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Every Great Story Ends Where It Begins—But With a Twist

Steal this tip when writing your best stories.

Okay, so there’s a great rule for how to end any story and the best way to understand is to first talk about a book I absolutely tore through last week. It’s called Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller. She’s the co-host of RadioLab and, akin to the show’s best segments, Miller’s book examines the strange intersection of memoir and scientific investigation.

A bit about the book:

The book is nominally a biography of David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford, and the lifelong obsession he had with finding new types of fish and then naming them. The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 ruined two decades of Jordan’s work and the thousands of fish he had yet to classify, and Jordan responded to the tragedy by…

…very calmly starting again.

That stoic perseverance, that hope, fascinated Miller, a woman who had never had these traits, and she thought in Jordan’s story she might find the meaning for her own existence. The book pivots on these narratives: Jordan’s story and Miller interpretation of its message as she applies it to her life, and as each narrative strand turns darker and more complex, the book’s pages nearly turn themselves.

Miller is a master storyteller. The book is worth it for writing nerds just to study its craft and narrative progression. And Why Fish Don’t Exist resides next to Sapiens as one of the best scientific histories you’ll read.

In fact it’s more than that. By the end you’ll see why Lulu Miller has kind of created a genre unlike any other.

In any great story, the viewer/reader learns something alongside the protagonist:

I won’t ruin the ending of Why Fish Don’t Exist, but will say it mirrors the theme from the book’s opening — but from a slightly different perspective. That askance angle is Miller showing the reader what she learned across the adventure that is her story, and that wisdom gives any story its richness, a richness all the more powerful when a story concludes, in either its setting or theme, at the same spot of its opening.

There’s a gestalt-y satisfying circularity to it, a story ending where it began. It’s why The Wizard of Oz and Finding Nemo and Forrest Gump will always have an audience. When’s the story’s closing scene returns us to its home, its starting point, we learn something alongside the protagonist.

The story that showed me this is possible in magazine-length journalism, too, was Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Lucky Jim,” a 2002 feature that ran in GQ but, sadly, is not available online. Go here to buy it in anthology form. It’s worth it.

“Lucky Jim” is Gilbert’s profile of Jim MacLaren, an academic standout at Yale who also kicked ass in football and lacrosse and who suffered a terrible accident riding his motorcycle. He had his left leg amputated below the knee. He rehabilitated, though. He did not give up hope. He began to walk with the benefit of a prosthetic, and then run, and then triumph. And here I’ll cede the floor to Elizabeth Gilbert:

Soon he could run a marathon in just over three hours, routinely finishing in the top third of able-bodied contenders. And then he took up triathlons. Yes, triathlons. Once he’d survived a few of those, he set out to conquer the Ironman, one of the most brutal organized sporting events ever imagined. Two and a half miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and a full 26.2-mile marathon, all in one race, all in one day. And all on one leg.
Which explains what Jim MacLaren was doing in Southern California on that cool June afternoon in 1993. He was participating in an Ironman. Jim was excelling. He was speeding through the town of Mission Viejo on his bicycle, tearing ass at thirty-five miles per hour. The sidewalks were crowded with spectators, and he was dimly aware of their cheers. He had just pulled ahead of a thick snarl of cyclists. He was leading the pack.
Suddenly, Jim heard the crowd gasp. He turned his head to see what was going on, and there was the steel grille of a black van heading straight toward him. He realized he was about to be hit by a goddamn car. It was supposed to have been a closed racecourse. But for some unknown reason, a cop guarding an intersection decided to let one car through, and he misjudged how fast the bicyclists were coming. As Jim MacLaren was approaching, the cop was gesturing to the driver of the van to hit the gas. The driver, a 50-year-old man on his way to church, was merely obeying orders. He floored it.
He didn’t see Jim until Jim was on his windshield.This time Jim vividly remembers being hit. He remembers the screams from the crowd. He remembers his body flying across the street and smashing into a lamppost headfirst, snapping his neck. He remembers riding in the ambulance and being aware that he could not feel his limbs. He was put under anesthesia for emergency surgery on his spine, and when he woke up he was in the trauma ward.
He could not move. His head was shaved. There was a bolt screwed into the back of his skull, preventing him from shifting his head even a millimeter. Jim remembers this well. But what he remembers most clearly is this image: All the nurses were in tears.’We’re so sorry,’ they kept saying. Jim MacLaren was now a quadriplegic. He was 30 years old.
And this is where his story begins.

And it is.

All of Jim’s athletic achievements happen in the first 900 words of this 5,500-word story. The bulk of the piece, the reason Elizabeth Gilbert wanted to profile Jim MacLaren, was because she had to know how a man endures when he cannot will himself back to top physical form, when a broken neck means he will never again move anything below his chesst line, when the body he once found so vibrant and nothing less than the expression of his being betrays him, deforms him, imprisons him.

How does Jim MacLaren carry on from that?

The answer is he doesn’t, until he does. “Lucky Jim” is one of the cruelest and most beautiful stories I’ve read, full of wisdom that’ll raise the gooseflesh on your arms.

What makes Gilbert’s story so good is her ending. She takes you back to the day before that Ironman in Southern California, where Jim MacLaren has this…thing that rushes through him, this vision, this sense, this certainty that his life is about to change, and tomorrow, and he suddenly can’t wait to race the next day.

And then the bliss started to grow, to rise within him. Jim moved from a state of contentment into a state of joy, and soon not even the joy could be contained, and it became a euphoria that spilled out over his whole body, lifting the hair on the back of his neck and running goose bumps over his skin. He was overcome by a thrilling sense of what he could only later describe as anticipation. He’d never felt anything like this, and he never wanted it to end. He was laughing and crying at the same time, elated beyond his senses…
…“Something amazing is about to happen to me!”

It’s the perfect ending. It ends where it begins, but from a slightly different angle.

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