If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.

Check out our February author interviews: 2/7-debut author Keenan Powell (Alaskan lawyer), 2/14-Leslie Wheeler (Rattlesnake Hill), 2/21-bestselling author Krista Davis, who unveils a new series, 2/28-Diane Vallere answers my questions about Pajama Frame. Please join us in welcoming these authors to WWK.

Our February Saturday Guest Blogger Schedule: 2/3-Saralyn Richard, 2/10-Kathryn Lane. WWK's Margaret H. Hamilton will blog on 2/17, and Kait Carson on 2/24.

Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published. Her short story "Goldie" will be published in the Busted anthology, which will be released by Level Best Books on April 25th.

In addition, our prolific KM has had the following shorts published as well: "Making Tracks" in Passport to Murder, Bouchercon anthology, October 2017 and "Turkey Underfoot," appears in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: a Fifth Course of Chaos.


Friday, September 17, 2010

What Just Happened?

by Ramona DeFelice Long

I had half a blog post written about Author Intrusion (see next week) when an intriguing comment on Facebook gave me pause. Do readers want story endings all wrapped up, or do they like endings to be left hanging and/or open to interpretation?

I know what I like. I like endings that are open, that make the reader sit up and say, “What just happened?” But I know that just as many readers get to an ending like that and want to throw the book against the wall.

I have a vested interest in this question. A few months ago, I wrote a short story that ended in a way that left much of the story up for interpretation. In it, a woman who just ended a romantic relationship makes a discovery that is disturbing and frightening. She’s not sure if she, in particular, was meant to find this thing; if it was meant for someone else; if it was a totally random occurrence. She does what she thinks is right—reports it to the police—but their reaction is strange. To make it extra fun, I wrote her as someone a bit unstable, so maybe she’s not the most reliable narrator.

I ended the story with a surprise, a twist that—if successful—makes the reader realize that clues to the surprise were woven into the story all along. That’s what I tried to do, anyway.

I submitted it to my critique group. Sometimes we tell one another what we are trying to accomplish, or if we have any particular concerns about a story. I did none of that. I didn’t want to alert them that there might be a quirk. To my surprise, each of my critique partners had a completely different interpretation of what they’d read. This worried me. I was trying to experiment, maybe have some fun with the reader’s head, but I never expected three different reactions.

But my critique group members are all short story writers, not mystery writers, and I wondered about that, too. Maybe mystery readers would read the story a different way. Maybe mystery readers would be more attuned to subtle hints and possibilities.

So I sent it to two mystery writer friends. The first told me what she thought the ending meant, but she was not sure. She said, “I feel like this story is a puzzle.”

The second mystery writer had an entirely different idea about the ending. She said, “I feel like you’re making me work very hard to figure out this story, and I couldn’t—but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’m 95% sure I know what happened, but the 5% won’t leave me in peace.”

Heh. I liked that—I think. Is puzzling readers a good thing? I like the idea of making a reader work, but I don’t want to be a tease. I was intrigued with all of these interpretations, so I went to one final test subject—a friend who is a reader but does not write. She is my walking partner, and she has spent many miles listening to me bounce ideas and rattle away. She offers opinions that are decidedly different from those offered by other writers.

Other writers say, “How could you make that work?” “Is that true to character?” “Is that too close to coincidence?” “Is that marketable?”

Not my walking friend. She says things like, “Why would a person do that?” or “No way. Who is that dumb?” or “That sounds like something you stole from the news.” She’s my street smart reader. She expects stories to make sense, and she doesn’t need to know how they got that way. She just wants them to be that way.

I gave her the story. Two days later, when we met for our walk, her review began with, “I hate that story! Why did you make me read that story! I’ve been thinking about it for two days!”

When I stopped laughing, I asked her what she thought happened at the end. She told me, with great confidence, that blank blank blank blank blank.

She was right. That’s what happened in my mind, too, although I wasn’t sure myself until that moment. But what she said happened was completely different from what the other five people who read it said happened.

So now I’ve had six people read this story. No one agrees on the ending and what it means. Does that mean the story works because it stays in the reader's head? Or that it’s such a mess, it’s beyond deciphering?

I like the story; I like this type of story. But I wonder if I am alone in that. Is it frustrating to get through all those pages, only to be left to decide what happens next on your own? Does this intrigue you, or make you want to throw something against a wall?


James Montgomery Jackson said...

Life often doesn't have clear resolutions, so there is no reason fiction has to.

That said, if the work were a full-length novel, I would feel cheated. I've invested a lot of time and I prefer the threads tied off by the final page.

With short stories, I am more ?tolerant? ?forgiving? -- but you can see by my word choices, I prefer resolution in the stories I read.

~ Jim

Polly said...

I don't write short stories, but I think they have a different objective than a novel. I agree with Jim. I'd feel cheated if a novel left me hanging, but not so in a short story. And if I wrote one and the reader said it hung in her mind for a long time after, I'd feel I succeeded in doing my job.

Pauline Alldred said...

I agree with Jim and Polly that a novel should tie up loose ends and not leave the reader having to work to solve the ending. If a short story stays in a reader's mind, something must be working. If I understand correctly, only the reader who liked stories to make sense nailed the ending. I'm guessing because I haven't read the story, but something needs further clarification would be my guess.

Ramona said...

I agree that, to satisfy readers, a novel needs to resolve the primary conflict. But I can think of many satisfying books that leave some element of doubt in the reader's mind either about a crime or the killer's motivation. I think that reflects reality, and I like it.

This is probably personal taste more than anything else. I really enjoy books with unreliable narrators or ones that challenge the reader to choose or decide.

Sometimes, what's unresolved is quite simple, and used to drive a series. In cozy mysteries, for instance, there are many series with sleuths who are torn between two lovers for book after book. That can be fun--or frustrating--if it goes on too long.

Ramona said...

I should have mentioned this in my original post. Remember the classic short story, "The Lady or the Tiger?" that left the reader to decide which came out of the door? This is a perfect example of an ending decided by a reader.

Ellis Vidler said...

I enjoy stories that stick with me and make me think, but I also like resolution. I want to know what happened. If your story leaves things unresolved, I'd probably find it frustrating and not be too happy. Remember The Lady and the Tiger? I hated that story.
Just call me curmudgeonly.

Ellis Vidler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.