photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian
By Mike Smith
A short story takes us from the protagonist’s, or perhaps the reader’s, old view of the world to a new one.
That, fundamentally, is why the short story is ‘all about its ending’. The problem for the short story writer is that both the ‘old’ view and the new view to which the story takes us, are both new to the reader. The writer’s main task then, is to present the protagonist’s existing or opening perception as if it were one we were already familiar with. He must make the reader think of it as the ‘norm’. In fact, almost the whole of the story will be devoted to exploring this old view, and the story’s success or failure will be bound up with the success or failure of how this ‘norm’ is presented. Whether we are to be shocked, charmed, amused, surprised, or whatever emotion or reaction the writer wishes to jerk or finesse out of us at the end of the story, it will largely have been the success of the presentation of the ‘old’ view that makes this possible. However, even if the writer succeeds in this task, there remains the risk that the story may still fail. Much depends upon the presentation of the ‘new’ view the protagonist discovers at the end.
When we finally see this new view of the world, and it is probably only a glimpse that we will be given, it is the comparison of it and the old view that carries the weight of the story. The contrast may be shockingly obvious, or subtly disguised. There may be an unexpected similarity, a tenuous yet vital connection, but it is the comparison that provides the story’s real meaning. Once we have recognised the nature of the junction, the juxtaposition between old and new, we have taken in the story.
This is why the protagonist’s new perception of the world is rarely explored, but is instead presented as quickly and as efficiently as possible, usually right at the end of the story. Once we have seen the new view, to offer us anything more would be to distract us from the true purpose or meaning of the story. The two most obvious examples of this, that I know of, are the stories ‘The Attack on the Mill’ by Zola, and ‘The Coup de Grace’ by Bierce. In both of these stories, the last two words (and arguably, the very last word) present the ‘new’ perception, the significance of which hits us as if we have stepped off a cliff edge. Hemingway’s ‘A Canary for One’, where the ‘new’ view is a whole sentence, seems leisurely by comparison, although there too the key word that gives meaning to the sentence comes late in it!
Though the obvious lesson from this is that we must get the endings of our stories right, we must not forget that our creation of the ‘old’ view must be utterly convincing too. In the Hemingway story, everything but that last line is to do with the protagonist’s rail journey, save for a few lines about the arrival at Paris. We see details inside and outside the train: sharp little images about the characters, about the countryside through which they are passing, the heartbreaking though as yet as unexplained ‘There’s been a wreck’. By the end of it, you may feel quite frustrated at why you are being given such a quantity of specific detail without any obvious or coherent reason. It is a very convincing description of a journey, but the point of telling us about it certainly eluded me; and then with all the power of a train crash, I hit the buffers of that last sentence, and everything was shaken into its true perspective. The reason for the journey, revealed in those last ten words, collapses every one of those images into perspective, revealing why they have been noticed and reported the way they have been by the narrator. I would go further, and say that suddenly it is the narrator who is revealed, by our equally sudden understanding of his frame of mind as he has been speaking to us.
The ‘old view’ part of a story, even if it is a very short story, perhaps even if it is a flash fiction, will create a world that seems rounded, full, complex and rich. The ‘new’ view, by comparison, will tend to be one-dimensional, a snapshot against the movie footage of the ‘old’ view. In the Hemingway story, the final revelation is in the nature of a mirror held up to what has gone before. In the Bierce story, the ‘new view’ is more like a hoop that we, the readers, are projected through into an imagined future. (I discuss these and other types of short story endings more fully in ‘Reading for Writers’ – on my blog at Bhdandme@wordpress.com.)
And now a change of metaphor: the effectiveness of the hammer’s blow is dependant not only upon the accuracy of the strike, but upon the solidity of the anvil. The short story writer is not only making that strike, but also making the anvil.