20 January 2017

Ending Before the Ending

By Art Taylor

Earlier this week, Robert Lopresti posted his list of the best short stories of 2016—a fine slate of stories, and it was great to see a couple of my own favorites in there as well, along with some stories I didn't know and now need to track down.

One of those stories—"The Last Blue Glass" by fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens in Alfred Hitchock's Mystery Magazine—has been on my mind recently, as has another story by one of our group—"Stepmonster" by Barb Goffman in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning—not solely because of how much I enjoyed and admired them (I did, and I do!) but because of a structural approach that each story shares. (Each story is linked so you can enjoy and admire for yourself!)

In several ways, the stories might seem to have little in common. "The Last Blue Glass" is a much longer story, covering nine years; it's presented in the third person, from the perspective of a woman who goes from newlywed wife to troubled widow; and it is fairly traditionally told, summary and scene gliding one into the other to navigate those long years and the moments key to the story. In contrast, "The Stepmonster" is narrated in first-person and takes place over a fairly short amount of time, two short scenes, and with a twist, one scene commenting on the other in ways that I won't divulge so that readers can enjoy the twist themselves.

But while the overall structures and time-frames and points of view are different, each story centers on a moment of revenge—though even as I write that, I recognize that center might well be a misleading word, since the "central" action of each story isn't at the center of its tale; in fact (small spoiler alert?), those moments of revenge never actually occur within the confines of the stories themselves. It's this latter similarity that struck me as I reflected on the stories—how each story draws to its end by looking ahead, past the final word of the story and into the (figurative) blankness beyond, where the next bit of the drama, arguably the most dramatic bit, will actually happen.

The structure of Barb's story is unique because that forecasting of the drama circles back on itself, as you'll see when you read it. What happens in the beginning of the story foreshadows what will likely occur next. And in Bonnie's case, the final scenes sketch out the narrator's intentions and how the plans should play out. But likely and should are key words here, and the authors' decisions in each case not to dramatize these scenes allow the reader's imagination a greater degree of involvement—allowing the story to linger on in that imagination, the events to spool ahead in the reader's mind beyond the so-called "end" of the story proper.

A few years back, I wrote a short essay to help debut the then-new blog "Something Is Going to Happen" from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine—and I took the blog's title as a starting point for my thoughts on open or unfinished endings, where the something that is going to happen next is hinted at but not fully dramatized. In my post, subtitled "Perched on the Edge of What Happens Next" (and linked here), I talk about a couple of Stanley Ellin stories I admire and particularly "The Moment of Decision," certainly one of my all-time favorite stories, which (another small spoiler!) ends dramatically just before the moment in the title, leaving the reader both to wonder what decision is reached and to ponder what decision he or she would make in similar circumstances (a question which has provoked great discussion in my classes when I've taught this story, I should stress).

I won't revisit every point of that post, but reading and studying Bonnie's and Barb's stories reveal to me again of the importance of structuring your storytelling (as much as your plot, not the same thing) and of the power in handing over some of that process to the readers themselves, drawing them in, involving them if not even making them complicit (and I'll stress again that each of these stories is about revenge).

And yet, looking back over that post for EQMM and some of the stories I sampled there, and looking at Barb's and Bonnie's stories, I also realize that there are a couple of different ways that "ending before the ending" might play out—with different ways of involving the reader and different effects on their experience.

One approach, like Ellin's, is to leave something fundamental unanswered and some aspect of the ending more fully unresolved. While I would argue—vigorously—that Ellin's story isn't "unfinished" (a much longer and more detailed post), there are clearly two dramatically different choices that could be made by the narrator, and each choice could then branch out into several different outcomes, depending on other factors in the story. In short, that blank page beyond the final sentence is filled with unanswered questions and possibilities; an enterprising writer could, by my count, pursue at least four distinctly different combinations of events, each with their own stakes, to describe what happens next. (Note to any enterprising writers: Please don't try to write the ending. The story is really fine like it is.)

In a similar vein, Ed Gorman's "Out There in the Darkness" (which I also mentioned in the original EQMM post) ends with a looming sense of dread but little certainty about what's ahead—a character "waiting" but will the thing he's waiting for actually transpire? There's little certainty how the rest of his story will play out, but the sense of doom and dread are palpable—more so because we the reader share it, perched on the edge of the unknown.

The second approach is to wrap up the story more fully, pointing to what's ahead without dramatizing it actually happening. In this case, the reader's imagination still fills in some of the blanks but in a more focused way. At the end of David Dean's fabulous "Ibrahim's Eyes" (available as part of EQMM's podcast series), there's little doubt about what will happen mere seconds after the final words of the story, so the reader doesn't need to wonder or ponder over unanswered questions; instead, what the reader does is conjure up those next moments for him/herself—engaged more fully in that process, I would argue, than if David had simply written the next lines. Pulling back, letting the reader fill in to complete the story, is here too a powerful move—without the uncertainty of the first approach I mentioned above (inviting the reader's intellectual engagement, particularly in the Ellin story) but with perhaps a greater emotional involvement.

Barb's and Bonnie's stories lie closer to this latter approach, I think—sketching out, as I said, the events that will follow, the characters' plans/expectations for what's next. Obviously those plans might not play out exactly as these characters expect but the level of uncertainty there is lesser than in a more open ending and the effect is different, ultimately bringing the reader emotionally closer to the characters, even complicit in their plan.

Speaking of sketching, I feel like I'm still only sketching out some of my thoughts on this topic—even here taking a second try at refining my thoughts on this idea. But in the spirit of leaving endings open, I hope there's room for readers here to do their own thinking on the topic—and again, I hope I've spurred you to read these fine stories themselves. 

17 comments:

janice law said...

A nice piece and congratulations of Barb and B.K.

John Floyd said...

Great post, Art, and great points. Two excellent stories, by two of my favorite writers!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Janice and John. As I was going to bed last night, I thought, "I hope what I'm saying in my post makes some sense, since really people need to have read these stories, and maybe I should have summarized them, and should I get up now and do just that and...." And that's all I remember before falling asleep. So I hope it works--and if not, hope folks will read these fine stories. :-)

B.K. Stevens said...

Well, this is a surprise! Thank you, Art. I'm flattered by your comments about the story, flattered that you compare it to Barb's. As I was writing it, I went back and forth about the ending, but when I reached the final paragraphs, it felt right. I'm glad you found it effective.

David Dean said...

When I completed "Ibrahim's Eyes", or didn't as the case may be, my first thought was, "This will never be published," and precisely because of the ending you write of, Art. It has been especially gratifying to see that it not only got published, but has managed to stand the test of a few years of scrutiny in the bargain. The story itself was informed somewhat by my own military experience, but more importantly inspired by that of a young Marine who did not return home from Beirut. Shortly after leaving the army and moving to New Jersey, I discovered that I lived in the hometown of the last Marine to die during the U.N. peace-keeping mission to Lebanon. This is not his story, per se, but his and the 243 Marines who died in the barracks bombing there in Oct. 1983, as well as those who did not--the baffled survivors. Coincidently, my son was born in Landsthul Military Hospital, W. Germany that same year. Some of the wounded were still being treated there at the time.

Thanks so much for the mention here, Art. Much appreciated.

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Bonnie and David -- Thanks for chiming in!

Bonnie, it's interesting that you went back and forth about the ending; I thought it was pitch-perfect, and I hope that other readers will share that assessment!

And David, thanks for the background about "Ibrahim's Eyes"--both in terms of your concerns about the story and the ending while writing it and in terms of the background that inspired and informed the story. Fascinating here and in the story itself.

Leigh Lundin said...

I read Barb's story the other day and then Bonnie's today. Wow and Wow.

It's wonderful being surrounded by such great writers.

Barb Goffman said...

Wow, Art. What a thoughtful blog and in-depth read of these stories. I'm honored you included mine.

This post led me to remember your chilling story "Premonition," from Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, which also has an open ending. The reader knows something terrible is about to happen, but exactly how things play out could vary.

And I'm reminded of a story I had published nearly a decade ago, "The Worst Noel," which had an unintended open ending. I thought I had made clear what happened at the end without stating it outright. (Sorry for being vague, but don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it). But based on some reader reaction, I realized that someone could infer that something else had actually happened at the story's end.

Talking about open endings, David Dean had a wonderful story out about a decade ago, too, that fits the bill. "Awake" appeared in Ellery Queen's July 2009 issue. You were the one who told me about it, Art, and after reading it, I wrote this description of the story (for a short-story 365 project I was doing that year):

"All houses make noises. In this tale, an old man listens to the noises his house makes as he drifts off to sleep. Noises we all tend to not notice after a while. The creaks. The clicks. And there’s the breathing of the dog. Until he awakens to a noise that’s not so normal at all … "

I went on to say that this story "has an open-ending in that you don’t know exactly what happens next, but the story is still satisfying because its beauty is in its detail and mood, and the frightening ending fits in so well. You don’t need to know exactly what will happen. You have an idea, which is enough."

Moving on to Bonnie's story, one thing I loved about it how she led me to expect one ending and then supplied another, not just what happened (or was about to happen) but to whoms. Yes, whoms, plural. Of course I'm being vague so as not to ruin the story for anyone who hasn't read it yet. The reader may not know exactly how things will turn out, but we know enough, which is exactly what makes an open-ended story work.

Good blog!

Barb Goffman said...

Oh, and thanks to Jan, John, Bonnie, and Leigh for saying such nice things about my story. Much appreciated.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the comments here, Barb—and the additions too. I hadn't thought about "Awake," but it fits the bill perfectly too (and thanks for mentioning "Premonition" as well, much appreciated).

And yes on Bonnie's story—that was exactly my experience too (regarding my expectations and the twists--and yes, those "whoms" is exactly right).

It is indeed tough to write about the endings without writing about the specifics of the endings....

David Dean said...

Thanks for remembering "Awake", Barb! It seems I have a problem completing stories. And you were right on target about Art's "Premonition", a wonderful tale and a great example of the style, even if he was too modest to put it forward. By the way, "Stepmonster" was terrific!

B.K., I'm sorry to confess that I have not yet read your story. But rest assured that I certainly will. You never disappoint.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Excellent analysis - thanks Art

storytellermary said...

Two excellent stories, and fascinating insights into process. Thanks so much for sharing wisdom.

B.K. Stevens said...

Just want to add a quick thank you to Jan, Leigh, John, Barb, Mary, and of course Art for kind words and good wishes.

David Dean said...

As promised, I've read your story, B.K., and Art was right about the ending lingering in the mind. Great story! Absolutely loved the writing, and I found it quite moving, as well.

Art Taylor said...

Checking in now, and glad to see these latest comments from Debra and storytellermary--hello to you both and thanks!

And glad to see Bonnie and David chatting as well—and glad you read and enjoyed the story, David!

B.K. Stevens said...

David, I'm delighted that you enjoyed the story. And thank you for your comments--they mean a great deal to me.