Wednesday, May 18, 2011

PUNCH-LINES by Nigel Bird

I've very happy to welcome Nigel Bird to My Friends Call Me Kate this morning.  He's written a wonderful post that I'm sure you will enjoy.  Read, laugh, learn and be amazed!

When Elizabeth Taylor arrived for her funeral service earlier this year, she was 15 minutes late. It was a gag she’d set up to remind people that she was late for everyone and everything.

It reminded me that endings are crucial to stories.

I often read about the importance of a first line in a piece of fiction, but rarely about the last. It might be because we can’t sit and quote too many of them in case we spoil a book and for that reason, some of this will seem like beating around the bush. Regardless, it’s one of the things I really have to work on.

So let the beating begin.

Endings are great things.

I like it when an author packs everything into a box on the last page, but doesn’t lock the lid.

A denouement must be satisfying, tie up loose ends and be plausible, yet at the same time must leave the reader with a sense of wonder. It might be a killer punch the likes of which might finish a fight, a seed to get you thinking or a key with which the whole piece can be understood.

Longer fiction has to end every chapter in the perfect way – part resolution, part impetus and that must be tough, but the writer of a novel can afford to use the whole final section to draw things to a close and that must let them off the hook a little.

Endings are especially important in short fiction as they occupy more of the whole. When I leave a short story I want to feel shaken or stirred in some way or other, to have some kind of emotional kick at the finale.

Here’s an example of a very short story taken from the wonderful ZEN FLESH ZEN BONES:

‘A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!’

That final sentence really hits. It’s what the story was made for. Without it, the rest is stripped of power.

It got me thinking of Haiku.

I’m choosing one from Basho and relying on this as a good interpretation.

Morning and evening
Someone waits at Matsushima!
One-sided love.

Again, here’s a conclusion that tells a bigger story. This one leaves me with that tinge of sadness at the image.

To write a great Haiku, the ending will link the first two lines and explain why they were there in the first place.

Here’s another example from a poem:

Wilfred Own comes up with a cracker in his work about the horrors of war ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. In it he manages to encapsulate much of what he is about:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,---
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(which I think translates as ‘It is sweet and noble to die for one’s country’)

It forces one more turn of the vice and explains why he was making the effort in the first place.

The only novel I’m going to refer to is one of my favourite stories ever, The Count Of Monte Cristo.

After such an epic, finding the right tone to rest on must have been a nightmare. There’s been a little of everything and yet it needs to come to a close.

Keeping it at it’s briefest (in case you’re in the middle of it right now):

“all human wisdom is summed up in two words? - Wait and hope.”

It rounds off the immediate situation, but also allows for further rumination, like a digestif at the end of a good meal; after such a good book I want to have it live with me once I close the cover for the final time and that’s what Dumas managed for me there.

Moving on to epitaphs. Bette Davis has a lovely comment on her gravestone – ‘She did it the hard way.’ I’m hoping you’ll leave your favourites in the comments, or maybe the words you’d write for yourself.

I was going to use ‘On the whole I’d rather be in Philadelphia’ until I Googled it; it’s a great line whether it’s on a tombstone or not.

And what about great last words?

We remember them, I guess, because the good ones are the summary of a life.

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) "I have just had eighteen whiskies in a row. I do believe that is a record."

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do!"

Makes me wonder if these folk had worked on their final words. Do you think they said them and then refused to speak until death actually came?

I’d be happy if my last words could be ‘Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz’ or if I could go out singing at the top of my voice – Teenage Kicks, perhaps.

And there’s my writing.

I don’t sweat too much when I’m opening a piece. In fact, because I can’t start until I have a story’s voice and first sentence, there’s not a good deal I can do. Sure, I can rework it later, but it’s not a huge burden.

The ending, on the other hand, can often cause me real problems.

My favourite to date is the close of Beat On The Brat. It was a line that appeared in mid flow and as soon as it was in my head I knew it was the ending to aim for – all I needed were a few sentences to build to it and there it was. You can still see that one for free either at, or in the Needle Summer Collection from last year.

Which is where I’m bringing the curtain down.

It would be nice to finish with a punch-line, which is what got me thinking all this in the first place.

“What did the snowman say to the other snowman?”

If I were to stop there, no doubt you’d leave feeling dissatisfied.

Here, to make sure that’s not the case, are my final words.

“Do you smell carrots?"

46 years. It's been a long journey. I've been a primary school teacher for almost half of them, moving from mainstream to exceptional needs to additional support needs. I'm most happy with and most proud of my own family. Second to them comes my involvement in writing and peripheral projects. I co-edited the Rue Bella magazine for 5 years or so and am mighty proud of that too. Recently I've been more involved with writing my own pieces. I've been lucky enough to find spaces for some of my work and I'm hoping that one day I'll write a novel that's worthy of publication. I've given up gambling, alcohol, smoking and any kind of unnatural highs over the past few years and am looking for a new compulsion - maybe I've found it in Twitter. Yep, 46 years. I haven't always known it, but I've been a very lucky man.

Nigel Bird is about to serve up a 9 course meal. As an appetiser, there’s a morsel (‘Sebille’) at Flashquake. The Starter, ‘No Pain No Gain’ will be in Crime Factory. There’s something fishy in the form of a surprise. A visit to France for mains at Voluted Tales. If you’ve room, it’ll be time for Best Of British Crime Stories. For dessert, Pulp Ink, served up jointly with Chris Rhatigan and / or Blackbird Pie at Grimm Tales. Digestif is a novel that has all the ingredients and requires a bit more time in the oven.

And cheese.


Sabrina E. Ogden said...

Is it wrong that I smelled carrots at the end? Great guest post, Nigel. Looks like you have a nice selection of stories ready for us to feast on and I'm looking forward to reading all of them =)

David Cranmer said...

I always liked Pancho Villa last words: "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something."

Great post, Nigel.

Thomas Pluck said...

Well said, Nigel. Sometimes the ending is a punch, and sometimes it's a journey that ends at the shore, staring out over the waves, without a boat in sight. It speaks for itself with its immensity, swelling with a bit of promise but also a great emptiness of doubt. I like both. I like ambiguous endings that make you think, as well as satisfying ones that tie the loose ends without being too fantastic.
For example Harlan Coben's "Hold Tight" was a great read but was just too neat for me. It felt like one of those "everything is connected" tales and was just too pat. sure it was satisfying, but you can't win them all, and when you see someone pull that off they'd better be James Bond and not Joe Schmoe.

Christine said...

I agree with you, Nigel, make the ending to tie in with the beginning and don't leave us "hanging/wondering" what happened. I like a clean cut finish. Your comments were very interesting and do appreciate your time and effort in being a guest on Sabrina/Kate's blog. Your short stories do sound very appetizing. Thanks.

AJ Hayes said...

Firsts are important, lasts are critical but it's the muddle in the middle that's, for me, hardest to do.
Here's a pretty great closer: “Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.” –John Gardner, Grendel (1971)

Paul D. Brazill said...

My last lines are closer to the last words of Dutch Schultz ...Spillane said that the first line sells your book and the last line sells your next one...smashing post and good call with the Count of Monte Cristo.

nigel p bird said...

i'm glad you smell carrots. thanks to all for coming over and for commenting. it's much appreciated. Sabrina, warm thanks to you.
and is it right that i keep looking at this blog with a vacant stare and small smile?
some great last lines here - Spillane and Villa. you've got me intrigued about Schultz, though - off to google.

nigel p bird said...


Chris Rhatigan said...

Phenomenal post, Nigel. You're spot on--endings are so hard. Very few writers nail them in short stories and those that do rarely get them right all the time. I think Kieran Shea's story in Needle 1 "The Shrewd Variant" is another example of an excellent ending.

You've got quite a list of publications coming up! Looking forward to reading more of your fine stories.

Julie Lewthwaite said...

Great stuff, Nigel, really enjoyed that.

Lysdexic Writer said...

Thoughtful and thought provoking post. I never know I'm done writing a novel until the last line presents its self.

The last line that has stuck with me for twenty plus years is...

"I have learned some things. Modern life is warfare without end: take no prisoners, leave no wounded, eat the dead--that's environmentally sound."
— James Crumley (Dancing Bear)

On a good day I hope I can come even close to it some time.

Josh Stallings

Sara said...

GREAT post! I thought that it is an interesting metaphor, comparing an epitaph to the last words of our "book" that is life. Now you have me thinking. Again, I envy all of the great talent in this world. Thanks, Nigel for putting a different perspective on things, and thanks as usual, S, for making my day.

nigel p bird said...

I think I should offer a parting shot.

Did you hear about the man who went walking on the railway lines?

He was chuffed to bits.

And so am I. Absolutely.