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Finding an Ending for a Story

by Doug Lipman

(This article appeared in Storytelling World magazine.)

This time, Doug addresses the question,
"How do I find an ending for my story?"

Finding a satisfying ending for a story involves twin processes that are important at all stages of story creation:

  1. The first process is what I call "knowing," or identifying the main thrust or transformation in the story.
  2. The second process is "showing": conveying meaning through concrete actions and images.
My work on any story begins with talking aloud to a willing helper. I tell about the scenes I already have imagined, or else I talk about my ideas or hopes for the story.

What happens next depends on whether I have started with an image or with an idea.

Starting With an Image

Once, I came across a one-sentence description of an Appalachian Christmas legend. Some cattle were present at the birth of Christ; they blew on the freezing baby with their warm breath and now are rewarded each January 6 with the one-night ability to speak eloquent words of praise. Working on a story like this one--that begins as a scene or partial plot--my next step is to have my helper ask me, "What do you love about this scene?" or "What draws you to this plot?" As I talk through my answer to this question, I generate my first knowledge of what the story is about for me. My answer may be almost anything:

  • a feeling
  • an attitude
  • an idea, or
  • a value.
In this case, I liked it that the cattle were recognized for their contribution. Talking more, I realized that the cattle were rewarded not because they did something extraordinary but because they noticed what was needed (the baby needed warming) and used their ordinary abilities (their breath!) to do what was needed.

The Variety of Ideas

At this point, I had arrived at an idea--in this case, a "lesson" or value--about the story. Of course, I might have loved a different idea, such as:

  • the ridiculousness of the cattle blowing on the baby, or
  • the baby's love for the cattle, in spite of the awkwardness of their efforts to help.

Regardless of the exact idea that I extracted from the story, I had now weighed in on the second side of the balance by eliciting what the story meant to me.

Starting With an Idea

With other stories, of course, I begin with ideas or values and only then create actions, characters, or scenes.

Once I was asked to create a brief story about friendship for children ages 8-12. I asked myself, "What do I want to communicate about friendship to this audience?" My answer had to do with counteracting the all-too-prevalent treatment of relationships as "disposable": you have a friendship until it gets hard, then you dispose of that friendship and start a new one. Stories are built from precise moments: one day, one character took one action.

Therefore, I went on to imagine two long-time friends sticking together. This seemed laudable, but where was the plot?

Then I imagined the opposite situation: friends breaking up at the first sign of difficulty and finding replacement friends. Perhaps, I thought, I could make a story about someone who kept "trading in" his friendships, then came to realize the value of his first and oldest friend.

As soon as I expressed that idea, I revised it: he could try unsuccessfully to substitute a series of objects for his estranged friend, then return to working out the original difficulty. At this point, I had begun "showing": creating concrete characters and actions that exemplified my original idea. (The result was the story "Look in Your Heart," recorded on The Amazing Teddy Bear.)

Alternate Between Showing and Knowing

These twin principles are not each applied just once. In fact, I need to alternate loosely between them throughout my creation of a story. In the case of the Appalachian legend, I had gone from showing to knowing. But the story was still sketchy. "Showing" in its purest form uses the particular and the external: the individual, not the crowd; the concrete action, not the state of being. What if I imagined a particular cow? Still better, what if I contrasted the actions of my cow with the actions of other animals? The meaning of a particular action can become clearer through simple juxtaposition with other actions. To emphasize the "be yourself" aspect of my cow, maybe the other animals could try to imitate someone? At this point, I saw an image of the shepherds and wise men praising the baby king. Perhaps, then, the other animals could try to imitate the humans? If each animal in turn approached the baby and tried unsuccessfully to sound like a person giving praise, that might create humor. Then the cow could approach, notice that the baby was cold, and breathe on it.

Checking back with my original idea, I decided that this concrete action expressed it to my satisfaction.

Finding an Ending

At this point, I realized that there was an obvious ending in the original legend: to this day, the cattle are rewarded by getting the chance to do what all the animals wanted to do: praise the baby king.

Turning to my "knowing," I confirmed that this ending emphasized my original idea. If no such image were close at hand I would need to create one that showed my desired "final state" of the story's main idea. But the image of the cow's reward would be even stronger if I imagined it more concretely. Once again, it was time to "show":

"Now, if you go into the woods after midnight on Old Christmas, January 6th, you will see the animals kneeling in a ring. The dogs will bark, the donkeys will bray, the pigs will squeal. But the cattle--those thick-tongued beasts--will, for that one moment of the year, speak the most exquisite words of praise."

Coming to the End

How, then, do I create an ending to a story?

I seek a concrete image that expresses the ending form of what I love about the story. To get there, I alternate two processes:

  • proceeding from "scening" to meaning, and
  • going from what is known to what is shown.


Copyright © Doug Lipman

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman