The End: How to Conclude Your Family History
by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG®
Death is the easy way out. A life ends, and so must the story. But is death really the last word? Or is there more after death that you can say about your ancestors to conclude their life stories?
The conclusion, more than any other part of our family history narratives, is probably the most difficult part to write. Almost every writer I know struggles with ending the story. So let’s take a look at some different ways to draw the final curtain on your ancestors’ life stories that leave the reader with more than an obituary.
- Try asking “so what?” Imagine telling a friend what your ancestor’s story is all about:
You: My ancestor gave up everything to come to America in the early 1900s and start life over.
Your friend: Yeah, so what?
You: Well, he had to learn a new language, find a job, save money to bring his family over, and deal with a lot of prejudice from people already here.
Your friend: Sounds a lot like immigrants today. Why should anyone care about your ancestor?
You: Exactly! History repeats itself. What our ancestors experienced is no different than how we treat immigrants today. Don’t you see the correlation? My ancestor represents the same experiences as immigrants today. Nothing has changed in centuries!
You now have not only your conclusion, but a deeper level of meaning to your ancestor’s story. You are leaving readers with something profound to think about.
If you make an “ah-ha” discovery through this process, you might want to revise the body of your narrative, so it leads naturally to this discovery. End discoveries often happen after you have drafted the narrative and are reviewing it for universal themes, or when you are playing the “so what?” game.
- Echo the introduction. What did you cover at the beginning of the narrative that you can echo in the conclusion to bring the story full circle? Say you begin with your great-grandfather’s decision to move his family West. (I trust you already know that beginning with someone’s birth is a death warrant for your story. The story should begin with “the day that was different.”) In your conclusion, return to that decision. Did it prove to be a good one? What would have happened had the family stayed where they were? What new and better opportunities did the move pave for your great-grandfather, his family, and his descendants?
- Summarize the main points or themes mentioned in your story. Don’t simply repeat the points, though. Here you want to show the reader how everything fits together, how the story naturally evolved and fell into place, that Point A lead to Point B, and because of Point B, Point C happened.
- Put as much work into your conclusion and final sentence as your first sentence and introduction. Just as the beginning needs to pull the reader into the story, the ending is what the reader walks away with. I love this example from an interview with Ernest Hemingway in the Paris Review in 1956:
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
As you read other family history narratives or memoirs, pay close attention to how the author ends the story. Did it leave you satisfied? Did it leave you wanting more? Did you close the book and just sit for a moment, immersed and reflecting on the ending? Once you determine the impact the ending had on you, decide if this is how you want to leave your readers. If so, then analyze carefully that writer’s concluding techniques. That’s the ending you want to emulate.
Conclusions to Avoid
- Ending with the transition “In conclusion.” See Transition Words and Phrases to help with all your transitional writing.
- Ending on a sentimental or emotional note. This is not to say you can’t have a happy ending or one that leaves readers with a lump in their throats. But don’t force a “sunshine and roses, and they lived happily ever after” conclusion if the life story doesn’t warrant it. Remember, tragic endings stay with the reader longer than happy ones. We may not like that type of ending, but it has a strong impact.
- Ending with information that didn’t fit anywhere else. If it didn’t fit in the body of your narrative, then it just doesn’t fit. We have to realize that not everything we research will fit in the story. That’s the case with much of our social history research. Some of it will end up on the cutting room floor.
No matter how you decide to conclude your story, remember, death doesn’t have to be the end. Your ancestors’ life stories will go on. But it’s up to you to make sure they survive beyond your conclusion.
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Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG®, specializes in editing and writing family histories. Along with You Can Write Your Family History and Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contacts, she is the author of two new books: Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief and Inheriting the Gordon Hips, a collection of humorous essays, both of which may be ordered through Scattered Leaves Press. Sharon is on the adjunct faculty of Salt Lake Community College’s online Certificate in Genealogy Research and Writing program, where she teaches various courses in family history writing. Sharon can be reached through her websites, www.NonfictionHelp.com or www.SharonCarmack.com.