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.
"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.
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.