The Write Stuff: Using Bookends
"Bookending" is a story-telling device that takes a main or central narrative, and "wraps" it (begins and ends it) with a separate short story. The short story is entirely different from the main narrative, yet supports the overall piece. Bookending is a particularly powerful technique that can lend a personal and affecting quality to your writing.
(Source: Grey Flannel Graphics)
Come with me for a minute...
Mary, a 36-year-old expectant mom, was anxious about her pregnancy. Her physician, Dr. Michael Taylor, tells how early-on she developed a mild case of preeclampsia and low amniotic fluid. "It's not uncommon with twins," recalls the doctor. "I told Mary and her husband Mike -- yeah, his name is 'Mike' too," Doc Taylor says with a smile. "I told them this is one of the complications with twins, but it was nothing to worry about."
But Mary worried anyway. This was her third pregnancy, and she'd already miscarried twice. Learning that she was carrying twins filled her with new hope -- but also with new fears.
"It meant a lot to her," the doctor recalls. "You could see it in her eyes. I told her everything would be fine if she just drank plenty of liquids and took it easy." But the doctor took additional steps as well and acquired some new medical technology for his patient. "A colleague suggested we outfit Mary with a new fetal monitoring system called a 'Guardian Angel'. It allowed us to remotely track her health and the progress of the babies. This way she could stay home and we could still keep a close eye on her."
What Dr. Taylor and many obstetricians are now recommending for high-risk pregnancies is the new Guardian Angel, a personal fetal monitoring system from MaxWell Medical Imaging, Inc. Representing the latest in fetal care, "the Guardian" can continuously monitor the mother and fetus (or fetuses), provide patient and doctor alerts, and upload information to any member of the family or medical team.
The Guardian comes as a light slip-on garment worn over the tummy. The "sensor slip" is embedded with a series of specialized sensors that communicate via Bluetooth to the Guardian Angel cell phone app. The system is capable of monitoring multiple fetal heartbeats, fetal positions, fetal kick counts, cord position and blood flow, as well as tracking neurological activity. Information is automatically transmitted to members of the medical team including the primary care physicians, OB/GYN, birthing assistants -- even local hospitals and EMT services. Compatible with all Electronic Medical Records systems (EMR), the Guardian develops a detailed medical record and uses sophisticated analysis to uncover trends early.
"It turned out to be a good decision to set Mary up with a dynamic fetal monitor," Dr. Taylor recalls. "In any case, it was definitely a night her husband Mike won't forget."
And now a word from our sponsor
You can see what's going on here. The intent is to present the main topic, in this case, a description of a new product. But we started off with something different: a personal story that helps set the stage for our narrative. The story represents something of an excursion from the main topic, but we return to it when we close the piece and leverage the story for dramatic effect.
"Bookending" (using bookends) is powerful because it accomplishes several things at once. First, the opening is designed to catch the interest of the audience and tends to draw more people in. Second, it instills the narrative with an emotional quality, so the reader becomes invested in the outcome.
Bookending also lends symmetry to the overall piece, giving it a neat and well-formed structure. And, most importantly, bookends allow you to close with a strong and satisfying finish.
If all this strikes you as a strategy with a very deliberate intent, that's because it is. But this is not an attempt to "fool" or "trick" the reader. On the contrary, good storytelling is a time-honored craft designed to reward the reader with an interesting journey. The intent is not to cheat the readers, but to give them "their money's worth."
An important part is closing with a strong finish. There's an image I keep in mind for this: we've all seen pictures of Olympic gymnasts; hurtling themselves through the air, twisting and tumbling in impossible gyrations, only to make a landing that's perfect in its precision and grace -- what the athletes refer to as "sticking the landing."
The use of bookends allows you to achieve a similar effect in terms of writing: a strong finish invests your writing with power and resonance; "sticking the landing" leaves an impression that lasts.
Let's return to our story and see if bookending can deliver on this promise.
There's something about Mary
Mary carried the twins for 34 weeks and was able to stay at home with only normal prenatal visits. However, coming up on her 35th week, she called the doctor one afternoon to report some spotting. "All right Mary," the doc said on the phone. "Why don't you and Mike come in first thing in the morning?"
But the twins decided not to wait that long. Around 4 a.m., Mary woke up with severe cramps. "Mike!" she called, turning to reach for her husband, but Mike had fallen asleep in front of the TV downstairs. It was turned up quite loud, and her voice wasn't strong enough to be heard over the din. "MIKE!" she fairly screamed.
Just then the doorbell rang. It rang again. It was followed by a furious pounding on the door that was loud enough to wake Mike. He stumbled to the door.
"Emergency Services," a uniformed man announced. "We've received a call from Dr. Taylor. We're to take your wife to the hospital right away."
"MIKE!" screamed Mary from upstairs. "Mike, come help me!"
"We'll take it from here sir," the EMTs pronounced as they marched upstairs with a portable stretcher. They had Mary bundled in the ambulance and off to the hospital in less than three minutes.
The good doctor fills in the rest of the story. "It was the Guardian Angel that alerted us to Mary's condition," he explained. "One of the babies developed a sudden decreased heart rate. I suspected something was putting pressure on the cord, perhaps an umbilical cord prolapse. This is a critical condition that requires immediate attention."
Mary and her babies were quite fortunate that day. An early warning from the MaxWell fetal monitoring system initiated a quick response that helped insure a good outcome. Mary was whisked off and underwent an emergency cesarean section in the wee hours of the morning. Things were tense for a while, but by the time the sun came up, Mary had delivered two beautiful baby boys: a perfectly matched set of rosy-faced cherubs with bright eyes and toothless smiles.
In all the excitement, however, she hadn't fully picked out names for her boys. One name she had decided on for a while, but she hadn't been able to make up her mind about the other. A name suddenly came to her and she was happy. She named one of the boys Michael. She named the other one Max.
Have you ever noticed the use of bookends in articles you've read? What do you think of this as a writing technique? Is there a place for this in your own work?