Perfecting an Ending

Photo by: Beshr O

Read the final version of Red Balloons in the Syrian Sky: The Uncertain Beginnings of a Revolution here..

Endings are tough. You don’t want to leave the reader saying, “That’s it?” You don’t want to try so hard that it comes off forced, sentimentalized, a thick slab of capital-M meaning laid on to finish the story. You don’t want to oversimplify with too tidy a summary. You want a bang, not a whimper, but you don’t want a bang that says Bang!

And now I’ll stop talking in circles and show you what I mean. Margot initially was trying to make her point too obvious. She deeply respected Laila and wanted to end with Laila’s decision to keep fighting a battle that could ultimately prove deadly (and might have already). She wanted to show Laila’s bravery and the consequences it entailed: to end with the strength and courage of these young revolutionaries fighting in the Arab Spring. She also wanted to reinforce the complexity of the situation: the high stakes and the complications, and all of the risks that people like Laila were taking in the face of such uncertainty.

In this first draft, the ending is so obvious it lacks impact; it actually drains genuine emotion from the piece by forcing drama:

“I…I’m so sorry, Laila.” What a stupid thing to say.

We were being evacuated the next morning, just when change was happening. People were beginning to overcome their fear. We were cowering away. I was embarrassed to look at her, the tear streaked face and determined glare. She shook her head slowly, and pulled me in, her hands cupping my elbows. She cried silently, her forehead touching mine, her eyes closed.

“If only I could keep my life,” she whispered, “and my freedom.”

The day before a peaceful anti-government protest had broken out in the Literature College of my university. “With soul, with blood, we will redeem Dar’aa”, the students chanted. The Muhabaraat, Syria’s secret police force, had come at the protestors with knives within minutes, but it was enough to tip the balance. Aleppo’s silence had been broken, and the prospect of civil war was now real. Laila had been there, had videoed the riot on her phone and leaked it to Al-Jazeera. The world knew of it within minutes.

“This is my country, Margot.” She looked me straight in the eyes.

“You are the bravest person I know.”

*

In the fourth draft the ending is more complex, but somewhat unsatisfying. It seems to cut off in the middle of a conversation:

That night I went out for coffee and shisha with a group of Syrian and American friends. We made up code words for the revolution and the President, jokingly including his stern-looking portrait on the café wall in our conversation. The next morning, I boarded a plane to Jordan. Behind me I left what felt like a different country from the one I’d arrived in three months before. I couldn’t paint a simple picture of Syria to my family at home, and I don’t even believe that there is one. I could, however, tell them that Syrians are not all brave people or all cowards, all Hamada’s or all Laila’s.

In the sixth draft another sentence is tacked on, but it is equally unsatisfying, too much like the patent conclusion of a five paragraph essay. It’s overly neat and summary:

The apology I gave Laila felt hollow.

The DC office had finally pulled the plug on our program and its seventeen students had been offered evacuation for the next morning. It all seemed very very wrong. Syrians like Laila – and nobody knew quite how many of them there were – were risking everything. We were fleeing.

I was embarrassed to look at her tear-streaked face and determined glare. What was there to tell her? That my language partner had told me that I needed to leave now, that anti-American sentiment would run rampant if law ever broke down in Aleppo? That was an excuse for leaving to my mother, my boyfriend, all the people at home who wanted me safe no matter what. But before Laila I knew I was a coward. I couldn’t say those things to her any more than I could tell her that I expected a higher level of safety for myself than I did for her.
She shook her head slowly, and pulled me in, her hands cupping my elbows. She cried silently, her forehead touching mine, her eyes closed. “If only I could keep my life,” she whispered, “and my freedom.”

The day before, a peaceful anti-government protest had broken out in the Literature College of Aleppo University. “With soul, with blood, we will redeem Dar’aa”, the students chanted. Within minutes, the Muhabaraat had broken up the protest, wielding knives. But the silence in Aleppo, the second largest city in the country, had broken. Laila had been there, videoed the riot on her phone and leaked it to Al-Jazeera. The world knew of it in seconds.

“This is my country, Margot.” She looked me straight in the eyes. She was the bravest person I knew.

That night I went out for coffee and shisha with a group of Syrian and American friends. We made up code words for the revolution and the President, jokingly including his stern-looking portrait on the café wall in our conversation. The next morning, I boarded a plane to Jordan. Behind me I left what felt like a different country from the one I’d arrived in three months before. I couldn’t paint a simple picture of Syria to my family at home, and I don’t even believe that there is one. I could, however, tell them that Syrians are not all brave people or all cowards, all Hamada’s or all Laila’s. I felt humbled by how much I did not understand, but I hoped that I would be coming back to Syria one day.

Here, she hits it. This is powerful, it’s wrenching, it’s complicated, and it’s conclusive without summarizing. The drama feels honest, almost matter-of-fact, instead of forced:

The day before, a peaceful anti-government protest had broken out in the Literature College of Aleppo University. “With soul, with blood, we will redeem Dar’aa”, the students chanted. Within minutes, the Muhabaraat had broken up the protest, wielding knives. But the silence in Aleppo, the second largest city in the country, had broken. Laila had been there, videoed the riot on her phone and leaked it to Al-Jazeera. The world knew of it in seconds.

“This is my country, Margot.” She looked me straight in the eyes. She was the bravest person I knew.

Gripping the blue silk scarf she’d given me until my fingers turned red, I watched from the steps of my dormitory as she left. The calf-deep slit in her jil-bab allowed the fabric to rustle in time to her brisk gait. Even beneath the shapeless coat it was clear that she was thin, too thin perhaps. I smiled at a brief memory of her mischievous face, when she talks out of the side of her mouth, as if communicating a hysterical secret. I half expected to see it one more time before she disappeared into the night, but Laila did not look back at me.

There was no room for looking back.

Read Margot’s incredible full story on Matador Abroad.

About Sarah Menkedick

Sarah Menkedick is an MFA student and undergraduate writing instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, and the editor-in-chief of Glimpse.org.
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One Response to Perfecting an Ending

  1. Budd says:

    Normally I’m against killing but this article slaughtered my iognnrace.

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