School of Nonfiction with Shulem DeenThis article is patron-supported. Click to become a patron today.

Consider the joke.

Any joke.

Here are a few examples, if you can’t think of any.

  • A Zen Buddhist walks up to a hotdog vendor, and says, “Make me one with everything.”
  • A horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, “Why the long face?”
  • And the Lord said unto John, “Come forth and receive eternal life.” But John came fifth, and won a toaster.

Not the best jokes ever, but they illustrate the point. We tell jokes for how they end, not for how they begin.

In its essence, a joke is the shortest story form, a condensed tale designed to deliver a single effect: make you laugh. Once.

A joke can have multiple parts, but its genesis comes from the punchline. The rest is mere setup.

This is instructive when thinking about story generally. Aspiring memoirists often struggle at the outset to find the essential narrative they want to tell. I often hear: “My life has been filled with so many dramatic periods, that I don’t know where to start.”

The answer is to consider the single most momentous event you wish to tell the world, and build the narrative from the events leading up to it.

The very best stories, the ones that resonate most deeply, and which stand the test of time, are stories driven by the narrator’s clear sight of the ending. In fact, the impulse to tell a story most often comes from its most climactic point.

When I wrote a memoir about the breakdown of my religious beliefs, the driving force of the narrative was the effect of that breakdown on my relationship with the people I loved. It was the knowledge of its ending that drove my narrative from the beginning. In fact, the very first piece that I wrote ended up being the very last chapter of my book, describing a hike in the woods with my 11-year-old son, whom I loved dearly, but, by the end of the story, had come to see very infrequently. It was that point that I was building up to with everything else I wrote.

We can also observe this principle within many of our culture’s popular and most enduring narratives: the best stories are constructed with the ending as a goalpost, and few examples stand out as instructive as popular movies. Here are two examples: the movies Titanic and Gone With the Wind. (I’ve chosen these for their mass appeal and because many readers are likely to have seen them.)

The movie Titanic begins with Jack and Rose, two people from different backgrounds, taking a trip from Ireland to the US, and then meeting and falling in love. The story exists, however, for the climax it builds up to, and its tragic ending — the sinking of the Titanic and the lovers’ harrowing attempts to escape. If the ship hadn’t sunk, there would be no story beyond a trite romance.

Similarly, the movie Gone with the Wind begins with a party, then offers a rich (if somewhat ahistorical) portrait of the antebellum South. Its narrative propulsion, however, is from what comes at the end: the effects of the Civil War, and, more importantly, the effects of the story’s love quadrangle — Rhett Butler loves Scarlett O’Hara, who loves Ashley, who only has eyes for Melanie — and how it all comes falling apart. In fact, the film’s most memorable moment — the “frankly, m’dear” — comes at the very end. It’s the part that stays with us, the most quoted line from the movie, and this is at least in part because of its placement toward the end, as the drama is wrapping up, and we get a sense of what the entire film was driving towards.

When looking at our own stories, the most memorable parts of our lives come to mind, and it’s easy to think that’s where to begin our story. In most cases, though, those parts are likely to work best as our story’s climax, the crucial events that precipitate the very ending.

Of course, all of a story is important. If the setup isn’t well constructed, you can lose the reader at any point. The challenge, then, is to build up the scaffolding that most effectively leads to that most momentous part.