Revealing The Known

photo by Antony Ruggiero

by Mike Smith

A short story moves towards a revelation, and once that revelation has been achieved the story must die. Anything that follows will, at best, simply be a waste of words. At worst, an extended denouement will distract from the revelation and result in an anti-climax.

What may be surprising, though, is that what is revealed at the end of a story must be something you recognise.

But what is revealed is not the revelation. The revelation is not a thing. It is an act. It is not the new car beneath the dust sheet, or the body beneath the shroud, but the act of removing the dust sheet, of pulling aside the shroud.

To ‘get’ the ending of a short story you must understand what it is you are being shown. If, as a reader, you don’t know what a new car is or don’t recognise the body, then the story will remain inaccessible, regardless of how neatly the writer has removed the cloth. Even where we are dealing with science fiction, fantasy, or speculative fiction, this remains true, for their imagined worlds are presented to us in language that we understand, or in new words, that like any other words, we imbue with meanings from the contexts in which we encounter them. If this is true, then the point of reading the story cannot be to show you something new, but rather to show you something you’re already familiar with in an unexpected way. What connects the thing that has been revealed to the context of the story is what we may be said to ‘learn’ from a story. The juxtaposition of the ending with the rest of the story – that interface, that leap, the metamorphosis from one to the other – is the synapse where everything comes together. Here, a new connection is made in our consciousness that links two hitherto separate ideas. Stories that fail often do so by appearing to offer no ‘value’, comic or tragic, in what is eventually revealed.

A classic comic sketch has a street trader crying his wares using a word that is completely incomprehensible. A passer-by accosts him, and, in a piece of extended backstory, tells the trader how he has often heard his call, but that he’s never understood what it was the man was selling. The trader confesses that he has never seen the goods, himself, and that he doesn’t know what he’s selling either. The passer-by urges him to look beneath the sheet that covers the items, which – with trepidation – the trader does. He then reacts strongly to what he sees, and on being asked, ‘well, what are they?’ rushes off stage, crying the same, incomprehensible word as before. Yet, here, used as the ending of the story, that word is meaningful to us because it has been introduced in the preparation for the punchline.

Comedian Marty Feldman used this gag in the 1970s, but my guess is that it goes back a lot further. Change the word at the end to a different but still unknown word, and we might still ‘get’ the story, though it would be weaker. Change either the beginning or the final word to something that is known, while leaving the other unchanged, and the joke would fall flat. If the sketch became very well known it might be possible to do an ironic version of it, in which known words were substituted, but it would only be funny if it subverted an expectation of how the sketch should end.

The short story form has a lot in common with the comedy sketch, even when it is not remotely funny. Revelation is at the heart of comedy, but also of tragedy. It is the act of stepping back to show the thing that is being revealed. It is the change of perspective that brings something into focus – the last piece of a jigsaw that was inverted but is now turned the right way up. Revelation is the flicking on of the light switch in order to illuminate what you’ve just put your hand into – or what you heard moving around in the darkness.

Everything in a short story prepares us for this moment. It settles us down. It points us in the right direction. It assembles the contents of the world that will be our context for the revelation and it puts them in order. It sets the tone, the lighting, the sounds, the stage, and the actors, and it puts us into the right mood for what is to follow. All this is in the service of the revelation, and only after these things have been completed is the revelation made. And what is revealed must be recognisable.

Then the story is finished. It is over. Anything more will water it down.

Whether or not the reader is aware of all this, or indeed whether the writer is, is a cause for speculation, but my guess is that this is where the success or failure of a story is located. The question we must ask, therefore as writers, is to what extent must we understand, not only the context and the nature of what is to be revealed, but also the strength, or value, of the interface between it and the surrounding world.

If writing, to a large extent is spontaneous and unconscious, you might think that the necessity to know what we are doing is reduced – but even in that case, it must be helpful to know what we have done, and to know whether or not it has ‘worked’. It is in this area of awareness of our own work, and in the re-drafting process, that the theoretical and analytical can help us. Even Jackson Pollock, I suspect, had a sense of when to stop throwing paint around, and when to add a little more.

In practical terms this is likely to be our weakness as short story writers: having the confidence, and the awareness to know when that final revelation has been carried out. Certainly I find that I am more likely to need to lop off words from the end of a piece than from the beginning, and that the effects of doing so are more noticeable. Conversely, I often find myself adding words to the preparatory section. My guess is that longer pieces don’t work in quite this way, but this isn’t the place for a discussion of that!

What I will say is that short stories move from the known to the known, but they move across a previously undiscovered conceptual gap that, with luck, the reader has never even imagined.

Previous post We Recommend: ‘Ralph the Duck’ by Frederick Busch
Next post Something Was There

2 thoughts on “Revealing The Known

  1. It’s not only ‘content’ that makes a ‘reveal’. The most exciting actiions, or thoughts, may come earlier in a story, but the last statement gives us a last look at what has gone before, and this becomes the point of the ‘telling’. Even such seemingly banal endings as ‘and they lived happily ever after’ do this. A story so ended would be different to one closed with, ‘and they were never the same again’, because our view of the preceding content is altered. An interesting exercise with stories is to blank off the last statement and read (or re-read) without it, and then again with it. I think Gaffney may be missing a point, or rather, making a significantly different one.

  2. It’s a good rule of thumb. I wonder whether the length of the piece affects whether the start or end most needs pruning. In the quotes below, Gaffney suggests making microfiction less punch-line based, and Lieurance suggest what I’ve often heard, that novel drafts often begin too slowly –

    In the Guardian (14/5/12) David Gaffney wrote “Make sure the ending isn’t at the end. In micro-fiction there’s a danger that much of the engagement with the story takes place when the reader has stopped reading. To avoid this, place the denouement in the middle of the story, allowing us time, as the rest of the text spins out, to consider the situation along with the narrator, and ruminate on the decisions his characters have taken. If you’re not careful, micro-stories can lean towards punchline-based or ‘pull back to reveal’ endings which have a one-note, gag-a-minute feel”

    In “Writing a Novel – Three Common Mistakes to Avoid”, Suzanne Lieurance wrote “If you have too much narrative in chapter one, readers may not stick around for chapter two. Go back to your first chapter and see where the action really begins. Cut out everything BEFORE that point”

Comments are closed.