Thursday, October 9, 2014

Getting out of Dodge

You probably give more thought to how you start an article or a speech than you do its ending. But you need to think of both, and in nearly all cases they should relate to each other.

Something positive happens in the reader's mind when at the end he encounters a reference to something from the beginning. For some reason, this recognition gives credence to what you have written. Perhaps simply because it's familiar. Perhaps because the reader feels good about himself for having recognized the repetition.

You can do this in a perfunctory way: quote Shakespeare in the beginning and again in the end, for example. That's not going to buy you much.

Better to do it subtly, to give the reader even more satisfaction from seeing what you're doing. So if you begin with a reference to Sherlock Holmes, you can end with terms like sleuth or mystery or clue or put on your cloak to create an echo of the beginning. No need to mention the old boy by name.

But there's more. In a short story or novel, the ending resolves the conflict the hero dealt with. The reader is relieved that it's over. He celebrates with the hero, if, indeed, the knight prevailed over the dragon. The ending is cathartic.

If your piece is more than just a report on second quarter earnings, you are probably dealing with some kind of conflict. If you aren't, look for it. It may well be the conflict between what you know and what your reader doesn't know. You're bringing your reader to a new point of understanding. In the end, you resolve this.

(And maybe you ought to look at those quarterly numbers as a piece of tension to be resolved. They do tell a story, after all.)

You've been making a  case, laying out your evidence, and now you close in for the kill. You tie it all together, and if you do it well the reader has an epiphany, which is pleasurable.

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln sets up the tension: "But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground."

In the end, he resolves it: "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

His words leave us with a profound and sacred challenge.

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