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Not Asking Questions

I am in the throes of a new story. And it’s been the most patient I’ve been with a story from inception on. Part of that is due to the intensity of the topic, etc. But that’s not really the point. As I’m getting close, or close-ish, to final revisions it has me thinking about it’s title, as well as it’s ending. I posed one question on Facebook, but I thought it’d be interesting to see what anybody else thought about these questions I’m having.

1) How do you feel about titling a story after the opposite of what the story is about? For example and to steal a bit of something BL Pawelek said regarding the matter, if the story were called “Lucky,” but in effect is about a lack of luck, does that work? (I know that in cases it can work, I’m looking more to hear an array of opinions about how people feel about it).

2) How do you feel about ending a story at the height of the conflict? I don’t do this very often, but I feel with this story that if I take it any further than the height of the conflict that it will lose something. Thoughts?

Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children's bookstore. He now works in marketing. His latest book is Nothing but the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories set in Alaska. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.

34 thoughts on “Not Asking Questions

  1. 1) Sure. Why not? I once wrote a story called “The Best Day of My Life,” but it was about…the worst day of my life! (No, I didn’t really do this, but someone should do it.) The title is like a hat on top of the work; make it a nice hat.

    I love showing my students John Holt’s “School Is Bad for Children” because of how much work he makes that title do—hook, intro to topic, and thesis all in one!

    2) If it will lose something than for god’s sake don’t do it! Remember what Shklovsky said: works with negative endings (that is, lacking endings) will be perceived as complete because readers will perceive them against the majority of works out there, which have endings.

    So, in other words, yeah, I think it’s OK. I think the non-ending’s a great device, lots of fun. It worked for Truffaut, it’ll work for you.

    I just wrote a novel with a “false ending” (“The New Boyfriend”) in which the narrative doesn’t end, but then there’s something tacked on, like a coda, which gives the impression of an ending. I like that technique a lot.

    But I’d forgotten that Shklovsky described that technique until I went back and reread that part of Theory of Prose. That Shklovsky, he always got there first! Hard to think of something he didn’t think of or see. He was always keeping his both eyes open.

    Good luck, Ryan—I’ll be looking forward to the story! Cheers, Adam

    1. Thanks, Adam.

      I get accused of the “non-ending” a lot, especially by family members haha. but i rarely try to pull one at the height of the conflict, especially in this case because it keeps me from giving my character much redemption.

      1. I’m curious as to what you mean by redemption. And why the character deserves it. I mean, I’m not going to have it, so why should some character? Lousy stinking character!

        …No, I’m curious as to the story. Maybe you’ll let me see it when you’re done?

        Again, luck. A

        1. I guess I mean more in terms of the characters in this story because I don’t often write “bad” people. I write a lot of conflicted characters, but mostly that mean well. The characters in this story are definitely conflicted, but I don’t think they mean well.

          I’d be happy to let you read it when it’s “finished” if you’d like.

  2. It’s hard to know exactly what you’re talking about without seeing the actual story, of course, but I always think of Raymond Carver’s early books–his Lish books–when the subject of abrupt endings is raised, and those endings are brilliant. Also, just yesterday I posted about the brilliance of the Coen Brothers’ ending of A Serious Man–if you haven’t seen that, rent it asap, but don’t read my post, which is a spoiler.

    http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/sscanlon/2010/02/a-simple-spoiler/

    Overall, I prefer short story endings to happen amid rising action–I think of it like *writing beyond* the final sentence, so that the momentum takes the reader off on some trajectory they have the tools, provided by the story, to imagine themselves, but without the support you’ve provided by the story. It’s like teaching the reader to ride a bicycle.

    1. I just referenced a Carver story today that ends in the height of conflict, but I can’t recall the title.

      It’s the story about the mother and father arguing over possessions as he is packing his things, and the end is the horrific tug-of-war with the baby, and the allusion to Solomon. (If anyone can recall the title, it’d be much appreciated. I want to refer my friend to read it for something she’s working on.)

      At any rate, I was just saying that to say if you [Ryan, not Shya] think you’ll lose something, then by all means don’t “end” it. All things to the benefit of the story and all that.

      Why is it you feel like you shouldn’t end at the height of conflict? Is it an obligation to convention of sorts?

      1. Hi ce.

        I think this story was published, at different times, under two different titles. Once it was called “Little Things” and at another time it was called “Popular Mechanics”.

        1. Yes. Thank you. I read it as “Popular Mechanics.” I’ve been trying to figure that out all morning, even googled “raymond carver in this way it was decided” and nothing came up. Much obliged.

      2. ce, I think the reason I am questioning the way this story ends is because I’m not use to writing “bad” people and the way the story ends there’s not much room for the characters to show whether or not they mean well.

        1. Ah. Yeah. You mentioned that in an earlier comment, too. I just wasn’t sure if it was a convention thing.

          So, it’s more of a “are readers going to care about these characters enough to care to read this story?” question?

            1. Haha. That’s fair. I can imagine the sour taste left after writing a wholly unsympathetic character, especially if you’re not just shoving them into the villian archetype.

              I’d say go for it, though. A mentality I’m trying to pull over from my graphic design work is, “Give it a shot. The worst that can happen is you press Delete and try something else.”

              Especially at a draft stage, and what seems a relatively early draft stage. It’s a writer’s playground. I call the tire swing though. I’ll king of the mountain the tire swing like you’ve never seen.

              1. I think I’m pretty set with the ending as is. I think my questioning is more of an existential thing. I really appreciate all the thoughts people are throwing out there.

                “Give it a shot” is kind of a motto for me although in my head it’s generally “why the hell not” haha. I’ve made a conscious effort as of late to write things that are more difficult for me to write. Not every character can mean well, what I like about this one is that he might not mean well, but there’s a glimmer or recognition in him as well. I’m not sure I can write a purely evil character.

                1. I just wrote about this on .the idiom. today, trying to push myself as a writer, trying to push my friends around me, getting back into the “fail better” mentality of writing.

                  There’s been a lot of connection and coincidence between some of my interactions lately–for example, I had just referenced that Carver story for a friend of mine while writing up a critique of a draft she’d sent me, and then when I came here to catch up on Big Other news, it proved a good example of an ending at the height of conflict for this thread.

                  Likewise, I’ve been talking a good bit lately to some of my friends about wanting to push ourselves as writers, making a conscious effort to be more deliberate in our writing, which now comes to bear here as well.

                  Wavelengths, man.

                  If you want another set of eyes on it at some point to give some critical feedback, feel free to ask.

                  1. I’ve been getting this from a lot of people lately, that we’re riding similar wavelengths. It’s amazing the electricity that’s riding the atmosphere between us all.

                    Thanks for the offer, too. I may take you up on that!

                    1. Steve Katz:

                      “I don’t think the ideas were ‘in the air’; rather, all of us found ourselves at the same stoplights in different cities at the same time. When the lights changed, we all crossed the streets.”

                      —from an interview with Larry McCaffery, recorded in ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN, page 227

                    2. Yeah, Steve Katz is really great! His 1972 novel SAW is a neglected masterpiece.

                      …And his other writing is similarly superb. (He correctly gets upset when I champion only SAW—but that one’s my favorite.)

                      I’m really looking forward to his three-volume memoir, forthcoming this year from Counterpath… He read from it a bit at &NOW and it sounded great.

    2. Shya, I didn’t read that article on purpose, haha. I can’t wait to see the movie, though! I think it comes out on dvd next week. I’ll make sure to check out your article after.

      I don’t think this is an abrupt ending, per se. And I know I’m being vague, I just don’t like to give anything away. Once it’s out in the world maybe I’ll write another piece regarding these questions.

  3. I wanted to add that I think the real question regarding any particular ending or title or whatever is what it adds to the story or novel or whatever. How does it interact with the rest of the work? Does it make the other parts better? Do they in turn make this ending or title better?

    One problem I had when I started writing was that I would see so many possibilities at any given stage that I never knew which choice to make: which person? which character details? which beginning? which ending? which title? … I could see at every stage how the work could go in so many different directions.

    My solution back then was to turn to more arbitrary solutions–Oulipian constraints, and known forms, and the like. These helped answer certain questions for me, and those answers helped push me in the direction of other answers.

    Later, I felt better able to trust my intuition more, and so I stopped basing works solely overtly on formal constraints. (I think that using them helped me see how constraints exist everywhere, all the way down to the bottom of the language, and to become more sensitive to those subtle aspects of writing.)

    Now I still keep a close eye on form, but what I look for more than anything is synergy. I look to see whether two different parts of the story spark a connection, so to speak, when rubbed up against one another. If the connection feels good–if it feels alive–then I trust it. One decision almost always feels better than the others, and that’s the one I go with. (I often go with whatever makes me feel the giddiest–and that’s pretty much what I want to write: giddy, energetic fiction. I often call it “goofiness” or “silliness,” although I’m serious about it.)

    Conversely, if something doesn’t feel good in the text–if it feels lifeless, if I have no energy when I go to work on it–then I change that part. I remove it, or completely revise it; I turn it into the part of the story or novel that I’m most excited about. I reframe it as a real opportunity. My motto is: “No Dead Zones!”

    (Of course whether the reader will agree with me that the writing is alive and vibrant–or giddy or goofy or silly–is another thing entirely. But it’s important first and foremost that it all feel good for me. I don’t write just to write. I write in order to feel good!)

    I hope this helps! I’ve only been thinking about writing in this way for maybe a few years at most–but they have been my most productive years. (Which is to say, I’ve finally started producing things.) Before that, I never produced anything, and who knows why or how I wrote? Probably out of compulsion more than anything (and that’s still a big part of it–but it’s nice to feel good about one’s compulsions).

      1. I’m v e r y s l o w l y working on a massive novel that is rooted in the problem (or opportunity) of seeing too many possibilities. And that hopefully won’t just be a retread of Jacques Roubaud’s exquisite GREAT FIRE OF LONDON.

    1. Thanks, Adam. I totally understand the too many possibilities thing. I have been known to write my stories from various POV’s, in first, and third person. Some of the stories in the collection I’m putting together have been written in five or six different ways on top of all the regular revisions, etc. I get obsessive about possibilities!

          1. ^_^

            Did I ever tell you about the time that I went to that delicatessen near your apartment?

            My friend Brad had told me about it. He claimed that he went there every morning to get a pastrami with Swiss cheese on rye.

            Well, since he’d recommended it, I figured I’d go, and order the same.

            “The pastrami is fine,” he advised. “And so is the Swiss. But it’s the rye that really makes it! Best rye of all time!”

            I adore a good rye bread, so I was intrigued.

            I arrived before the deli even opened, very hungry, and very excited.

            (I’d fasted the whole day before.)

            I was eager to introduce myself to the elderly man who worked there. I wanted to let him see how enthusiastic I was. (Maybe he’d give me a discount?)

            But I think that long hours of slicing meats had made him myopic.

            “Nah, you get out of here, Brad,” he said as soon as he saw me. he waved his muscular hairy arms. “You lousy thief, your money’s no longer any good here!”

            (In the old man’s defense, Brad and I do look something alike. It’s our glasses.)

            Startled, I tried to explain that I wasn’t Brad, but that only made him madder. He inched his itchy fingers toward his cleaver.

            “Get out!” he repeated, yelling by now. “Get out!”

            Who was I to argue? But since I was starving, I grabbed a bag of potato chips as I backed toward the door.

            This only enraged him.

            “You thief! I saw that!” he bellowed. “I saw that! And I’ll bill you for it, Brad! I’ll bill you!”

            I turned and ran. I didn’t stop until I’d covered fifteen blocks.

            I was certain that at any moment, I’d feel that maniac’s knife in my back.

            But the man didn’t follow.

            I flopped down, gasping, on a park bench. I eventually calmed down.

            Alas, I’d wasted the entire morning. As well as lost my left penny loafer.

            I tried to look on the bright side. The potato chips tasted OK, but didn’t really satisfy me.

            Needless to say, however, since that morning, I’ve never been back to that strange place again.

            And that is why I, despite its reputation, I never ordered rye in da “Bill you, Brad!” deli.

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