WRITERS AT WORK, Wrestling with Endings (Part 2)

Hi everyone,

March has five Tuesdays, giving us an extra session for WRITERS AT WORK. Last Tuesday Jane Yolen kicked off the new topic, Wrestling with Endings, with an excellent piece. Today Sandy Asher posts her first response and next week it will be my turn. Thank you for your supportive comments about this ongoing series of chats about issues that are important to writers. Now, here’s Sandy.

Topic 6: Wrestling with Endings
Response 2: Sandy
March 8, 2011

“Hear! Hear!” I say to Jane Yolen’s comments about endings. “I agree!” “Ditto!” And “What she said!”

Her advice on what endings must do and be is so insightful, I have to admit she left me wondering what I might add. “Hold on,” I told myself, “this is a blog about personal experiences in the writing trade, and nobody else – not even Jane Yolen – has had a single one of your personal experiences.”

“True enough,” I answered myself, and proceeded to recall my personal experience of the wrestling match known as finding the right ending. The first thing that came to mind is a common plaint I hear when I speak to groups of very young aspiring writers: “I’ve been writing this story and it just goes on and on and on and I don’t know how to end it.”

“Take a look at these three ingredients of a story,” I suggest. “Character. Problem. Resolution. Who is your main character? What does she want? What’s standing in her way? What does she do about that? How does it all turn out? It’s that simple. When you know what your main character wants, you know your ending. Either she gets it or she doesn’t. The middle is all about when and where and how and why.”

Okay, it’s not exactly “that simple.” But it is simpler than writing incident after incident after incident of a never-ending saga. In theory, anyway. The right ending grows organically out of the right beginning and the right middle. In practice, things can get complicated again.

So here I sit with 25 early drafts of HERE COMES GOSLING!, an eventually published picture book. Ten of these drafts have completely different endings from one another and from the final version. The story, in brief: Froggie and Rabbit eagerly prepare for the arrival of guests — Goose, Gander, and especially new baby Gosling. Froggie can hardly wait to meet her! But babies rarely respond as anticipated. Froggie’s enthusiastic greeting inspires horrendous honks of discontent. Froggie retreats, discouraged, while the others try in vain to placate Gosling. Now Froggie is perfectly content to wait as long as the honking persists. While he waits, he hums . . . and then sings . . . and then dances. A captivated Gosling stops her honking to watch, and their friendship begins. The visit culminates happily with a picnic, a story, and a sleepy farewell.

Basically, it’s a story about waiting. How hard it is to do. How what you’re expecting isn’t always what you get. How patience can eventually pay off.

In my first draft, there wasn’t even a Gosling. Instead, Froggie and Rabbit needed to head out of town to meet a new baby bunny. After some frustrating preparation and much delay, they arrive. Froggie announces his gift for the bunny is a story he will read to her himself. Last line: And he did. Yes, the beginning and middle were just as dull flat. It was a story about waiting, all right.

I tried again, with basically the same beginning and middle about getting ready to leave town. Beginning: “I’m taking a trip, Froggie,” Rabbit said. “Would you like to join me?” Well, that’s not too bad. Trips promise fun. Of course, Froggie says yes. Middle: Again, there’s much tidying up and packing and fussing about. The ending? (Please forgive me. I usually don’t share this dreadful stuff with others.) “Let’s go!”

They never even get to leave town, let alone meet the new bunny! A clear case of a hopeful beginning defeated by a non-existent middle that then leads to a flop of an ending that’s trying way too hard to convince the reader something exciting is going on here.

I hope you’ve forgiven me. I forgave myself and pushed on. Many times. Eventually, the bunny disappeared, the trip was abandoned, the geese showed up at Rabbit’s house instead, and the honking began. All very nice, but this time I got myself tangled up in a fancy-schmancy, quasi-poetic beginning: The sun was still half asleep when Froggie heard a tap-tappity-tapping at his door. In spite of everything else finally falling into place, that beginning eventually trapped me in another deadly ending: The sun was already half-asleep when they all headed home. “Shhhhh,” Froggie said.

The sun is not – and should not be! – a character in this story!

It was never a matter of just re-working the ending. The whole story needed to be revised and revised and revised until it flowed. Until everything it needed to flow was included and everything that kept it from flowing was gone. And when it flowed, it flowed right from the beginning through the middle to the ending it couldn’t live without. As Froggie progresses from eager anticipation to confused disappointment to renewed enchantment, Gosling also changes. When we first meet her, her honk of dismay is loud and frightening. Then, as she comes to enjoy Froggie’s antics, her honk becomes “a soft, sweet sound.” And finally, the last line, the only possible last line after a long, hectic, hard-won happy day comes as Froggie finishes reading her a story: And the new baby Gosling snored a goosey snore, “HonKKKKkkkkKKKKkkkk . . .”

And on that quiet note, David, I hand wrestling with endings over to you.