The sting in the tale: Musing on short fiction

Used with permission from RTVisions

The Juniper Tree: used with permission from RTVisions

The twist. The hook. The punch-line. The big reveal.

Anyone that has read any of the short fiction pieces that I have posted on this blog would have noticed my love of the twist ending. I enjoy the subterfuge, misleading the reader into a conclusion on where a story is going, then – BANG – pulling the rug out from beneath them. I love adding an element of misdirection, because this gives a delicious surprise at the end, like a particularly good joke.

But like a joke, the punch-line needs to be built in with care. The fundamentals that lead to the ending need to be in the earlier part of the story, need to build to that ending. To throw in a twist without building to it (aha! you couldn’t know this but the narrator was a vampire wearing sunblock!) means reader will just feel cheated. It should be possible (but not easy) for a person reading closely to guess or anticipate the ending. Getting this balance of leading in, but not giving away is tough, and is one of the reasons I started this blog.

But… does every piece of short fiction need a twist? Am I being too restrictive on my writing by always adding these hooks, these reveals? Am I doing this at the cost of depth or impact?

Here is an interesting quote from an article by Kirsty Gunn in 2012:

…Clive Anderson, who told us that what the short story must have – its overriding and most important feature – “is a twist”.

Really? A twist? Isn’t that something that we used to talk about in the fourth form when we were reading Saki, or earlier, while in thrall to Tales of the Unexpected? Isn’t a “twist” something you put in to spice things up, add colour or bite, because you worry there’s not any colour or bite there in the first place? That whole motivation for the turnaround ending – the “sting in the tail” as Saki called it – was that nothing else in those kinds of stories was surprising, not really. We’re on home ground with writers who rely on a twist; everything is familiar. We feel pretty clever reading them because we’re in control; we’re never unmoored and taken down curious paths on new journeys. The twist is there to provide the surprise, all of it. Its job is to jolt the tale into life.

(emphasis added)

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with everything she says here – I don’t think that stories with twists are entirely devoid of anything else surprising or interesting, but it does raise the question of whether the inclusion of the twist is really so important.

On the basis of this question, I did my requisite googling, looking for alternatives. I found this site, a pair of writers going by Edward G Talbot, who suggest four ways to end a short story. I wont repeat them all here, but the last one, – the ambiguous ending – is interesting. Essentially this story ends without resolution. HP Lovecraft used this to great effect. His characters would gradually be faced by an increasing level of weirdness and tension, and then, right at the climax – Lovecraft would withdraw. The big evil was never seen, or if it was, it immediately sent the narrator insane.

Another great example I saw recently was by Tanya Marie Bird in the Chuck Wendig random title Flash Fiction challenge (that resulted in my earlier story The Merciful Alleyway). Tanya wrote The Merciful Chasm, which did an excellent job of building tension and mystery, and ended without resolution (although I will admit that I really wanted to find out what the hell happened).


So what do you think? Do short stories need a twist to keep you interested? Or, do you enjoy short stories without twists? Have you seen any good examples of twistless short fiction?

Cheers

KT

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