the notebook or audio recorder, and suddenly the reporter grasps the meaning. The squawky violin plays a true note. The piece slides into the puzzle. All that’s missing are the quote marks. 

And the very next thought is, “Whew! I’ve got my ending!”

That moment helps the reporter understand the story, but it doesn’t have the same effect on the reader who hasn’t come along on the same journey of discovery and who needs different kinds of information to satisfactorily complete the reading process.

“My advice to young people is to know what your ending is before you start writing.”

Ken Fuson, Des Moines Register

“A good ending absolutely, positively, must do three things at a minimum,” says Bruce DeSilva, former Associated Press writing coach.

  1. Tell the reader the story is over.
  2. Nail the central point of the story to the reader’s mind.
  3. Resonate. “You should hear it echoing in your head when you put the
    paper down, when you turn the page [or scroll down the screen.] It shouldn’t just end and have a
    central point,” DeSilva says. “It should stay with you and make you
    think a little bit. The very best endings do something in addition to
    that. They surprise you a little. There’s a kind of twist to them
    that’s unexpected. And yet when you think about it for a second, you
    realize it’s exactly right.

“My advice to young people is to know what your ending is before you start writing,” says Ken Fuson, one of the greatest stylists at the Des Moines Register.

In some cases, the writer just needs to reorganize. Take that kicker quote and move it up higher, to buttress a description, or punctuate a section. Find something else that reinforces the story’s theme. Think harder about the ending. Write the ending first so you’ll have a destination to aim for. Or at least know what it is.

Ideally, every story should build to a logical conclusion, and the best stories should have endings that resonate beyond the last word.

Sometimes, a quote ending seems the most appropriate way to bring a story to a close.

In his October 2019 story about a Wisconsin county doctor who has spent decades in a small town, and became an expert treating Amish families with rare diseases, Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uses a kicker quote to explain the doctor’s decision to stay local instead of moving to the city. “Yet it is just this setting,” he says in the final paragraph, “that has allowed it to become one of the most interesting practices I could ever have imagined.”

Whatever ending you choose, don’t make it an afterthought. Very few readers will return to that brilliant lead you sweated over. The last thing they’ll read, if you’ve done your job right, is the end. Make it count.

Dan Barry of The New York Times, and the author of “This Land: America Lost and Found,” met that standard in “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail: An epic tragedy on a small block in Queens,” the powerful 2018 longform story he produced with Jeffrey E. Singer.

The story recounts the mysterious death of Song Yang, a Chinese immigrant sex worker who dies during a police raid. At the end of the story, her mother pays a tribute. It doesn’t end with a quote. Instead:

One evening, Shi paused outside a building where some women were offering massages to passing men. Raising the drooping bags held in her hands, she explained that she had just left the food pantry at the Episcopal church on Main Street, where she had recently been baptized. She said the pastor had emphasized the importance of sharing what you have.

The mother placed a bag of sweet potatoes in the doorway that had once been Song Yang’s domain. It was an offering of sorts, a gift to women like her daughter. Then she was gone, assumed into the Flushing blur.

I asked Barry, in a recent interview for Nieman Storbyoard, why he chose that ending.

“If I’m going to take the reader through 9,500 words,” he said, “the last sentence better be goddamn good. It has to be worth the journey.”

I blew it with an ending more than once, but one sticks in my head. 

It was a story about Joe DeMilio, a man who smoked all his life, woke with a cough on Thanksgiving and by the following Mother’s Day he was dead from lung cancer. 

When I interviewed his widow, Marie, at their home, I asked for a tour. (Reporting tip: always ask for a tour. You can find revealing details that enliven a story and speak volumes about character.)

In their bedroom, Marie looked at the bed she shared with her husband for decades. I ended the story with Marie talking to me.

 “It feels like one big nightmare,” she says. “Maybe I will wake up, and he will be in bed with me. But I know it’s not going to be so. Would you believe it? I take his aftershave lotion and spray it on his pillow just so I can smell him. Just the smell of it makes me feel like he’s with me.”

I’ve regretted that kicker quote ever since. How much stronger the story, I think, had it ended with a narrative ending:

It feels like one big nightmare,” she says. “Maybe I will wake up, and he will be in bed with me. But I know it’s not going to be so.Before she gets in bed at night, Marie DeMilio sprinkles her husband’s aftershave on her pillow. Just to feel close to him.

Next time, before you hit send, ask yourself if you can’t find a replacement for that quote ending, one that will linger in your readers’ minds.

Adapted from a column which appeared on Poynter Online

One thought on “Put ends first

  1. Sound advice to know your ending first, especially in a long, developed piece. It’s hard for the train to get sidetracked when the destination is in sight. I’ll disagree that you chose the wrong ending for your story ending with the deceased’s cologne. Your instinct was sound that hearing from the widow in her own sorrowful words was an unforgettable emotional jolt. Sometimes a writer can get in the way, but that didn’t happen here. Your story highlights that following general rules is a good practice, while keeping in mind that knowing when to break them can turn the mundane into the brilliant. Naturally, the rub is in making the right choice.

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