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I have been coming to the conclusion lately that we learn more about how fiction does and doesn’t work from poor stories than we do from good ones. A crude first novel, for instance, can often be extraordinarily revealing about an author’s subsequent work. Gene Wolfe’s Operation Ares, for instance, is a pretty dreadful book, but it reveals in simplified form aspects of the role and function of the hero that are played out in a richer, more complex way, in later works such as The Book of the New Sun. And when you read Indoctrinaire by Christopher Priest you find themes and ideas that are worked out more subtly and more thoroughly in just about all of his subsequent novels.

I came back to this idea of learning from poor fiction because of a story in an anthology I’ve just been reviewing. I won’t give the title of the story or the name of the author, they are irrelevant. But I often find when I talk about stories that I complain that things are unearned, and I found that the story highlighted what I mean by this more clearly than many much better stories.

It’s a very short piece. Basically our protagonist is a photographer out looking for one perfect shot to complete an exhibition. He happens upon a notebook that reveals the location of a very rare plant, and decides that a picture of the plant will be exactly the photograph he needs for his exhibition. He also realises that the notebook belongs to a noted botanist who has gone missing, but decides not to hand it over to the police until after he has his photograph. Next day he finds the plant, but just as he is lining up his shot horses grazing in the field suddenly turn on him and, presumably, bring about his death. (I should note that the shape of this story if not the specific detail feels familiar to me, but I couldn’t say what it reminds me of.)

All the way through, the word that kept coming to my mind was ‘unearned’, and I realised that it felt unearned on several different levels.

  1. The photographer we are introduced to is a landscape photographer, every shot he lines up or considers is open and scenic: seascapes, sunsets, a fire on a beach. If those are the shots he is lining up, then a photograph of a plant, however rare, would seem to be out of place in any exhibition he might put together, rather than, as here, the crowning final shot. So the notebook reference to a plant as the mcguffin that precipitates the story’s climax is out of place; it works by authorial fiat rather than because it has been earned by our understanding of the character and what he does.
  2. Morally, the character’s death is unearned because he has done nothing to merit it. His decision to withhold information about the notebook from the police is a fault, but not one great enough to warrant such punishment. And we are given no reason to suspect any other even minor stain on his moral character. I realise this idea of a moral dimension to a story is rather old-fashioned now, but I do think a lot of readers still find it more satisfying when the punishment fits the crime.
  3. He is killed by horses. Why? This comes out of the blue: horses have not featured, they have not even been mentioned, in the story before this fatal moment. There is no sense that a horse is in any way a nightmare character for the protagonist (as it would be in, say, a story by M. John Harrison). There is no sense that horses have any resonance in the character’s life before this point. There is nothing to say that these horses are particularly wild or vicious (they are in a defined field close to a cliff and appear to be domesticated). This whole incident is unconnected in any way to any moment of the story before this point. It is another form of authorial fiat rather than an earned conclusion to a worked plot.

I have talked so many times before about what is earned in a story, but this particular piece, by illustrating different ways of being unearned, has helped to clarify in my mind what I mean by the term.

4 thoughts on “Unearned

  1. I like this post. I’ve certainly heard my fair share of “You have to earn this ending” advice, over the years.

  2. This fascinates me and is something I’m obsessed with more or less. I love moral dimensions in stories almost more than any other aspect of them. And earning actions – especially endings and death and moreso- deaths in endings- is all good stuff to discuss.

    On the one hand, I’ve read many a story where the death feels forced or unearned or random or trying to hard to be “violent” in a deep way and it comes across forced and silly, the opposite of the authors intention. On the other hand, in a handful of dust, waugh kills off a child pretty early on in the narrative, but it’s where it is in the narrative that makes it work. So the meaning of the death is to set up other characters behavior and emotion and the death itself is meaningless.

    As annoying as the characters in A Good Man in Hard to Find are, do they deserve death? No, but the story works, because O’Connor’s belief is imbued in the story and she clearly believes they should die and that grace is only granted because of the death.

    And wierdly, the movie the comfort of strangers popped into my head. Again, the actual activities or personalities of the characters killed are annoying or weak and not perfect, but death? And yet it works and I don’t remember why- I have to rewatch it.

    Also, I so want to read this story that you write about! If you could possibly email it to me I would be very grateful.

  3. I think it’s less that the punishment needs to fit the crime and more that stories that get off on “punishing” characters are (usually) shit.

    Which makes quite a lot of traditional stories shit, I guess, but I can deal with that.

    1. This is really funny. I’m glad you can deal with all those shitty traditional stories. I’m going to go read the death of ivan ilyich now.

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