Crafting Your Article’s Perfect Ending
Many a writer has spent a sleepless night trying to write that perfect lede, the one that will smoothly plunge their reader into the story. But their narrative’s conclusion often comes as an afterthought, something thrown together once all the information has been imparted and the deadline-crazed editor or project manager is breathing down the writer’s neck. This is unfortunate, because a successful ending can help preserve a story in the reader’s mind perhaps more effectively than any other narrative section.
Despite this importance (and despite the sheer amount of material written about crafting ideal ledes for stories), professional advice on writing a winning finale tends to be a rarer thing. Indeed, with many stories, the conclusion has traditionally been given the short shrift, a casualty of the inverted pyramid structure that governs most short nonfiction writing; the writer is expected to convey the who, what, when, where, why and how into their first paragraph or two, and then simply end the story posthaste once all the information has been imparted. With space at a premium, an editor will often hack away any ending that attempts for something grander.
But that doesn’t mean an ending should be neglected; they’re still one of your story’s most important parts — and one that, like ledes, obeys certain formulas. Way back in the day (when most content was still paper-based!), I read Dawn B. Sova’s How to Write Articles for Newspapers and Magazines (2002, Peterson’s), which suggested three possible ways to end an article: With news of a future action, a quote, or facts related to an occurrence described in the article.
Let’s tweak that a bit: a conclusion should let the reader know that they’ve reached the definitive end of the tale; it should reiterate the theme or point; and it should (if at all possible) provide a little emotional “kick.”
Ending an article with a quote is an effective way to touch on all three of those things. Here’s an older, Pulitzer Prize-winning piece (“An Empire Built on Bargains Remakes the Working World”) from Los Angeles Timesstaff writers Abigail Goldman and Nancy Cleeland that I keep in my “Examples” clip file, just because the kicker is so well done.
The article spends thousands of words describing Wal-Mart’s rise to dominance, its influence over the economy, and the devastating effect its power can have on everyone from suppliers to employees. The article wraps up with a quote from a former Wal-Mart worker fired for attempting to organize a union at a Las Vegas store:
On some level, even Larry Allen understands. “I still believe in Wal-Mart,” said Allen, who now is on the union payroll as an organizer. “I like the idea of it — give a quality product at a low price. It’s what the American public wants.”
Allen’s quote — the devastated union man, admitting that the organization he’s been battling against is a terribly effective one — adds a good deal of poignancy to an otherwise straight-ahead news story. The last two sentences of the quote also neatly sum up the theme of the writers’ sprawling epic — namely, that Wal-Mart has created a wildly successful business model (even if the cost of success has been high for certain groups).
(One big footnote to all this: For writers attempting to build a series of articles or content pieces, ending a piece with mention of future action provides a lead-in to subsequent articles.)
In his Poynter Online column, “Putting Endings First,” Chip Scanlan detailed a short ‘Encyclopedia of Endings’ that can be applied to articles:
- The Anecdotal Ending (closing things out with a brief story)
- The Detail Ending (described above)
- The Face Ending (focusing on a specific character)
- The Narrative Quote and Quote Endings
- The Scenic Ending (leaving the reader with a sort of epic sweep of the story)
- The ‘Schwab’ Ending (where an unexpected detail is placed at the end, and often thematically juxtaposed against the story, for emotional effect)
News-y features also often close with Scenic Endings, which give the writer the opportunity to engage in a little bit of philosophizing (i.e., to show how their story plays into the grand themes of life). An excellent example of this comes via “The Modern Hunter-Gatherer,” by Michael Pollan, which ran in The New York Times Magazine. The article opens with a truly feature-y lede (“Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true.”) that launches Pollan’s account of hunting and killing a wild pig and serving it to a dinner party — part of his attempt to harmonize his own eating with the rhythms of nature.
This extraordinarily subjective nature of the feature gives the author, at the very end, the opportunity to shade his last-paragraph summation with a bit of philosophizing:
Yet as a sometimes thing, as a kind of ritual, a meal that is eaten in full consciousness of what it took to make is worth preparing every now and again, if only as a way to remind us of the true cost of our food, and that, no matter what we eat, we eat by the grace not of industry but of nature.
Obviously, such an ending is not something to be crafted carelessly, lest you put your audience to sleep, or compel them to roll their eyes at some half-baked observations. Nonetheless, feature writing gives you more room to finish off with sweeping statements, ones that can make a reader continue to think about your story for a long time to come (provided you’ve thought everything through, and gone through the usual rounds of rewriting and editing).
And that’s the ultimate goal, in many ways: to keep your story stuck firmly in the reader’s mind for as long as possible. And while your lede may be brilliant and your prose insightful, it’s your conclusion that will play a big role in making that happen. “Choose your ending wisely,” he said.