The Intersection of Pity and Fear: At Look at Endings in Short Fiction
I’m re-posting older essays from my previous blog 50 shimmering pages. Love to hear what you think.
October 6, 2013
For my craft thesis in the MFA program, I wrote an essay called “The End is Near: Examining the ‘Satisfying’ Ending in Short Stories.” I’m currently revising my short fiction in hopes of pulling together a collection, so I dusted off my thesis to look at it again. It’s long, but perhaps you will find some of it useful to your own writing.
January 8, 2004
In short stories, what makes for a satisfying ending? Just as in the novel, a short story ending must be believable, and to use a phrase we’re all familiar with, it must “grow organically” from the story. We know as well that a short story ending must not look orchestrated or contrived in any way. It must not draw “pat” conclusions. It should not deliver any sort of moral. It cannot be “rushed”; the pacing must be so that a reader is ready or prepared for the ending. And finally: It must come as both a surprise–that is it must not be predictable–and yet it must seem inevitable. In his book Building Fiction: How to Develop Plot and Structure, Jesse Lee Kercheval says, “[T]he end must bring about the resolution of both the external and internal conflicts, and, beyond that, it must combine the inevitable with the surprising. It must be inevitable because readers have lived with the conflicts through all their ups and downs and want them resolved; it must be surprising because the conflicts should be solved in a way readers cannot have entirely foreseen.”
Conflict. I don’t know about you, but when I realize I’m writing close to the end of a story, a worry sets in that isn’t present at the outset of my writing. I realize that everything I have done up to this point had better start adding up. “I am ending,” I think. “I’m getting ready to DO the ending. It has got to make sense now if it ever will.”
Mark Richard, the author of the wonderful short story “Strays,” says we do this because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of the weight of the short story’s ending, which unlike the novel’s ending, bears significance on whether or not the story as a whole succeeds. Joseph Novakovich says in Fiction Writer’s Workshop, “It seems many writers agree that endings give them more trouble than beginnings do. That’s partly because in the ending — especially in short stories — everything needs to fit; in the beginning, we don’t yet know what needs to fit, so almost everything appears acceptable. It is particularly true that short stories must end appropriately; all the strings must tie in.” Then he quotes David Lodge in The Art of Fiction: “One might say that the short story is essentially ‘end-oriented,’ inasmuch as one begins a short story in expectation of soon reaching its conclusion, whereas one embarks upon a novel with no very precise idea of when one will finish it.” “The difference between writing a novel and writing a short story,” Mark Richard says, “is that the short story is more exact and more exacting. There is not as much latitude for cumbersome language, sloppiness in the work and getting off track. Short stories are quick burns, and the clock is ticking more in a short story so you know when you must begin, you know when the middle is, too, and you have a sense that the end is approaching.”
Let’s look again at what Kercheval says about the purpose of the ending. “[T]he end must bring about the resolution of both the external and internal conflicts.” Conflict, again. Endings are rooted in a story’s Conflict. More than that. They are rooted in everything else. Open a craft book and pick any chapter. Endings are rooted in Character, in POV. They’re rooted in Voice and Setting. In Dialogue and every single Scene. They’re rooted in Plot. And in Theme.
Katherine Anne Porter said that “Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation–what the Greeks called catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true.” Aristotle was the first to use the word catharsis in regard to literary theory. He used it to define the function of tragedy, which he said succeeds by “arousing pity and fear in such a way as to accomplish catharsis of such emotions.”
Pity is our impulse to approach. Fear is the impulse to retreat. Tragedy excites the emotions of pity and fear; then it dispels them through the cathartic process. If we want our readers to feel satisfied with our endings or any other part of our stories, we must arouse pity and fear in such a way as to accomplish catharsis of such emotions. For it is through this cathartic experience that wisdom and insight are distilled and emotional calm is restored in readers.
Catherine Brady’s essay “A Cage in Search of a Bird: The Elusiveness at the Heart of Story Structure” appeared in a recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. There she says, “Conflict exists in order to generate conflict within the reader.” She’s talking about a cathartic response, is she not? Conflict, she says, is generated within the reader by “paradoxically working against resolution at the level of meaning at the same time as it works toward crisis and resolution at the literal level.”
In other words, conflict arises when a story works toward a resolution of action, but at the same time resists a neat summary of any meaning. Charles Baxter says in “Against Epiphanies,” “A story can be a series of clues but not a solution, an enfolding of a mystery instead of a revelation. It can contain images without the attached discursive morality.”
Brady refers to this evasiveness of meaning throughout “A Cage in Search of a Bird” and speaks of the circular logic of stories. “Freytag’s pyramid and other notions of story that depict a linear, forward drive prove inadequate because they are incapable of incorporating the circular logic of story–the roundabout evasion of indirection in order to generate experienced meaning; the careful spiraling of a story’s events around a central tension that is never stated; and the recurrence of essential elements that establish a pattern, thus helping the reader to recognize the parameters of the story’s silences. Story structure depends on this fundamental tension between dynamic forward drive and the circularity of evasion and repetition.”
Imagine a black line running through the center of your story. This represents the linear or forward drive, the plot. Now imagine a blue spiral coiling around the black line. This is what Brady calls evasion and repetition.
Now consider this, also from Brady’s essay: “–a writer must concede to the limits of structure if she is to write a story at all… Plot structure exists in order to generate what Flannery O’Connor called ‘experienced meaning.’ Plot enacts idea, embodies it rather than declares it.”
Brady goes on to explain: “The basic formula for plot structure provides a template for devising a story, not its raison d’etre. Though suspense is a necessary part of the fun, a story satisfies not because it pursues a literal chain of events but because it manages to make those events stand for something else, a something else that eludes the reader, yet compels response.”
Stories must maintain “silences,” that is they must offer no judgment or detail that is unequivocal, as Baxter puts it. The central tension of the story must never be directly stated. Rust Hills says that “A reader is always more willing to guess than to be bored: if he is puzzled, he is at the same time intrigued. The reader’s desire to find out ‘What is the explanation of all this?’ can drive him along nearly as well as the old ‘What will happen next?'”
So it boils down to this: plot on one hand and theme on the other. Brady says that plot enacts idea or theme. It embodies it rather than declares it, she says. “The pressure for economy in a plot demands a writer make choices about gaps and ellipses in the whole of a story because such interstices require the reader to share in the process of invention.”
Underline this part: “Plot is an attitude toward the subject as much or more than it is technique–an instinct for selecting those moments in the story line at which events offer the greatest promise for forcing uncertainty on the reader… Stories can sustain a wealth of certainty and passionate conviction on the writer’s part, but the question at their heart must be open–must be exactly what troubles the writer’s own conscience if it is to forestall, detour, or violently sunder the reader’s readiness to pass judgment.”
So how do we bring about catharsis in readers? We pull them in, we arouse pity and fear in them, so that at some point it is necessary that we must forestall, detour, or violently sunder their readiness to pass judgment. By evading with gaps and silences in terms of what a story means, we build tension and compel our readers to share in the process of invention.
Read this again: “The action of the plot builds tension around this question”–the question at the heart of the story, its meaning or theme. “A story writer… can–must–rely on narrativity, a chronology of events as well as a pattern of imagery to shape symbolic import.”
In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” Flannery O’Connor says, “[T]he word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader–sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated… I think that for the fiction writer himself, symbols are something he uses simply as a matter of course. You might say that these are details that, while having their essential place in the literal level of the story, operate in depth as well as on the surface, increasing the story in every direction.”
In another of her essays, “Writing Short Stories,” the great Flannery O’Connor adds: “In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the ACTION of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work.” She goes on to explain how in her story “Good Country People,” Joy/Hulga’s wooden leg comes to symbolize some wooden part of Joy/Hulga’s soul. “Now of course this is never stated,” O’Connor says. “The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes the connection from things he is shown. He may not even know that he makes the connection, but the connection is there nevertheless and it has its effect on him. As the story goes on, the wooden leg continues to accumulate meaning… If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story. It has its place on the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface. It increases the story in every direction.”
John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, “Theme, it should be noticed, is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it–initially an intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer. The writer muses on the story idea to determine what it is in it that has attracted him, why it seems to him worth telling. Having determined… what interests him–and what chiefly concerns the major character… he toys with various ways of telling his story, thinks about what has been said before about (his theme), broods on every image that occurs to him, turning it over and over, puzzling it, hunting for connections, trying to figure out–before he writes, while he writes, and in the process of repeated revisions–what it is he really thinks… Only when he thinks out a story in this way does he achieve not just an alternative reality or, loosely, an imitation of nature, but true, firm art–fiction as serious thought.”
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway adds, “This process–worrying a fiction until its theme reveals itself, connections occur, images recur, a pattern emerges–is more conscious than readers know, beginning writers want to accept, or established writers are willing to admit. It has become a popular–cliche–stance for modern writers to claim that they haven’t the faintest idea what they meant in their writing. Don’t ask me; read the book. If I knew what it meant, I wouldn’t have written it. It means what it says. When an author makes such a response, it is well to remember than an author is a professional liar. What he or she means is not that there are no themes, ideas, or meanings in the work but that these are not separable from the pattern of fictional experience in which they are embodied… Students irritated by the analysis of literature often ask, ‘How do you know she did that on purpose? How do you know it didn’t just come out that way?’ The answer is that you don’t. But what is on the page is on the page. An author no less than a reader or critic can see an emerging pattern, and the author has both the possibility and the obligation of manipulating it.”
Finally, on theme, Rust Hills says, “What the beginning of a short story should do, what the beginning of most successful modern short stories do usually do, is begin to state the theme of the story right from the very first line… This is one of the ways in which the reader is prepared, however unconsciously, to accept the inevitability of the action which follows.”
Now let’s turn again to plot. Brady says plot is attitude as much as it is technique–an instinct for selecting moments that force uncertainty on the reader. Later on, she mentions a story of Grace Paley’s, which she says “demonstrates the notion that plot requires” what Brady calls “‘right action’–action that functions as objective correlative for the ideas that remain unstated in the work.” “Right action” she says “doesn’t take the obvious route, doesn’t shape a neat one-to-one correspondence with idea, because if it did, it would function in the same way as telling that gives away a story’s meaning rather than implying it, describing emotion rather than making it.” “Right action is more likely to suggest two opposite directions at once–to deepen ambiguity rather than diminish it.”
The gaps or silences she refers to allude to the tension at the heart of the story. Rust Hills says of plot, “The word [plot] has little relevance to the modern short story, for the plot–the episodes of the action–of a short story seldom get that complicated, or certainly shouldn’t. Complexity or ambiguity of theme is another matter entirely.”
So then, resolution, Brady contends, “must propel the reader in opposite directions at once–it must convey a sense of the literal consequences and yet ultimately reassert the uncertainty of meaning.” Rust Hills adds this: “Whatever resolution occurs at the end [of a short story] is not so likely these days to be brought on by some final development of the plotting as it is by the introduction of some thematic note: a new image or symbol (of say hopefulness or despair) or a bit of dialogue or description indicative of a new attitude.”
In Charles Baxter’s story “Gryphon,” the forward thrust of the action is easy enough to recognize: Mr. Hibler develops a cough, which necessitates a substitute teacher, Miss Ferenczi, who arrives and behaves oddly and tells strange stories. She comes back the next day and speaks to the class about death. The next day Mr. Hibler is back. A month later, Miss Ferenczi returns and this time tells the children their fortunes with a pack of tarot cards. Wayne, she says, will soon die. Wayne reports her to the principal and Miss Ferenczi is dismissed. The crisis moment occurs when the narrator confronts Wayne and starts a fight. But then life goes back to normal. Or does it? Baxter creates suspense in the story by creating a central tension that is never stated. He maintains silence, simply presents the story without offering judgment. The heart of the story, its theme, eludes us yet compels us to keep looking.
Consider the “gaps and silences” in Baxter’s story. One girl in the class, Carol Peterson, we are told, is a bad person because she blows her nose on notebook paper. We’re not told why that makes her a bad person, yet we sense it’s true. We’re also told that despite being “evil,” Carol speaks the truth in times of crisis. We are not told what is so critical about a fourth grade class getting a substitute teacher; in fact, it would seem as if getting a substitute is a good thing, not something to fear. After all, the class is familiar with the pool of unemployed community college graduates, about four mothers, who generally “provide easeful class days, and nervously cover material [the class has] mastered weeks earlier.” This mention of a time of crisis is otherwise sort of shrouded in silence and thereby forces us to share in the process of the story’s invention; our imaginations supply whatever information is missing. Notice that there are all sorts of gaps and silences surrounding Miss Ferenczi’s odd conduct. Right away she unexpectedly announces that the class may stare at her for a few seconds, until the bell rings, but then no more. From there, she launches into a fantastic story about her family’s heritage, again for no apparent reason. Then she refuses the class permission to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which they are accustomed to doing every day. Later, she talks about higher math and tells the class that sometimes six times eleven equals sixty-eight. Consider it a substitute fact, she tells them. Throughout the rest of the school day, she behaves more and more strangely: her pronunciation of spelling words makes them sound foreign; she refuses to eat with the other teachers; she says strange words–“quit fossicking in your desk”; she changes Mr. Hibler’s lesson plan–instead of reading about ancient Egyptian irrigation, she will simply talk to the children about the pyramids. She speaks quickly, jumping from pyramids to George Washington to religion to the solar system to Genghis Khan and finally to a creature called a gryphon, which she writes on the board as if this were the point she was leading up to all along. But, of course, we know it isn’t. We know because we have quickly become acquainted with the gaps and silences surrounding her behavior.
And on the story goes, driving forward to some destination but at the same time evading ever deliberately stating what any of the action means. The question at the story’s heart is left open. As Brady says, the story “forestalls, detours, or sunders our readiness to pass judgment.”
Tension builds around the question: What is this woman all about? What are we to make of her? The frustration felt by the narrator and his classmates to understand Miss Ferenczi is also felt by us. We feel as though we are being shown what’s happening, that we are seeing the plot unfold. But at the same time, we are puzzled by it. When the narrator confronts Wayne for telling on Miss Ferenczi for reading the tarot cards, we are forced to now make some judgment about the woman and what happens to her. We have seen enough of her by this point to have felt both pity and fear of her. The literal story comes close to the story’s secret but the two never intersect. The closing moment leaves us with a question: Does the world go back to how it was before Miss Ferenczi? As Catherine Brady says, we are propelled in opposite directions at once. We know what has literally transpired, but we are uncertain of its meaning. Undoubtedly, we can say the ending is both a surprise and inevitable, but what really makes us feel “satisfied” is that we have come close to glimpsing the secret of the story without it ever having been deliberately exposed. We have a sense of understanding the imagery and recurrence of symbols: Pinnochio, who lies but is also not a real boy; Frankenstein, the master of permutations, who is made of mixed parts; the gryphon, a mythic creature that’s half one thing and half another; the chameleon; the pyramids– we have a faint understanding of it all, and yet it is just beyond our reach. We might generally say that the story begs the question: What is knowledge? In the final paragraph, the class studies insect life as it occurs in ditches and swamps. Facts as the class has previously known them now seem strange. The story ends: “Mrs. Mantei said that our assignment would be to memorize these lists for the next day, when Mr. Hibler would certainly return and test us on our knowledge.”
Writer Paula Fox says a story starts with a small question and ends with a big question. “Gryphon” starts with “Who is this woman?” — a simple enough inquiry, though we never really find out. But the story ends with a much larger question: What is knowledge? We are uncertain about either, yet we feel as if we’ve witnessed some mystery, what Charles Baxter claims is the purpose of a story. “A story, as Borges has shown, can be a series of clues but not a solution, an enfolding of mystery instead of revelation. It can contain images without the attached discursive morality.” We are purged of the ill humors that plagued us throughout the building of tension, where we experienced pity and fear of Miss Ferenczi, and now feel as if some wisdom or insight has been bestowed upon us. We are, in a sense, spiritually purified, emotionally restored. We have a feeling of reconciliation because the ending is right and true.
Another way of looking at “Gryphon” is in terms of internal and external conflict and its resolution. The visible crisis action or the external conflict is the basic plot line. In Building Fiction, Jesse Lee Kercheval says that external conflict in short stories usually ends in one of two ways: either with a symbol that was established in the beginning of the story that now alludes to the main character’s fate, or with a gesture. Gestures don’t have to be established at the outset of a story, Kercheval says, “because our understanding rests on human behavior.” “Gryphon” ends with the line: “Mr. Hibler would certainly return and test us on our knowledge.” Knowledge has taken on symbolic meaning in the story. It may seem like an ambiguous ending, but I think the fate of the class is pretty clear, at least the narrator’s is.
Consider the internal conflict first. We can say that what the narrator in “Gryphon” wants is for Miss Ferenczi to be the class’s regular teacher, even though he knows she can’t be. But from his defense of her in the end, we can safely say he comes to realize that he has a choice in what he will learn from here on out. He doesn’t have to use a word if he doesn’t like it, after all, and we can imagine that he won’t. He has changed. And so have we.
Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 1997. Baxter, Charles. “Gryphon.” Through the Safety Net: Stories. New York: Vintage, 1998. Brady, Catherine. “A Cage in Search of a Bird: The Elusiveness at the Heart of Story Structure.” The Writer’s Chronicle, Summer 1997, vol. 30, no. 6, p. 20. Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: A. Knopf, 1984. Hills, L. Rust. Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular: An Informal Textbook. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. “Katherine Anne Porter: The Art of Fiction, No. 29.” Interview by Barbara Thompson Davis. The Paris Review, Spring 1963. Kercheval, Jesse Lee. Building Fiction: How to Develop Plot and Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Story, 1997. Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts. New York: Viking, 1993. Novakovich, Josip. Fiction Writer’s Workshop. Cincinnati, OH: Story, 1995. O’Connor, Flannery, Robert Fitzgerald, and Sally Fitzgerald. Mystery and Manners. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989. Richard, Mark. “Strays.” The Ice at the Bottom of the World: Stories. New York: Anchor, 1991.
This is really amazing, Sheryl, and helpful. Funny, but I’m in the middle of revising a story and I’m not happy with the old end and I’m not sure yet how to get to one I am happy with.
Endings are sooooo difficult for me, too, Katrina. It’s almost completely intuitive on my part when one feels as if it’s come together in a way that’s right and true. Is there a symbol or a gesture that might work in your story? Something that will propel us in opposite directions at once, that conveys the literal consequences but maintains silence in terms of certainty of meaning?