Many writers and readers alike say that the most important part of a story is the ending. When asked why, they say things like “an ending allows you to form a complete opinion about the work as a whole,” or “the ending is the payoff of what the writer builds during the story.”
These are probably part of the answer, but if the last 30 years of experimental psychology have taught us anything, it’s that we are surprisingly ignorant of why we form beliefs and opinions. A series of experiments by psychologist Daniel Kahneman–one of my personal heroes–and his colleagues Donald A. Redelmeier and Joel Katz suggest a simpler reason why endings are so important, and why as a writer it’s more vital for you to deliver a satisfying ending than almost any other factor.
It starts with a group of men. More specifically, their colons.
The colonoscopy procedure is about as much fun as it sounds. It is painful, intrusive, and embarrassing enough that many people skip the procedure as often as possible even when it’s vital to their long-term health. In their experiment, Kahneman et al. took a group of men who were coming in for a medically needed colonoscopy and divided them into two groups.Both groups were given the procedure and asked to rate their pain and discomfort during the process, and then once again immediately after it was finished.
The first group, the control group, was given the colonoscopy as normal. The second group, the experimental group, was given the colonoscopy as normal, but then the apparatus was left in for a short period after the actual procedure was done. They did not know that this extra period wasn’t part of the procedure, but they did know that the last few minutes of their procedure was considerably less painful than the bulk of it.
During the procedure, the experimental group experienced more total discomfort than the control group, because they had a full-length full-discomfort procedure followed an extra period of reduced discomfort that was still much less fun than less irritations like, for example, getting a root canal. However, when asked to rate the overall unpleasantness of the experience, the experimental group rated it as significantly less bad than the control group. Even though they experienced more total pain, the reduced pain at the end made the entire procedure seem less bad. Not only that, the people in the experimental group wer more likely to come back for a repeat procedure.
In other words, when they thought back on the experience, they mostly remembered the ending. The last thing that happened to them had a higher impact on their impression of the experience than the much longer period that preceded it. Even though their total discomfort was higher. It didn’t matter. The taste it left in their mouth, to use a metaphor that we should all agree not to think about too much in this context, was based on the ending.
These findings have been reproduced in other experiments under different conditions. Kahneman and Redelmeier, their sadistic lust for psychological insight not sated by even the most unpleasant medically necessary procedures, went on to blast people’s ears with unpleasant noises and submerge their hands in freezing water. In both cases, subjects rated the overall experience as less unpleasant as long as it ended more gently, even when the gentle-ending condition was twice as long. When asked which condition they wanted to repeat,the overwhelming majority of subjects chose to repeat the double-length torture period over the shorter one, as long as the long one had a milder finish.
This data stacks up with a great deal of other data from other directions to tell a specific story about the human mind: we massively overvalue whatever happens last in an experience. A fantastic vacation with a crappy final day will be remembered less fondly than a mediocre vacation that went out with a bang, according to survey data. A great dessert will save an otherwise mediocre restaurant meal.
So it may be, then, that the major contributing factor for why endings are so important in stories is simply that they happen last. No matter how carefully you craft the beginning and middle of your story, it just won’t have the same lasting psychological impact as those last few scenes. Another implication here, and I admit I am speculating, is that it might matter less than you think how well the ending ties everything together. It might be more important that the ending is enjoyable for its own sake.
Someone clever writer is probably going to have to torment some hapless readers to find out.
The most important part of writing is rewriting.
–Every published author, writing teacher, and book on writing in the history of the field. (paraphrased)
It’s hard to make yourself sit down and write. Once you break through that barrier, you come face to face with the much worse truth that you’ve just done the easy part.
The fact is that even you can write pretty good first drafts, your writing is a weak copy of what it is supposed to be until it’s been thoroughly edited and rewritten.
But damn is rewriting hard. One of the hardest parts about it happens at the level of the individual sentence. When you go back and read your own writing, it’s easy to get trapped into thinking that your sentences are “just fine.” The might not be great, but it feels difficult to come up with a way to change them. They do the job. They’re not beautiful, but they’re structural. They hold the whole thing up, and you are worried that if you fiddle too much everything will come crashing down.
This exercise is here to help. This is a deliberate practice exercise, which means that it is intensive, tedious, and a lot of work. But if you do it enough times, it could transform how you look at your own sentences.
Here it is:
Take a sentence you have written. Now rewrite the sentence 50 times.
That’s it. Sounds simple, right? But not easy. Like I said, it’s tedious. Like practicing tiny variations on your golf swing over and over and over until you get it right.
To really get the benefits from this exercise, you have to do it a lot. Just like any other exercise. Say, three times a week for a month, just for starters. Just like starting a new workout routine, you won’t even know if you are getting benefits for a few weeks. But once they come they’ll be enormous.
I’ll post a link first try at this exercise at the end.
Here are a few rules about the exercise. They’re designed to give you some focus so you get the most out of the exercise. Don’t worry so much about whether you’re following the rules that you spend 20 minutes memorizing them and never get to the actual work! That’s a method of stalling. The rules are designed to be intuitive, so just read them through and get going.
Rule 1: To start, pick a sentence that’s long enough that you can play with it. The shorter the sentence the more challenging the exercise. It would be very difficult to write “See Dick Run” in 50 different ways. That’s like starting with a 200 lbs bench press. Work up to it!
Here’s my sample sentence:
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake, where they picked crabapples from the tree and skipped them across the water.
Rule 2: Copy and paste your sample sentence 50 times in a document, and then work from there. That way you have to edit the sentence directly, just like you would do while editing a manuscript. For some of your entries you’re going to want to delete the sentence and write it over again. That’s fine. But by making yourself delete the sentence it will feel more like editing and less like brainstorming.
Rule 3: Minor tweaks are fine. It’s not cheating to flip a few words around. That’s a huge part of the rewriting process, and one that beginnings often miss. Sometimes flipping the order of two words has a surprising impact on the meaning.
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake…
is a different sentence than
Every summer Lilly and John spent their days up by the lake…
Putting Lilly first places a different spin on the sentence and it’s meaning. It looks small, but rewriting isn’t about making a few powerful changes. It’s about making hundreds of tiny changes that add up to a much better manuscript.
Rule 4: You can add or subtract information, as long as it’s all accurate.
Every summer John and his sister Lilly spent their days up by the lake…
That’s fine because I know they are brother and sister. You’re allowed to include or remove that kind of information, but don’t change it. You can’t suddenly decide that Lilly is John’s mother. That’s not editing, that’s changing the story. It’s a valuable skill, but not the one we are practicing here. At the same time, your original sentence might be too wordy and contain unnecessary information.
John and Lilly spent their summer days up by the lake.
The crabapple detail might be unnecessary and distracting.
Rule 5: Don’t change tense. You wouldn’t change tense in the middle of a manuscript, so don’t do it here either.
Rule 6: It is fine to break the sentence into multiple sentences. Don’t feel artificially constrained to stick to one sentence just because that’s where you started.
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake. They loved to pick crab apples from the tree and skip them across the water.
Rule 7: Every sentence needs to be usable. They need to be grammatical, but also stylistically viable. They don’t have to be beautiful, but the goal here is to improve your writing, not just finish the exercise. Any sentence that is so hideous that you’d scrap it the second you put a period on the other end doesn’t count.
Up by the lake it was crab apples that John, during summer days, picked and skipped across the water, along with Lilly who did it as well.
I feel dirty. That sentence is grammatical—or close enough for prose work—but it’s so ugly that I wouldn’t use it. So it doesn’t go in the 50. Whether a sentence feels “viable” is up to you. Don’t spend more than a second on it. If it doesn’t make you say “blech” when you read it, it’s probably fine. Even if it does you might want to just move on and perhaps add a few more after 50 just to be sure you’ve done the exercise.
Rule 8: Don’t go back to check your earlier entries as you write. That’ll just kill your momentum. It’s okay if you have a few repeats. Just keep writing.
That’s it! Give it a try, and let me know what you think.
Here is a link to my first go at this exercise. Read it if you want to see an example. Prepared to be insired…and also bored to tears. It’s 50 of the same sentence! What do you want from me?
You ever notice how there are so many cop shows following homicide detectives on TV? Or murder mysteries lining bookstore shelves? You might love stories about murder, or you might find them repetitive and boring. But hidden in their popularity are some very useful lessons about writing.
To demonstrate, here’s an experiment you can perform on your friends or coworkers. Before I get into the details, let me give you a little warning:
DO NOT DO THIS EXPERIMENT.
It is a terrible idea! It will lead to horrific things!
Okay, here’s how to do the experiment. First, find someone in your life who finds murder stories of any kind boring or oversaturated. Cop shows, murder mysteries, slasher films, it doesn’t matter. Bonus if the person used to like them but has gotten burnt out or desensitized.
Then threaten to kill them. Really threaten. Don’t just say “I’m going to kill you!” with a little laugh over your morning bagels. You’ve got to sell it. Show up in their house at night in a mask and a butcher’s knife. Hell, make it a hockey mask. The fun part of this experiment is that you can throw in all the cliches you want and it’ll still work.
If you don’t want to get arrested, you could instead anonymously send them a picture of their kids with red Xs drawn over their eyes in blood. Bonus it matches their children’s blood types. You may be able to find this information through company records. Just save Doris over in HR the last Boston Creme donuts. Or whatever she likes. Be creative!
Keep this up for a few days. Long enough that the co worker will have trouble passing it off as a joke. Long enough to really get under their skin. Then, when they are at their most stressed, tense, and frightened, go up to them and ask, “So, are you bored?”
Three guesses what their answer will be.
So, what can we learn from this little experiment that YOU WILL UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES UNDERTAKE, AND IF YOU DO IT ISN’T MY FAULT?
You can be confident that your little stunt not only caught your victim…uh, subject’s attention, it also shoved everything else out of their mind. The imminent threat of murder moved to the very top of their priority pile. Even if they had a big promotion coming up. Even if they were under a lot of stress from an impending divorce, or about to land a big deal that could let them afford that vacation home in Majorca they always wanted.
People aren’t bored of things that feel real to them. But some things feel a lot more real than others. This is an extreme example, but it hides some truths that have meaning when it comes to fiction. You can write a great story about someone getting a promotion or landing a big deal. But you have to work a lot harder to make it feel real.
Make someone feel threatened by your antagonist and you’ve got them. Make them feel like this person is so dangerous it trips their brain’s ability to tell the difference between reality and fiction, like when you are sure there is something in the darkness waiting for you. Or you are terrified when your children are 20 minutes late getting home because it’s dark, and anything could be out there.
Murder is easy. Sure, it’s fun watching competent detectives and brilliant super-sleuths outwit savvy criminals. But that’s not the real reason 20 new cop shows hit the network line-up every fall. Murder, done right, sucks people right in because it is visceral. It is primal. It is easy to make it feel so real it is undeniable.
You don’t have to write about murder. But the lessons of murder reach past the edge of the knife. Make your tension threatening and your antagonists terrifying—even if the threat they represent is non-murderous in nature—and you’re already halfway to Majorca.
Let’s start with a universal question. Or, if you prefer, a cliché: What were you doing when you heard that an airplane had crashed into the twin towers?
Every generation has moments like this. The bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Kennedy assassination. The Challenger explosion. You’ve probably read dozens of articles that begin with this question. They are cliche for a reason.
Chances are you not only remember where you were and what you are doing, but that you remember it in exceptional detail. More vividly than whatever you were doing a week before that day or a week after. You have many memories like this crawling around your brain. Memories of moments of shock and intense emotional revelation.
Some are shared cultural experiences and some of them are personal. Maybe you have a similar memory of the moment you learned of the death of a loved one. Or the first time you bit down on a Twinkie, if you are a particularly intense Twinkie fan.
Experimental psychologists call these types of memories flashbulb memories, a term coined by Brown and Kulik in a 1977 study. They have certain features in common:
- They are unusually detailed, containing more small and inconsequential details than other memories.
- They often involve multiple senses.
- They have strong emotional intensity.
- They feel more real than other memories.
- They last in your mind longer with more clarity than other memories.
There are various theories about how flashbulb memories are formed and why they stand out so strongly. Emotional impact appears to be a major factor. Another is that they last longer because you revisit flashbulb memories and tell them to others over and over throughout your life.
As writers we all strive to create moments with our prose that stand out in our readers’ minds. A major reason that we put our words down on paper is so that they are remembered and discussed when we aren’t around, or after we are gone. As such, flashbulb memories have a lot to teach us about what kinds of things people remember most vividly.
When crafting a piece of writing, whether it be a fictional interchange between two lovers or a recounting of real-life drug addiction in Central Africa, the more your readers remember it the more of an impact it will have. It can be the most intense scene ever written, but if it is forgotten three minutes after it is read it might as well have been a listing of stamp prices.
Most of us try to make our scenes memorable by making them more emotionally impactful. This is important, but it isn’t enough. It has to have as many of the traits of flashbulb memories as possible so that when people try to remember it their brains can use the processes they already use when creating powerful memories.
That means important scenes need to have:
- Sensory detail. Our brains remember sounds and scents and the scratchy feeling of the wool sweater rubbing against our sweaty chest on a hot day. The richer the detail the easier the scene will be to remember. This doesn’t mean more detail. Just stronger detail.
- Little details. The more alive a scene feels the more the mechanics of memory have to latch on to. Two people can have a mundane conversation in a featureless room. But an important, life-changing conversation should take place in a room with a battered old desk and a night-light that looks like Oscar the Grouch.
- Emotional impact. Flashbulb memories are created when something happens that knocks you entirely out of your comfort zone. Nothing is the same after these moments, and you feel it.
- Re-tellability. That’s not a word, but it’s still important. If a reader goes over a scene over and over in their mind they will remember it. If they are so moved by the scene that they have to tell their friends about it, they will remember it, for the simple reason that repetition reinforces memory. Write and rewrite your most important scenes until they have that property. Easier said than done, but it’s vital.
Chances are there are scenes in books or movies that you remember with the kind of clarity normally reserved for important events in your life. Go back and look at those scenes. More likely than not they had most or all of the properties of flashbulb memories. Put these traits into your own writing and you won’t be easily forgotten.