Sometimes I write a story’s ending first, and sometimes it pops into my head when I get there. Other times it feels like I’ve already said it all and I struggle with the kicker. But easy or hard, endings deserve as much care as beginnings. “While we obsess about beginnings, we often don’t spend enough time sculpting our endings, or kickers, and that’s too bad,” Michelle Nijhuis wrote in The Science Writers’ Handbook. “Endings are our last word to the reader, and often what readers remember most.”
So how do you write an ending that sticks? Here are three editors on kickers they love and why they love them, and the writers on how they did it. Each kicker is preceded by a bit of context, including a short summary of the story.
Circle Back to the Beginning
by Brendan Borrell for Nature
Background about the story: To track the fate of threatened species, a young scientist called Rafe Brown must follow the jungle path of a herpetologist who led a secret double life. The story opens with Brown flipping through a 1922 monograph by herpetologist Edward Taylor and stopping in awe on a page documenting Taylor’s discovery of a rare gecko in the Philippines.
Kicker: Back at the University of Kansas, Brown takes a seat inside an archival library and dips once more into some of Taylor’s work, including the battered leather books that the man used for his field notes and specimen catalogues. Paging through one of those catalogues for the first time, Brown is stunned to find that Taylor had crossed out the name attached to an Asian spadefoot toad that he caught on Mindoro Island—a strange, gangly creature that crawls rather than hops. Next to it, Taylor had written, “new sp!!” As recently as 2009, Brown had designated it as a new species, Leptobrachium mangyanorum, because it was so different from previously described relatives.
“Ed was way ahead of us,” says Brown. “Why he never named it, we’ll never know. But it’s pretty satisfying to come along 90 to 100 years later and arrive at the same conclusion.”
The editor’s take: Satisfying endings circle back to the opening scene, summarize the story’s main points, point out future directions, and often include a pithy quote, says Brendan Maher. This ending does all that and more. “What sets this one apart for me is that it actually includes a moment of discovery,” he says. “It reserves a new piece of information—usually a no-no for story craft. And in it, the past and present are meeting in real time. I really couldn’t have asked for anything more apt.”
The writer’s take: The ending is an opportunity to remind readers of the story’s theme, give them closure, and leave them with something to think about, says freelancer Brendan Borrell. He knew this ending was “the one” from the first outline of his story. “I think the reason it works so well as an ending (and not a lede) is that it is this honest-to-God a-ha moment for Brown that echoes what we’ve learned before (Taylor was right!) but with a little bit of a twist,” he says. “If you put it anywhere else in the story, it simply wouldn’t pack as much of a punch.”
Borrell also credits editor Brendan Maher with suggesting a new beginning that made this ending even better. Borrell originally led with a dramatic moment with Brown in the field, and Maher suggested leading with a scene where Brown pages through Taylor’s monograph. Maher told Borrell: “I know it’s not quite as action packed as what you have to start it now, but I really like how it ties the present generation and the past together. If we were to start with something like that, it would make the ending circle back really quite nicely to him once again reviewing a book touched by Taylor and kind of seeing the genius on the page.”
Tie Everything Together
Engineering New Organs Using Our Own Living Cells
by Steve Volk for Discover
Background about the story: Inspired by the regenerative abilities of an amphibian, Anthony Atala is driven to save lives by rebuilding organs. The story opens like a fairy tale, with a “once upon a time” anecdote about a little boy with a failing bladder and a “wizard” (Atala) who miraculously grew him a new one in a petri dish. The story’s ending evokes a couple of key scenes from the story. One describes his TED talk: “Atala held out a pink, newly printed kidney in his gloved hands. The sense of wonder, awe, even mystification, was evident in the crowd’s feverish applause.” Another scene relates an epiphany Atala has when he finds a rock on the beach that’s shaped like a kidney and even has a line across it that looks like the line between two parts of the kidney: He realizes that he doesn’t have to grow a whole new kidney—all he has to grow is a “wafer” of kidney tissue to insert at that line. The body will do the rest.
Kicker: Atala continues to work on creating whole new organs. But he also has a team working on the model that occurred to him on the beach: Harvest and grow some healthy cells from a patient’s damaged kidneys. Concurrently, decellularize a pig kidney, leaving only the casing. Then repopulate the organ with the patient’s cells. Insert a section of that new kidney tissue, equal in weight to maybe 20 percent of the existing organ. With no cells from the pig, the recipient’s body should accept this new section of kidney.
Atala is also pursuing this “wafer” model of creating partial transplants for other organs.
Though Atala always remains circumspect about the status of his projects, he says this partial transplant model is different: That team is far along in the process, successfully placing kidney cartridges into animals for trials lasting several months. The major problems, he says, all appear to be solved. Relatively speaking, partial transplants are closer. The most practical solution may not be as dramatic, or garner as much publicity as creating a whole new organ. Yet millions of happy ever-afters beckon. Because he saw the answer when it washed in with the tide—the ocean rolling back in from the future, sounding like an echo of a mystified crowd’s applause.
The editor’s take: The best endings give a sense of resolution and of propulsion—ideas that carry on after the story concludes—without feeling forced, says Becky Lang. She particularly likes this ending because it circles back to the fairy-tale theme that runs throughout the profile, it alludes to scenes earlier in the story, and it is true to the extreme sense of caution that pervades Atala’s thinking. “By coupling this wizardry with the real-world caution—and still having the pull of potential in there—Steve weaves all of it back together in one ending and sends readers off with their brains completely engaged,” she says.
The writer’s take: Steve Volk looks for the ending and beginning as soon as he starts researching a story, and he often finds them at the same time. “The best endings echo the beginning in some essential but surprising way,” he says. “So, often, realizing where a story should end immediately triggers a thought about where it should begin, and vice versa.”
When Volk is ready to write, he outlines possible scenes to include and usually chooses those that evoke the greatest emotional response for his beginning and ending. That’s what he did for this story, so he knew the end would revisit a scene where the shape of a rock on a beach inspires Atala to pursue partial organ transplants.
But Volk didn’t know exactly what he would write until he got to the end. He drew his inspiration from another scene in the story. “I included an anecdote near the top … in which a demonstration of his printer technology causes the crowd to erupt in the kind of applause that is usually reserved for rock stars,” he says. “And so there I was, thinking about the applause Atala has received and imagining him on the beach. I started imagining the setting itself. I thought of the feeling of sand under my feet and the constant pounding of ocean waves and—there it was. The roar of a crowd, the roar of the ocean.”
Make It Personal
Ecosystems 101: Hard Lessons from the Mighty Salmon Runs of Alaska’s Bristol Bay
by Ray Ring for High Country News
Background about the story: The world’s longest ongoing salmon research reveals the astounding complexity of wild ecosystems. The story’s kicker is a stand-alone ending that tells the story of the author’s personal experience: the chance to swim with salmon (at the invitation of researcher Jonny Armstrong, whose work is included in the story.)
Kicker: About 10 years ago, on the bank of Washington’s Snohomish River, surrounded by roads and farms and cities, I met a guy who put on a snorkeling mask and swam with the remnants of the salmon run there—just for the love of it. I put it on my bucket list: Someday, somewhere, before I die, swim with salmon.
One afternoon here, on Sam Creek, I got my chance. First, Armstrong donned his snorkeling gear and a dry suit and slipped into the cold, clear water to take close-up photos of the vivid red sockeye in a pool where the creek meets Lake Nerka. Hundreds of salmon hovered side-by-side, facing upstream, getting ready to make their run, and they tolerated Armstrong slowly easing into their formation.
Then we walked up the creek through a litter of salmon carcasses, past fresh bear and gull prints in the sand, finding smaller pools where more sockeye hovered. I wrestled into the rubber suit, adjusted the facemask, and lay down in a pool. Almost instantly, it seemed, I was surrounded by the big reds.
As they undulated to keep themselves in formation, some brushed against me with their bodies, and some swiped their tails against exposed portions of my face. A few even wriggled under me, one by one forcing their way between my chest and the sandy bottom.
Shifting slightly upstream, I turned to look at them head-on. Dozens faced me, just a few inches away, their jagged teeth exposed through gaping, elongated jaws—another physical change that occurs as they spawn, as if they’re reverting to a completely primitive form that matches the landscape. Their gills flexed water in and out, extracting oxygen, and their eyes, eerie golden circles, gazed at me implacably, as if nothing else mattered except their instinct to spawn. I reached out, touched one, and then another, and another.
The editor’s take: This is one of Jodi Peterson‘s favorite endings because it’s personal rather than a summary of the research or a quote from an expert. “[Ray Ring] takes us into the water with him to see and feel what a healthy salmon stream is like,” she says. “His ending is intimate, wonderfully descriptive, and brings home in a visceral way the messages of his story.”
The writer’s take: Ray Ring, a former senior editor at High Country News, aims his endings at readers’ hearts, not their minds. He also says a great ending is the logical climax to the story:
“It should feel fresh, extending the thrust of the story in some way into surprising territory that still fits with everything that’s come before the ending.”
Ring starts looking for endings right away: “I’m always scouting for scenes, dialogue, and personal thoughts that might work for the ending.” This ending came from a chance opportunity that fulfilled his longtime dream of swimming with salmon. “I figured, if the experience would be powerful for me, it would also be powerful for my readers,” he says.
If you’ve followed all this advice but are still stuck on the kicker, remember that even greats like John McPhee can have trouble finding the perfect ending. As he explains in his 2013 New Yorker article “Structure,” he usually knows the last line from the outset but sometimes has to “struggle for satisfaction at the end.”
When that happens, he suggests, “Look back upstream. If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were.”
McPhee continues: “People often ask how I know when I’m done—not just when I’ve come to the end, but in all the drafts and revisions and substitutions of one word for another how do I know there is no more to do? When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”
Ending with this advice surely signals that it is McPhee’s most important takeaway. And if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. So if you take one thing from this post, take this: Treat kickers like the rest of the story—do your best. And when your best is done, so are you.
Robin Meadows is a freelance science writer in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the new water reporter for the Bay Area Monitor, and also writes for Cancer Commons, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, PLOS Biology, and more. Follow Robin on Twitter @noka_oi.