Guest Post: Lori Mortensen on Writing Story Endings & If Wendell Had a Walrus

By Lori Mortensen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Story beginnings are so important, it’s no wonder they get a lot of attention.

Writers not only have to come up with a fresh idea, they have to nail an opening hook that sets up the main character, grounds the reader in a specific setting, and gets a compelling story problem rolling. It’s a big bite of the story-writing apple.

However, story endings are just as important as story beginnings. After readers devour each page, they’re expecting a satisfying ending that’s often described as “unexpected, yet inevitable.”  A conclusion that fulfills the story’s promise in a surprising, yet emotionally fulfilling way.

Readers want to read that last page and say, Ahhhh…

When stories miss the mark, it’s like running a race, only to find that there’s no finish line. Whaat? Or, coming to the end of a scrumptious meal, only to find a stale graham cracker for dessert. You can taste the disappointment.

So what makes a satisfying ending?

At first, simply solving the story problem might seem like the obvious answer. For example, if Sally wants a pet, she gets a pet. If Sam wants to be a superhero, he becomes a superhero.

In my rhyming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion, 2013) Clyde wants to catch his dog for a bath.

The obvious ending would be Clyde catching his ol’ dirty dawg and giving him a bath, right? But that ending doesn’t feel satisfying. There has to be more than Clyde just getting his way.

Instead, I showed Clyde trying to catch his dog, each attempt more comical and disastrous than the last. Clyde would get so frustrated he would ….

What would he do? I wondered.

I was delighted when I instantly realized things would get so bad, Cowpoke Clyde would scrap the whole idea.

Oh, no! I thought gleefully.

How was Clyde going to scrub his dog now? I was just as eager to find out what would happen as I hoped future readers would be. Moments later, I knew what my satisfying ending would be.

Clyde would not only scrap the idea of catching Dirty Dawg, he would decide to take the bath himself.

Whoa! I didn’t see that coming, but it felt absolutely perfect. As Cowpoke Clyde scrubbed and crooned in the tub, Dirty Dawg joined him with a tremendous splash!  At this point, I realized the story wasn’t about Clyde checking off a laundry list of chores.

It was about them. Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg.

Once Clyde stopped trying to finagle his dog into the tub, the duo discovered that taking a bath was something they both enjoyed. I avoided a didactic ending where Cowpoke Clyde showed Dawg who was boss and turned it into a satisfying friendship story that drew Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg together. 

In my original counting picture book story Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Bloomsbury, 2016) mice arrive at a ball in ascending numbers from one to 10.

At the climax, a cat shows up and scares them away in descending order back to one.

A fun idea, but after several rejections, I knew it needed a more satisfying ending. But what?

I decided the solution rested with the cat.

Instead of arriving as a threat, the cat shows up only wanting to dance. This unexpected twist gave the story a new meaning and level of satisfaction.

It wasn’t simply a book that counted mice up and down. It became a story about friendship and inclusion.

On April 17, my picture book If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Henry Holt) will hit the bookshelves. In this story, a boy named Wendell wants a walrus.

The obvious ending? Wendell getting a walrus.

However, as I wrote along, a different ending came to mind. As soon as I wrote it, I knew it was perfect.

  • Unexpected. 
  • Inevitable.
  • Satisfying.

Would Wendell get a walrus?

What do you think?

Illustration by Matt Phelan, used with permission.

So once you’ve got that all-important story beginning under your belt, remember that endings are just as important as beginnings.

Don’t be satisfied with the first idea that comes to mind. Play around a little and come up with something unexpected.

You’ll not only have more fun writing it, readers will have more fun reading it. And when they finally come to the last tantalizing page, they’ll sit back and say …


Cynsational Notes

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles.

Other recent releases include Chicken Lily, illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden (Henry Holt), and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life.

For more information about her books, teacher activities, critique service, events, and upcoming releases, visit her website.

Guest Post: Lori Mortensen on Hooking Readers

By Lori Mortensen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

After judging nearly a thousand entries for recent writing contests, I’m reminded once again of the importance and power of effective opening hooks.

Start out swinging, and readers can’t wait to read more. Meander around and readers will quickly lose interest.

The truth is, authors have mere seconds to capture an editor’s heart.

So what makes an effective opening hook?

Start with originality. As I read hundreds of manuscripts, I was amazed at the number of people who wrote about nature’s beauty, but barely skimmed the surface by settling on general ideas about flowers, trees, mountains, rivers, etc.

Nature can be a grand subject, but to rise above the piles of other manuscripts out there, your voice and unique point of view needs to shine from the beginning. So dig deeper and look inside. What unique conclusions have you drawn about something that could be shaped into an original theme?

If you want to capture an editor’s heart, don’t send them macaroni and cheese. Send them Banana Foster Flambé.

My upcoming picture book Chicken Lily, illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden (Henry Holt 2016) is a good example of a story with an effective opening hook.

Instead of opening the story with any old chicken that lived on a farm, I created a unique character with distinctive characteristics.

Chicken Lily was a lot of things . . .
a careful colorer,
a patient puzzler,
and the quietest hide-and-seeker.
She never made a peep.
But Lily was also something else . . .

Because the opening is fresh, focused, and unique, readers want to keep reading to find out more.

 In this instance, Chicken Lily is . . . chicken! Raise her hand in class? Forget it! Eat something new for lunch? No way! Chicken Lily is a fun, unique character in the barnyard of children’s literature.

Next, tighten your story so it fits together like a puzzle. This is especially important for the opening hook. Authors that settle for easy, obvious rhymes, or use multiple paragraphs to say what they could have said in one paragraph, will quickly lose readers’ interest. Let your drafts run wild, but when you’re ready to submit, your opening hook should reflect a fresh and focused manuscript.

My upcoming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion, 2016) is a good example of a strong, rhyming opening hook.

Cowpoke Clyde poked at an ad.
“Looky, Dawg, at this here fad.
It says that when my chores are done,
I’m s’posed to ride a bike fer fun.”

In four short lines, the reader meets a unique character, Clyde, a cowpoke who is going to learn to ride a newfangled bicycle. Each line makes sense, each word has a reason to be there, and the rhyme reads effortlessly.

(How to create fresh, effortless rhymes is another story, but if you want a successful manuscript, don’t settle for less.)

So if you’re scratching your head over a manuscript, take a look at your opening hook. Does it make you want to keep reading or, wonder what’s in the fridge?

Hmm . . . macaroni and cheese? Or Banana Foster Flambé?

Cynsational Notes

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles.

Upcoming titles include Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Bloomsbury) and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

Other titles include Cindy Moo, illustrated by Jeff Mack (HarperCollins), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault, illustrated by Raúl Allén (Random House), a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children, 2010, and In the Trees Honey Bees! illustrated by Cris Arbo (Dawn), a 2010 NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Book K-12 Winner.

When she’s not removing her cat from her keyboard, she follows her literary nose wherever it leads and works on all sorts of projects that delight her writing soul. Lori lives with her family in Northern California.