Last week, tuned in to A Prairie Home Companion, I heard Garrison Keillor sing a song called “Brevity,” and it struck a chord with me in more ways than one. I wish I could quote it for you—it’s hilarious—but quoting original song lyrics is dodgy. Here’s the link, though, so you can hear it.
Anyway, I was reminded of a couple of things, one of which was the time when, reading at an event sponsored by an Oregon writing organization, I decided on the fly to read one chapter instead of the two I’d planned. There were about thirty people in attendance, several of whom were seven or eight years old. At the end of the first chapter, I looked around the room, and every eye was fixed on me. I thought to myself, “It doesn’t get better than this,” and quit.
Honestly, I knew those kids were going to start squirming at any moment, and nobody wanted that. The organizer of the event came up to me afterward, pumped my hand as if I had just won the Nobel Prize, and congratulated me for a great reading, by which he obviously meant: short.
The other thing I thought about while listening to Keillor’s song was…scenes. I think it was Ellen Howard who taught me the trick of reading backward from the end of a scene I’d written to find the true ending. Try cutting the last line of the scene. There, is that better? No? Then try cutting the next-to-last line. Is it better yet? Keep going in this fashion until you come to a line that ends with a satisfying thump. There’s the end of your scene.
So often, in those days, my scenes dribbled on and on after the true ending, robbing the scenes of impact and boring everybody. I suppose there are more rational guidelines you could use to determine the proper ending of a scene—when does the tension drop off, for instance. But over the years, my ear has become attuned to a good scene-ending line. Even if I think I have plenty more to say, when I write one of those lines I realize I’m on the verge of overstaying my welcome and it’s time to say goodbye.