A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling: A Satisfying Conclusion

In this series, we’re talking about how to craft your genealogical research into engaging stories to share with family.

  • The first post covers the facts, clues, and in-between bits that form the backbone of your story, and you can find it here.
  • The second post discusses the character, conflict, and cost of your story, which you’ll find here.

Today we’ll look at how and when to end your stories. We’ve all had the experience of hearing or telling a story that seems to go nowhere. My sister occasionally ends her stories by saying, “And then I found five bucks.” It’s her funny way of saying, “I’ve got nothing else for you here,” but a well-planned conclusion will help prevent your stories from falling flat.

The Resolution: What It Is and Why It Matters

The natural arc of a story takes the shape of exposition, rising action, climax and resolution. Think about how you relate day-to-day occurrences in conversation. Consider this very generic example:

(Exposition) I was going about my day

(Rising Action) when I noticed something out of the ordinary.

(Climax) I acted in response

(Resolution) and everything returned to normal.

This sample story produces a very minor impact, because in the end, nothing changes. However, look how the example changes with each of these different resolutions:

… and nothing was ever the same again.

… and I’m still dealing with the fallout.

… and if I hadn’t, who knows what would have happened.

… and if I had it to do again, I’d do it differently.

… and I learned something I’ll never forget.

The resolution concludes the story, and to some extent, justifies the telling and gives it importance. Did your ancestor’s actions leave an impact on the community, the family, the following generation? How is the world different (or not) because these events happened? What insights or understanding can be gleaned from them?

Through the conflict, your ancestor/character leaves their beginning status behind. He or she has struggled and either prevailed or gone down in defeat. The conclusion of your story doesn’t have to be long or elaborate — it may a closing paragraph or only a sentence or two — but it should briefly address the ending status in relation to the beginning status. Consider that an ending status that is very different from the beginning status may show the magnitude of one seemingly small decision, and that an ending status that returns to the beginning state may show the futility of even the most valiant efforts.

Drawing Your Story to a Satisfying Conclusion

In books and movies, the conclusion ties up all the loose ends. However, we all know that life is more complex than that — and it was for our ancestors, too. There will be loose ends that can’t be tied, and while fairy tales often end with a wedding, family histories just as often can begin with one.

Finding the natural conclusion to a family story can be tricky. The first time I tried to write a family history narrative, I began with my Wells ancestors stepping off the boat and ended with… me. Needless to say, it didn’t make for fascinating reading. I had collected too few details and simply threaded together what I had learned chronologically. It wasn’t bad — but it also wasn’t a story. That rambling attempt was, at best, a timeline.

In my view, this generational approach breaks down because generation changes represent character changes. Each ancestor/character you highlight should have his or her own story. If you are able to link consecutive stories via births and bequests, do! But consider splitting them into chapters or vignettes to make them digestible for your readers.

Simply put, a resolution resolves. Whatever the conflict of your story is, the ending should be centered around that focus point. Last week, we discussed that the conflict links events in a meaningful way. The resolution to the story occurs naturally where that meaning hits home.

One closing note: genealogy research being as it is, you may not necessarily be able to discover the final outcome with absolute certainty. I’m usually tempted to end with a summary of my ancestor’s death, but that records the character’s end, not necessarily the conflict’s conclusion. (Not to mention that it gets pretty morbid!) You can close the story without the details of the outcome, as long as the lack of a conclusion is interesting, thought-provoking, or satisfying in its own way. Does an unsolved mystery or fractured relationship have lingering implications? Does the gap in information leave room to imagine how a story might have ended? Does the unknown element provoke something universal to the human condition?

Speaking of wrapping things up — next week we’ll conclude A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling with some editing notes for finishing your stories.

Question for You

Do you ever struggle with where one story ends and the next begins? How do you make that determination? Leave a comment with your thoughts on endings!

8 Replies to “A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling: A Satisfying Conclusion”

  1. My thoughts on endings and families,aren’t very helpful, as with families there’s always another descendant’s point of view, another piece of evidence to weigh up – so I find it really hard to decide what is the actual ending.
    I’m great at starting a family-history story in my head about something I’ve found out about my ancestors. And then I think I just get a bit obsessed with the ‘facts’ – aggh! – and keep trying to find out more, and not know when I’ve got to the end
    I think I need to take a leaf out of your story-telling book – thank you 🙂

    1. You’re welcome! You’re describing exactly what I was running into, Helen! I finally decided that certain pieces of the overall history could stand alone on their own merits and intrigue, and to focus on doing that well. 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on telling family tales and commented:
    I’m really enjoying Brandy’s series of storytelling with family history in mind. I can’t wait to really dig in and apply what she is teaching us here. There is so much here that I’ve not really thought through in the way I need to and want to in my own storytelling attempts. Thanks again Brandy for sharing your expertise.

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