Build-ups and Resolutions vs Shocks and Limbo


WARNING: Contains violence.

I’ve blogged before about what makes a narrative a story, and in particular I briefly noted that it’s possible for stories to be complete in the way poems should be but not in the way stories should be. Lately I’ve been reading stories in literary journals (the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Tin House, Narrative, The Kenyon Review), and trying to figure out what they want.

What they want seems to be the same kind of non-story that I said is only complete in the way a poem is—a narrative that establishes a situation, a mood, an inconclusive ending, and (though not all journals require this) a bleak and hopeless outlook on life. I don’t like these kinds of stories, though I can see some merit to their incompleteness. More on that in a later post.

Writers for literary journals often talk about wanting a story to grab them, shock them, make them feel something, wring them out. They sounds like women explaining why they love a man who beats them. I think they like these incomplete stories because they hurt more. They bring the reader to despair and then leave her there.

Someone I know told me he once read a short story that threw him into a fearful and depressive rut for an entire day. It was like he couldn’t get out of the story. It took him to an awful place and then just ended, leaving him there.

Maybe that’s why traditional stories have conclusion and closure—so they don’t take people into an altered state and leave them there. They need something to say, “You are now exiting the story.” Maybe the usual purpose of fiction is to talk people through intense emotions in a controlled way: foreshadowing what’s going to happen, warning them when things are about to get bad, giving them something to hold on while taking them through something terrifying, then carefully, gradually setting them back down on the ground.

I vaguely remember a passage from a short science fiction story that I read in college, that went something like this:

We walked down the broad stone staircase toward the Potomac. A jogger in an orange sweatsuit sat halfway down the stairs, shading his eyes and staring dully at the water while sipping from one of those plastic water bottles with a permanently-attached straw. A few pigeons clustered around him hopefully, ignoring us as we passed.

The river was beautiful, I suppose, but the wind blew off the shore, and the water was so far below us, and so well-guarded by railings and hedges, that it was more like an ornamental backdrop to our conversation than a place. We paid more attention to the squirrels that regarded us with mixed curiosity and indignation as we walked impudently across their lawns. Unlike the tourists who passed us going the other way, the squirrels weren’t afraid to make direct eye contact. She kept trying to lure them in closer by pretending to have food in her hand. A friend had told her that she’d touched a squirrel on the Mall, and now she didn’t want to be outdone in communing with nature, even though the squirrels were so fat and slow that their claim to membership in Nature was just a technicality.

We were passing by the Kennedy Center, across the street from us, and she wanted to go up and walk around its terraces. I said we didn’t have time. She gave me one of her impish grins, and dashed towards it, and a bus smeared her across the driver side of a dirty white Honda Civic parked by the side of the road.

When I read that I stopped, shocked by the sudden violence. But the writer part of me was wondering, “Why haven’t I read anything like that before? It’s so effective.”

It’s effective at shocking the reader, but readers don’t want to be shocked, not really. Even in horror novels, writers just don’t throw the reader into horror with no warning. Yet real life does. Tolstoy was in an artillery regiment during the Crimean War, and his book War and Peace is sometimes praised for its realistic portrayal of war. What struck me most about his war scenes was how boring they were. Tolstoy somehow managed to describe bloody battles up close in a way that wasn’t exciting, just confusing and exhausting.

I haven’t been in a war, but I bet that part of why war isn’t (for most people) thrilling is that it doesn’t have a soundtrack or dramatic cinematography to tell you what to pay attention to. For a conflict to be exciting requires some certainty and dramatic structure: Will this next scene decide something? What’s my motivation? What am I trying to do? Am I, in fact, in danger? A character in a novel usually goes into a conflict with a cause worth fighting for, some specific tactical objective, and a clear threat to watch and overcome. A character in a Tolstoy war scene wanders around the battlefield in a haze of gun smoke, unsure where the battle is, how much longer it’s likely to go on, or what he should be doing. Men around him fire muskets blindly into the smoke, or work on their cannons like auto mechanics, or stand around waiting for orders, and every now and then, one of them is dashed to the ground by a cannonball or a stray musket ball.

(Throwing all wars together as “war” is an oversimplification. The thick smoke, close ranges, and bad communications of 19th-century wars, the grinding trench warfare of World War I, the blitzes of World War II, the surreal aimlessness of Vietnam, and the diplomat-soldier of Afghanistan are all different.)

I bet that one reason war can be traumatic is the suddenness and unexpectedness of violence. It can teach people that just because things are quiet right now doesn’t mean you won’t be covered in blood two seconds from now.

This isn’t what we read fiction for. We want, if anything, fiction that helps us cope better with the world. That’s why stories have build-ups and resolutions. They’re going to hit us with some strong emotions, maybe good, maybe bad. But they’re going to walk us through it slowly, so we can be ready for it, like a fencing instructor teaching a move in slow motion. And they’re going to take us out of it and close it off, so we know we’re safe again.

When have you seen a writer do something suddenly, without warning, or end a story without closure, and you thought it was the right thing for them to do?


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