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?
WWK Blogger Paula Gail Benson has two short stories running in Kings River Life Magazine this weekend, "Pelican Spring" and "The Mama Factor." Both are Mother's Day short stories. You can read them by going to: http://kingsriverlife.com/category/kings-river-reviewers/terrific-tales/
Linda Rodriguez is a finalist in two categories for the International Latino Book Awards (given out at BEA the end of May)--one for Every Last Secret and one for editing Woven Voices: 3 Generations of Puertorriquena Poets Look at Their American Lives (with Gloria Vando, Anika Paris, and Anita Velez-Mitchell). Congratulations, Linda!
The second SinC Guppy anthology, Fish Nets, has been released by Wildside Press. WWK authors, Gloria Alden, Warren Bull, Kara Cerise and E. B. Davis have short stories in this volume, which can be bought at Wildside Press, the usual retailers and will be available at the Malice Domestic Conference. Look for "the story behind the stories" on May 1 here!
Upcoming Salad Bowl Saturdays include authors Sasscer Hill on 5/18 and Carolyn Mulford on 5/25. If you are interested in being a guest blogger, send a message to Jim Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.