A Writer’s Notebook: Last lines

Today, I’ve written a story backward. I explained some of the reasons for this in yesterday’s post, but for more about how I went about the actual exercise, see below.

When they left the theater they were already arguing. Matilda gestured with her handbag and it swung like a wrecking ball; Gerhardt waved his gloved hands violently in the air; Leo jabbed his folded umbrella like a sword with each point he thought he was making. They were ridiculous, and the people they passed on the sidewalk parted around them and glared or shook their heads before closing again on the other side, but the trio argued loudly anyway, oblivious.

Matilda was insisting that when the film had ended on the shot in the woods, the camera angled upward into the trees, the director was indicating hope and happiness. “Look at all that sunlight,” she said. “Coming down in rays like that through the leaves?  It was like a vision of heaven.”

“Exactly,” Gerhardt said. “That’s why it represents death. When do you see scenes like that except in graveyards?” He moved his hands over his head to indicate the leaves blowing, the sunlight falling in somber rays. He looked like a madman having a convulsive fit.

“I see it plenty,” Matilda said. “I see it now. Look over there across the street, you just look there in the park.” Her handbag swung on the end of her arm as she pointed, and she swayed with the weight of it. “See those trees? See the sunlight? Show me a graveyard.”

“I think you guys are missing the point,” Leo said. “This whole movie was about questions, about uncertainty. You think it would give all that up to end with something so definite as you’re talking about?”

“Of course!” Gerhardt said. “That’s why it’s an ending. It has to resolve things, it has to answer all those questions.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Matilda said. “There is no answer in death, in graveyards. The sunlight in the trees has to mean hope. It has to mean certainty.”

“You show me one thing, one thing in this life more certain than death.”

“Please, you two, I swear,” Leo said.

“Okay, fine,” Gerhardt said. “What uncertainty do you find in that ending?”

“I find no ending at all, for one thing.”

“Bah, no ending. Look, movies like this, they always have to mean something, and that meaning comes in the ending, and that final meaning is always in the form of a symbol.”

“Exactly,” Matilda said. “The mirrors in All About Eve, or Rosebud in Citizen Kane.”

“God, that stupid sled,” Gerhardt said.

“Filmmakers work in images and images are symbols. Sunlight is hope.”

“Sunlight in the trees is death.”

“Okay,” Leo said, thrusting his umbrella so that Matilda caught her purse to her chest and Gerhardt stepped instinctively to the side. “Okay, you want a symbol? Why is the sunlight coming through the trees?” He jabbed upward where the sky was clouding over. “If we wanted hope, they would have shown us bright light. If we wanted death, they would have shown us shadows. Instead, they showed us both. We get both in one image. There is no answer. Or,” and here Leo stabbed toward them with his umbrella again, “or, how about this? The leaves are obscuring the light, the trees are covering up our chance at illumination. So we remain in a state of ignorance, and we get no easy answers.”

Gerhardt and Matilda looked at him a moment, then they turned to each other. They looked back at Leo. Then Gerhardt threw one arm high in the air, pointed his index finger, and waved it in a spiral like an orchestra conductor or a magician.

“A ha!” he announced, then he whirled on Matilda so she clutched her purse tighter. “There, even he agrees! The trees are blocking out the light! Death, you see! Where’s your hope and happiness now?”

Matilda studied him a moment, looked to Leo, then dropped her purse heavily at her side. “You’re the one who’s hopeless,” she said. “And I’m hungry.” They walked on, arguing more quietly now that they were also looking for a small diner or café, and after a block they’d pulled several paces ahead, their argument getting dim as the afternoon light. Leo looked up at the sky wearily as the first few drops of rain started to fall.

The last line of this story comes from Week 94 of the First Line blog. Using a first line as a last line has a lot of challenges, not the least of which is the differing natures of the two: one (sometimes) seeks to introduce a conflict, the other (sometimes) seeks to resolve it. But because both, at their best, are also intended to grab a reader’s attention and leave an impression, sometimes they can be interchangeable.

There is no one way to write a story backward, and frankly, I wouldn’t recommend doing it on purpose except as an exercise, but the basic starting point is essentially the same for any backward story:  you need ask how a story might have wound up in this place, what sorts of conflicts this final line might be reflecting on or resolving, and then you need to look through the sentence for clues about how to get there.

If you’ve read and/or written enough fiction, you develop a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and ordinarily, I’d have scrolled through the first lines myself until something grabbed my attention in a way that got me thinking backward, but to make my job even harder, this time I asked my wife to look through the First Line blog and choose the sentence for me. Now, I had to not merely knock out a story that felt apparent in the “last” line — I had to find a story in the line.

This proved even more difficult because, while looking up into the rain is a great beginning for a story, it has also served as many, many endings to stories (most of them written by Hemingway). There’s a certain melancholia implied by rainy weather that works well as an emotional ending to certain kinds of fiction, and easy though it would have been to write such a story, I wanted to come up with something different.

But the word “wearily” caught my attention in this sentence, and I kept asking myself, Why is Leo weary? Or, why does he look up wearily? Is it the rain that makes him weary, and if so, why?

To get some ideas going, I turned to an old favorite, Jesse Lee Kercheval‘s Building Fiction, and reviewed her chapter on endings. There aren’t any ideas for writing a story backward, but there is a terrific scene at the end of the chapter in which Kercheval describes a couple of colleagues arguing about the ending of one of her own stories. And I thought, maybe my character, Leo, is weary because of an argument.

So, I have three characters — Leo included — arguing about something that makes Leo weary, and looking up at the fresh rain should somehow exacerbate that weariness; it should, to use a cliché, be the nail in the coffin.

But what to argue about?

And then everything just sort of clicked: Why not have them argue about the nature of endings?

The resulting story is too clever by half, I know, but it was fun to write, and this sort of deductive story building helps me prepare for those moments in my writing when I do stumble across an ending before I’ve finished a story and need to figure out how to get there.

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3 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: Last lines

  1. Wow. You’re a pretty solid writer. I just read “Kamikaze” that you submitted to Red Fez. Pretty damn impressive. The story was compelling. The characters were relatable. And speaking of endings, the ending was good.

    — a begining fiction writer

    1. Thanks, CC! That’s some damn nice praise. I looked through your blog in return, and I think you might also dig a story that’s coming out soon in Ampersand–keep an eye out for my announcement when it’s online.

      Your poetry is pretty cool, very driven and energetic. You remind me a bit of Kirpal Gordon, but without all the quasi-hipster-spiritualism. I bet your poems make for wild readings–do you ever read this stuff aloud at open mics or anything? So far no fiction, though; I’m looking forward to seeing some prose turn up in your blog.

      1. I just got a story accepted to Red Fez, “The Man with Patches on His Pants.” It’s in the Fall issue.

        I’m revising 2 other stories. One is a zombie story, which I’ll probably just post on my blog. The other one is about a kid who likes to think that he’s invulnerable like Superman, which I’d like to make into a sort of quasi-artist book.

        Poetry readings? I’ve been to a couple, but have never read at one. I think a lot of poetry being written today is not so much written for the ear, but for the visual aspects. So a lot of it tends to be hard to follow at readings. I’ll probably give it a try some day, but I’m kinda living in the middle of nowhere right now.

        Thanks for checking out my blog. I’ll keep an eye out for your post, and will check out Kirpal Gordan.

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