Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The long story before "the end": How to finish a narrative essay

In the beginning there was nothing, no internet, no iPhone, no pizza, and no microwave oven. In the beginning it was easy for God to create something. He could create anything and fail, no big deal. Let there be dinosaurs, for example, if they prove to be too big and slow, we can get rid of them later. The whole creation was a six day long, non-stop party, nothing prevented God from letting his imagination loose.

It's easy to start a new project, a new essay. But how can we stop? How can we say after days or years of hard work, I see what I have made, and behold, it's very good?

It can be seen as a psychological question. We know our skills are limited, we even ended up at a party last night, heavy drinking and bad jokes included. We know our creation is far from perfect, but it's time to let it go and see if it can stand on its own feet. If it falls, well, we'll be sad and use the learnings in our next project. We'll get feedback about the weakest side of our skills, for sure. It can't be avoided and it's still painful. If God had had so many critiques back then, he might have had a hard time at the end of the sixth day, he might have put in some extra hours to give the final touches to the world to satisfy all the different needs.

But I want to approach this whole issue as a practical question. How to actually finish an essay? How to start it and how to keep going so it can be finished in a satisfying way?

The end has to justify the effort both the creator, and the reader have put into it. They have to get somewhere else than they started; if they made a circle and come back to the starting point, they have to be a changed person inside. They have to say something like "now I understand", "now I know what to do differently next time". Then have a rest and start a new project.

I know of 5 ways to finish an essay. I try each of them in turns, maybe even have a draft with some, then I select one. Here is my list
  1. Restate your main thesis and how you got there. This is the classical way of wrapping up an essay, however narrative, it still has a central statement that can be useful to reiterate.
  2. Look at it from a different angle. We understand the microscopic world of the essay, we spent ten minutes of our life in it, now it's time to return to our everyday life. Make a connection between the small world of the essay and the big world around it. If it's personal, show its general human side. If it's more abstract or about someone else, show how you reflect on it.
  3. Make a variation on your beginning. This is the artistic way, this is how pieces of classical music were composed. Take a theme, play with it, tweak it, turn it, change it until the listener doesn't remember the original melody. Then bring back the starting theme and add some variation that integrates the tweaks and turns. Words and sounds and even thoughts have their melody and rhythm, using their music can touch the reader's heart.
  4. Say why this whole thing matters to the reader. You piqued the reader's interest at the beginning, they followed you through up to the end. You want them to leave with the feeling it was worth their time they spent with you. You want to show them how your essay enriched their lives.
  5. Finish the story part. We want the story first and foremost, we are willing to read a hundred pages of the dullest prose of financial accounting if it also tells the story of a detective hunting down a corporate accountant who was bribed. Just concentrate on the story part of your essay, give it a nice closure, and the rest will take care of itself.
In a normal essay you would feel we are just past the middle part and getting close to the end. But let me eat my own dog food and try to close this essay in each of the 5 ways.
  1. What's my main thesis? It's easy to start an essay and more difficult to finish it. When you are stuck, generate 5 ideas and select one. When finishing an essay, take the 5 possible ways to finish, brainstorm, and select the best one.
  2. There are three types of people, starters, continuers, and finishers. I am a starter. The closer I get to the end, the more uncomfortable I feel. I don't explicitly finish my things, I drop them, or rather I get stuck, then I let it sit for a while until it becomes so stale I can't even touch it. Termination by avoidance. I have this little theory, the more I can finish an essay, the better I become at closing things in my life. I think it works in both directions.
  3. In the beginning there was nothing. We now have internet, iPhone, pizza, and microwave oven, thank's God. What else can we wish for? Let's call it a day.
  4. What happens if you cut out the first 10 minutes of a movie? It happens incidentally too when you are late for it. Cutting out 10 minutes from the middle doesn't matter much either. This is actually what editors do before a film gets to the audience, keep cutting minutes from the middle. But what if you get a very important phone call just before the end and you miss the last 10 minutes? You'll get mad. It is the end you will remember. Make it last.
  5. After God created the internet, the iPhone, the pizza, and the microwave oven, he had enough, he had nothing more to say. He watched a mediocre sitcom at the TV and had a good sleep. I wonder what his next project was.
In a normal setting you wouldn't see all these options, they would stay in the shadow, I wouldn't let them out into the open. I would triage the paragraphs and pick the one that's most alive and kicking (or most dead if it's that kind of an essay).

Next time you are about to finish an essay and you can't think of a single way to do it, write 5 endings instead. Just the way God did. He had an ending with the dinosaurs ruling the earth; he had another one with people before the Flood living happily ever after. I hope he selected this version we are living in right now.


  1. Brilliant! You've jumped out way ahead of me. I feel challenged.

    I have to think of all the movies I was ever late for in my youth because me and my buddies were sitting in a car adjusting our states of consciousness. And yet, the narrative still made sense in its own way. Or the times I turned on the television and started watching a movie in the middle. It still made sense in some odd way.

    Isn't that life, really? You're continuously showing up places where the narrative is already in progress, but to you that's the beginning. And you make sense of it in whatever way you can.

    So maybe endings are far more important than beginnings.

    1. Now I understand why blogging can be thrilling. People write comments that expand how I originally saw something. Thank you.