For me, one of the highlights of the 2012 AWP conference was attending the panel “Surprise Me.” The description of the panel stated:
“We’ve come a long way from the days when you could end a story by revealing that the diamonds were fake. Yet the best short fiction still pleasures us with the unexpected, and when stories fail, it’s often exactly because they don’t surprise. This panel of short story writers, fiction editors, and teachers will investigate the kinds of surprises that give the reader that sense of the floor dropping away, while maintaining the organic integrity of the fictional dream.”
Of course this panel interested me. As the editor of a book called Structure & Surprise, I’m clearly fascinated by surprise, and I find surprise to be a key element of virtually all kinds of creative writing. More specifically, I’m very interested in a kind of surprise that I’ve come to call “fitting surprise,” that is, surprise that is not merely shocking but somehow fits its context. It is this, frankly, magical mixture that gives so much writing its power. I’m not the only one to think so; I’ve collected a number of quotations from various writers, artists, critics, and commentators who seem to indicate that they, too, find fitting surprise (by whatever name they call it) particularly powerful. (You can find these quotations here.)
Based on its description, which promised surprises that both shocked and yet kept “the organic integrity of the fictional dream” intact, “Surprise Me” seemed like it had the potential to be a panel that could possibly deliver more thinking on vitally important “fitting surprise.” I was not disappointed. Indeed, I was treated to a panel in which each of the presenters–Edward Porter, Robin Black, Tracy Winn, and Erin Stalcup–offered a revelatory reflection on the intricacies of creating complex, satisfying surprises, and, often, they spoke directly to the effort to create fitting surprise. If you ever come across an essay by any one of them that seems to indicate that it will be about surprise, read it–even if you’re a poet, it will be worth it.
Here is a sample of how good the whole panel was–the following is Erin Stalcup’s presentation:
Diane Arbus writes, “It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize,” which I hear as an argument for surprise in all art. I’m particularly interested in surprise at the endings of short stories—when I recognize what I didn’t see coming. The stories I love, I can’t look away from—I want to lose my breath, I want the floor to drop away, I want to be blown away—and often this happens at the very end, sometimes the last line. John Gardner said that every ending should be both surprising and inevitable, so I’m curious how to make that work when the ending is heavy on the surprise part. I’d argue that sheer reversal in an ending results in unsatisfying surprise. The classic stories that end in a switch are fun to read, but you can only read them once: Guy de Maupassant wrote “The Necklace” in 1884, and O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi” in 1905, and most people probably know those plots by heart, but the surprise of reversal is the only purpose of the story, which ruins future readings. Interestingly, both stories were first published in newspapers, a forum that asks for a single reading, then disposal. Those stories offer pleasure, they fulfill a human craving for reversal that’s possibly left over from myths and fairytales—but they aren’t the most satisfying stories I know, and I don’t want to write stories like them. That kind of surprise feels old fashioned, historical.
Strangely, composition theorist Peter Elbow’s application of philosopher Kenneth Burke’s ideas of form is what has most helped me work out my ideas of how to generate effective surprise.
Kenneth Burke writes, “[F]orm is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the [reader], and an adequate satisfying of that appetite. . . Form, having to do with the creation and gratification of needs, is ‘correct’ in so far as it gratifies the need it creates.” Peter Elbow first applies this idea to music, then to essays, and he says, “Music tends to bring us to a state of final satisfaction by way of a journey through nonsatisfactions, half satisfactions, and temporary satisfactions: degrees of yearning and relief.” I’d argue this is a perfect description for what stories should do, as well—yearning and relief are what keep us turning pages. But how can that final relief, the rest we get at the end of a story’s journey, be not just still, but also surprising? I think the way that can happen is by having the ending of a story satisfy an appetite that the reader didn’t know she had.
I’m going to give an extended reading of one story, and a brief synopsis of two others, and I tried to pick well-known examples that I hope most people in the room have read. In Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” surprise shows up in the very last line. I think it’s effective because I’ve been made to subconsciously crave it by the way the story is structured.
The title tells us what to expect, I’m given a conscious appetite to see cars crash, so the collision itself cannot be the surprise in this story. Johnson doesn’t even let us wonder which car will crash: the first paragraph tells us that the narrator receives three safe rides, and the fourth one is the doomed one. The narrator himself knows what will happen—made prescient by drugs, when he meets the man, wife, and two children, he thinks, “You are the ones”—but then we go back, and are given the story of the three rides before that, driving while taking amphetamines, Canadian Club, and hashish, the three trips we know will end well, but that never feel safe as we experience them. This is a classic way of building tension in the story—we’re waiting to come back to that condemned car—but a more specific way of labeling that tension might be that we experience “nonsatisfactions, half satisfactions, and temporary satisfactions” before we get there.
The crash itself is surprising in two ways—its description is lyrical and lovely, and the narrator behaves strangely: after he “commenced bouncing back in forth” under a “rain” of human blood, he picks up the unhurt baby and walks away from the crash, has an extended, very calm conversation with an onlooker, then walks back to look at the man from the other car who is dying. He says, “I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” The crash we were promised is now over, but the story goes on. All the characters go to the hospital, and in a stunning paragraph the narrator says surprising things:
“Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”
The speaker tells the doctors there’s nothing wrong with him, and that reminds him of a time, years after this event, when he is admitted to Detox and similarly lies. He explains a string of surreal images he hallucinated then, and the story ends with this:
“It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”
I’m sure some people consider this ending ineffective surprise, this rupturing of the fourth wall, this admittance of an audience. It breaks the fictional dream, pulls me out of the story, but having the floor drop away in this way is thrilling, for this reader. A narrator who loves the sound of screeching sorrow, whose drugs have made him both loony and lucid—I want this story to be about me, even though I’ve never lived a life like that. The form of the story made me hungry for something beyond a car crash, and this narrator’s surprising way of seeing the world has made me hungry to listen to him talk, but what he’s been telling me about is the transcendence of destruction, so he’s made me hungry to somehow experience that, too—though I couldn’t have said I wanted to experience destruction. In the end, it’s satisfying to have my expectations destroyed, to be told this narrator, this writer, can do nothing for me. He’s said he wants to communicate, he wants to talk about dreams and reality, but we can’t. Yet, paradoxically, this does something for me—it gives me an experience I’ve never before had. There’s a satisfying duality in this ending, which I’ll say more about a bit later.
I think a lesson can be learned from this story—car crashes are not inherently surprising, or even inherently interesting. What happens in a story is not important, what’s important is who it happens to. Characters make plots resonant. Though, effective surprise does not have to be as dramatic as this. I’ll briefly look at two other stories.
At the end of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” the narrator—who has no friends, whose own wife doesn’t really like him—intimately touches hands and draws cathedrals with the blind guest he’s made clear he dislikes. But what’s so great about this surprising ending is that it’s not a simple reversal of a jerk into a good guy. This is not a life-changing event; he’s going to be a jerk tomorrow, probably. But for this one moment, he’s feeling something I wanted him to have the capacity to feel, but I could not have possibly predicted he would feel it in precisely this way.
In Amy Hempel’s “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” the narrator leaves her best friend on her deathbed to instead drive her convertible “too fast down the Coast highway through the crab-smelling air […to] stop in Malibu for sangria, […] papaya and shrimp and watermelon ice, […then] vibrate with life, and stay up all night.” In “Cathedral,” I wanted to see a schmuck behave well, and here, I had an unarticulated appetite to see someone behave badly. But this story doesn’t end there; it doesn’t even end with humans. We’re told the friend was “moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried,” and the final paragraph is about a chimp who knows sign language, who taught its baby to sign, “And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug. Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.” It’s a bold move to leave the characters of the story behind, to go somewhere else entirely, but the narrator can’t explain her grief herself. The mosaic structure and lists of trivia throughout have prepared me to both be shocked by this ending, and see it as the only way to end.
The stories I’ve picked show my taste, but I think this same idea can be applied to stories both more conventional, and more unconventional—writers as far ranging as Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Donald Bartleme do similar things in their fiction, and others.
In all ends of stories, surprising or not, I appreciate the sense of duality, feeling like the narrator or character is in two different times periods or two different places; duality allows me, the reader, to bounce around in the tension, be neither here nor there, and it makes an ending feel dynamic, not a static stopping. Anything surprising revealed in the end of a story must push the story forward, not simply throw the reader backward. That’s why pure reversal isn’t effective: there is no duality, only singularity. Complexity is diminished. When I learn the diamonds are fake, I go back and revise what I’ve read, but then the story is over. I don’t learn anything meaningful about any character. When I learn that Della has sold her hair for a watch chain and Jim has sold his watch for hair combs, their love is revealed, but the coincidence feels silly, tricky, not deep and abiding.
In the stories I talked about here I am pushed forward, past the story, to thinking about what will happen next, how my understandings of these characters has intensified. Susan Neville once told me that an ending should be like a spark that lights the fuse of a firecracker, which goes exploding back through the story. I agree. But I don’t want an ending to just do that—I have to imagine the sound moving outward as well. Maybe it’s more that an ending should be like a gong sounding, or a bell, those reverberations shaking back through the story, and forward also. Wells Tower just visited theUniversityofNorth Texas, and he described an ending’s forward momentum as “striking a note in the key of the future.” I think this forward and backward effect is not what makes an ending surprising, it’s what makes any ending good—I’m thinking of the ending to “Sonny’s Blues,” the cup of trembling, which is the perfect ending, but isn’t really shocking. This duality needs to exist in every ending, I believe. But when it’s present in a surprising ending, that’s what makes the ending not a static reversal. The best endings have that recognition of something I’ve never seen, the satisfaction of an appetite I hadn’t felt until it was satiated, the simultaneous realization of hunger and fulfillment.
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Erin Stalcup’s fiction has appeared in [PANK],The Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Sun, and other magazines. After receiving her MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, she taught in schools and prisons throughout New York City and Western North Carolina. She’s currently a PhD student at the University of North Texas, where she’s finishing her first collection,Gravity & Other Stories, and starting a novel.
My thanks to Erin Stalcup for permission to reprint her presentation.