Where a Good Story/Memoir Ends


Where a Good Story/Memoir Ends

In the previous post, I discussed the movie, Lady Bird, and its ending. I think a weak ending has a ripple effect back to the rest of the piece and seems to deflate what might have been a plot that was bopping along well. (There might have been three mixed metaphors in that sentence. Ah, well.) Where a story ends is the topic of this post.

How do I know where to end?

The great thing about writing generally is that you can end your piece anywhere you like. I know I have harped on making sure that you meet the expectations of the reader by including all the component parts of a story arc. However there is lots of wiggle room within that framework. This is also true of memoirs. You need to build the story of your life and end it where it works for the story you are telling.

Endings, like beginnings and the whole writing thing, are so flexible that the best I can do is present my list of probable Dos and Don’ts.

DO end the story as close to the climax as possible. It sometimes works to have a long denouement where all the bits and pieces are neatly connected. But too long a one can leave the reader with the feeling of yeah, yeah, I got it—the butler did it.

DO end shortly after the main character has experienced the major life-altering realization or event that you were aiming for. It sometimes works to continue past that point but you need to decide.  For example,  will illustrating in detail how the protagonist has changed her life strengthen the story or make it feel as if it is tapering off into oblivion?


Don’t feel you have to resolve every question your novel raises. As long as the main and most important ones are satisfactorily dealt with, the reader won’t be that put off.  Example of question you can leave dangling: Did the secondary character’s husband’s sister really die of cancer? Memoir writers  especially need to rein in the idea they need to tell everyone’s story which touches their own. You do not.

Don’t feel you have to take things to the literal or figurative death bed. It is perfectly acceptable to portray a slice of a character’s life and end it when it feels right to you.

Don’t spell out how you want the reader to feel about the ending. This is partly a tenet of show, don’t tell. You just show it and allow the reader to decide how he feels about it. This approach can give extra pleasure to the reader as he explores his own reaction to your ending.

The ends need to justify the means

So, generally, your ending needs to be as strong as the plot which is resolves.

Having said that, endings are, I think, particularly idiosyncratic. You may feel the story ends at a different place than I do—as I did with the movie Lady Bird. You may be right; I may be right; we may both be right; there may be no right answer.

If you feel that your ending is a strong one and really speaks to you, by all means go ahead. I have already discussed the annoying phenomenon of authors who break the rules and make it work fabulously. Your ending may be in that category.

But if you’re not sure, then my Dos and Don’ts might help to hone in on an ending which will be as satisfying as the rest of your story.

Lady Bird—The Importance of Endings


Lady Bird—The Importance of Endings

Endings can make or break stories.

Lady Bird is the 2017 directorial debut of Greta Gerwig. The movie is an amazing mix of humor and gut-wrenching conflict between a mother and her teenage daughter. It is a remarkable tour de force when, from the beginning scene to the ending one, the director can make us laugh or cry, seemingly at will. The critics felt it was almost perfect, giving it a 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were also enthusiastic with a 79%.

Although differences between critics and viewers are not unheard of, 20% is still a big chunk of change. Why are the critics are saying, ‘omg, to die for’, and viewers are saying, ‘yeah, very good’? I have a theory about why this happened.

Endings can make or break a piece

I want to emphasize that this is a movie well worth seeing. It is a triumph of acting and direction. But I have to say, I think the ending was in the wrong place.

Near the close of the movie, her parents drive Lady Bird (played by Saoirse Ronan) to the airport so she can return to university. Her mother is not talking to her and it makes for an uncomfortable ride. She drops them off at the curb without saying good-bye, and drives away, presumably to find parking. However, it becomes clear that the mother (played by Laurie Metcalf) is distressed by the leaving. She turns the car around so she can run to the gate. But Lady Bird has already boarded.  

This is where I think the movie should have ended.

Instead, it goes on for a while longer. The last scene is Lady Bird calling home to tell her mother she loves her.

Why does this matter?

Well, the actual ending left me flat. All this tortured drama and all we get is a voice-mail message? The strength of the ending did not match the strength of the material leading up to it.

The problem with weak endings is that it can, as I think it did with this movie, leave the viewer with an unsatisfied feeling. They can change the perception of the piece from omg, to die for—which the movie largely deserves—to okay, nice movie. Because it was not a strong ending, the whole thing seems to drop in value. I think this is what audiences picked up although perhaps not at a conscious level.

Admittedly, there is a problem with where I think the movie should have ended. The traditional story arc assumes that the main character changes or moves forward in her understanding of life. In my suggestion, it would be the mother and not Lady Bird who has that epiphany.

But in the actual ending, Lady Bird’s life-changing realization is not as well-portrayed or as riveting as her mother’s. And leaving a voice-mail saying she loved her mother is without the power of her mother’s change.

As I have mentioned in other posts, the reader/viewer has certain expectations of a story of which they may be unaware. Because it is not a reader’s job to analyze the writing but simply to enjoy it, the disappointment of these assumptions can be expressed as ‘yeah, good movie’ rather than ‘yeah, fabulous movie’ which is what it actually deserved.

So, how can you be alert to the need for an ending to your story which is satisfying and at the same level of intensity as the rest of your piece? Next post.

Don’t Write about Passive Observers—Like You


Don’t Write about Passive Observers—Like You

I know you are not a passive observer in your life. But you might be in your writing.

Writers, by their very nature, observe life. This is good for your writing in providing interesting-looking people, like the man with the enormous beard or the woman with the three dogs, whom you can turn into characters or involve in a plot.

But this penchant, when coupled with the edict to write what you know, can lead you to assume that observant, reflective, and/or dreamy characters make good protagonists.

They do not.

(But there are always exceptions to the rule. Witness Hamlet. But you need Shakespeare like talent to pull it off so, for the rest of us mortals, we need to stick with non-passive protagonists.)

They don’t work because of what readers expect of a story.

What readers expect from stories

Ask a reader what she expects from a story and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Which is right since it’s not her job to know. But it is yours. Your reader is unconsciously expecting the plot to roll out in what we call story arcs.

There are any number of story arcs so pick on which fits your tale. But mostly, they go something like:

  1. There is an opening state—i.e., how things are before the story starts. Middletown was a quiet place for the most part, except for football season.
  2. There is a change to the status quo or a threat to the protagonist. The team’s quarterback has been injured during the summer.
  3. The protagonist struggles toward his goal. He needs to find the person who set up his accident.
  4. There is a crisis. The point of greatest tension. The attacker is his best friend. What should he do?
  5. There is some kind of resolution. The quarterback takes revenge, forgives, etc.

Stories need active not passive characters

Somewhere around steps two and three, the danger of bogging down raises its head.  Confronted with a threat, the protagonist may be filled with angst and doubt. Which is fine but a little goes a long way. If the protagonist keeps going on and on, your reader will get impatient. It is a matter of **** or get off the pot.

At some point, the protagonist must take action to overcome the threat.  If he doesn’t, it isn’t a story and your reader will know that, however unconsciously.

How do you know if you might have a passive protagonist?

This is not an exhaustive list but here are some ideas:

  • As discussed above, if the protagonist spends a lot of time wringing his hands and worrying about the consequences of the actions contemplated. Again, some is fine; a lot is overkill.
  • Stories with frames. Some novels start with “It must have been twenty years since I thought about it.” Although this was once a popular way to write, this format can force the narrator into the passive role of telling the story. Get rid of the frame and show the narrator/protagonist fighting for what he wants.
  • The protagonist does NOT have a series of obstacles to overcome. If there is just one big goal which the protagonist spends a lot of time wondering how to tackle, you may have an over-thinker. But if he keeps trying different ways to accomplish his goal or there are a set of steps which must be completed to achieve it, then you are good to go.

You need to understand the underlying structure of a story so that you can give your reader a tale which she can’t put down.

Too Many Characters

Too Many Characters

You sometimes find yourself writing a story with a lot of characters. A jury trial, for example, or a large family, or a gang. At times, it is unavoidable; you don’t usually call two nasty people a gang and you can’t pretend in your memoir that you don’t have six siblings.

But the writing problem created by this can be indistinguishable characters. The reader can’t keep the different people straight. Is Mary the crazy cousin or the successful lawyer? Didn’t Alfred die a couple of chapters ago? This makes for at least confusing and often annoying reading.

Dealing with many characters

Dickens dealt with this question by giving his players memorable names. Mr. Pumblechook and Uriah Heep from Great Expectations, Peggotty from David Copperfield, etc.  This is not usually a device open to the modern writer unless there is comic intent. But you can tackle this issue in other ways.

Don’t use similar names. In particular, don’t start major figures’ names, or minor ones who interact with the major ones, with the same letter. Mary talking to Marg about Melanie. I understand that there might be some reluctance to rename relatives in your memoir, so if ‘John’ is a tradition in your family, you will have to work really hard to ensure that the reader has a distinctive picture of each ‘John.’  This may not suit the story to elaborate on every ‘John’ kicking around, so you may need to consistently use another identifier. ‘Cambridge John’ or ‘Toronto John’ could help.

  If you can, also steer clear of similar sounding names—Hamish and Amish, Bonnie and Ronnie.

Focus on a few.  In the classic jury trial, 12 Angry Men, we don’t get to know all twelve jurors equally well. The screen writer focused on a few to interact with Henry Fonda, the hero of the piece. The other jurors might throw in the occasional independent comment or contribute to the general disagreement with Henry Fonda’s character, but they don’t get highlighted.

  This is probably true for your narrative. Even with a cast of hundreds, you still need to concentrate on telling the story of relatively few.

Introduce them one at a time. Although you won’t want to spend as much time as you would with a primary figure, introduce each of the minor figures you want to include one at a time. Doesn’t have to be a long scene but pairing the new character with an already established one will help fix the new player in the reader’s mind.

Include a cast of characters. If all else fails, you can include a cast of characters at the beginning of the novel. And believe me, I was very grateful for the list when reading many Russian novels.

Doesn’t this take focus away from the main protagonist?

You may be concerned that spending time introducing the minor characters will take the focus away from the central character. First of all, remember that you only need to do this with the relatively few of the cast who will interact with the hero of the novel. Secondly, pairing the protagonist with the minor character being introduced can also be used to learn something more about the main figure by how he deals with the minor ones.

Typically, exploring the interactions among a few characters in a novel is both easier to write (I’m not saying ‘easy’) but also clearer for the reader. But if your heart is set on a trilogy of sweeping historical novels, you can use these techniques to avoid making the reader work harder than he has to and risking breaking the continuous dream.

Conversation versus Fictional Dialog


Conversation versus Fictional Dialog

Here’s how a real conversation goes:

“Hi, Jen,” I said.

“Hi, Frances,” she replied. “Can you believe the weather?”

“Unbelievable. They’re predicting more snow tomorrow.”

“And then the temperature is going up so there might be freezing rain.”

I shook her head. “I can’t wait for spring.”

“Me, too. Hey, did you see the news last night?”

“I know, would you believe the gall of the guy?”

Okay, I’ll stop it there. We’ve all had these conversations and there is nothing wrong with them as lubricant to social interaction. But as dialog, they are deadly and break the unwritten laws of fiction of which your reader is unaware but you ignore at your peril.

The problem with real life

Let’s assume the conversation above is intended as fictional dialog. What’s wrong with it?

  • First, it is just noise unless your story is about an impending tornado or the comeuppance of the guy with the gall (but if it is one or the other, one part of the conversation is unneeded). Readers get bored with extraneous stuff and quit reading.
  • Second, the dialog doesn’t have a purpose. By that I mean, it doesn’t move the story forward, either by showing something about the characters we need to know or by disclosing part of the plot.

How to make your dialog read like conversation

The answer is not to vow, “Right, I’m going to decide the purpose of this dialog before I start writing.” If you do, you’ll probably end up with quite a stilted scene. Let the dialog flow as it might in conversation (minus the extraneous bits), but get to the point quickly.

Another equally effective way is to write the initial draft of the dialog as feels right. When you have finished the story and are in edit mode, consider each piece of dialog to see whether it contributes to the story or character development. If it does, great. Doubt? Try to identify how it helps the story. If you can’t, this might be a candidate for the chopping block. 

Conversation revisited

Let’s redo the conversation above to make it useful dialog in a story. The first redo is if the story is about an impending tornado and the second about the galling guy.

Impending tornado

“My god, did you see the weather forecast?” Jen asked.

“I know, tornadoes! That’s crazy this far north,” I said. “And on top of all the snow and freezing temperatures.”

“This has got to be climate change,” she said.

Story might end up being about climate change; might not. But this version immediately introduces the main topic. No greetings, no small talk.

Galling guy

Jen tossed her bag on her desk. “Did you see McFarlane on the news last night?”

“Unbelievable,” I said. “The gall of the guy.”

“He’ll stoop to anything.”

“Of course, will anybody be able to prove that he’s lied?”

Same thing—use the dialog to move the story forward even if it is simply setting the scene for more complicated events later.

Conversation is actually quite different from dialog in that it doesn’t need to go somewhere whereas dialog does. Another example of where saying “But that’s how it really happened,” gets the response, “And what’s your point?”