Today I read a short story that really bugged me. I won’t mention titles or names of writers for several reasons, not the least of which is that I could be wrong–or, better said, what I think might not be what you think. You might love this piece I’m going to talk about. And, in fact, I loved it … all the way until I didn’t. I’m not here to run down a story, though, but instead to talk about the way it influenced me, the way I thought about it, and the steps I took in the end to come to grips with my thoughts. Suffice to say that the story is a short story (since that’s what I’m reading these days), written in a voice that’s attractive, with a conflict that’s built up in a really nice but languid pace that had me well set-up for … well … set up for something. But then it pulled its punch. It stepped back and instead of addressing the problems it posed, it merely faded away into an ending that had perhaps some symbolism in it, but left me completely robbed.
Note to self: Do Not Upset Readers.
Maybe I’m focused on this because I’ve recently been working with someone on a short story of mine, and in the process I’ve had to dig down pretty deeply into my understanding of story. My own ending wasn’t up to snuff. Maybe I’m focused on it because I’m working my way through another one of my own stories that has a tone to its voice, and I’m working diligently to address the focal purpose of it at the end, too. I dunno. All I can say for sure is that I was reading this story at lunch today and when I got to the end I became upset. It was a great learning moment.
Putting myself into the writer’s shoes, I think that what happened was that that writer didn’t want to truly hurt a character. The writer put his characters through pain, but not more than they could bear. But the story required one to break, and I think the writer just couldn’t do it. So they settled. Everyone lived a pat life at the end, though not as happy as one might have wanted. I, on the other hand, walked away empty.
But the truly happy instant came a few minutes later when I asked myself what I would do to fix it. That led me to another series of questions about the story itself, and what I thought the most compelling themes might be. And then I looked at how I would deal with the theme based on how the plot might change. I found myself becoming excited by the story, felling really close to the characters. It was one of the more fun ten minutes I had all day, really.
So this evening I’m thinking about that, and I’m absorbing the fundamental lesson under it all, which I take to be: Dig deep, address the most compelling issues you raise in an active fashion, and have fun with the characters.