You heard me.
In On Writing, Stephen King described a class he taught where a student turned in a short story. The story was about a suburban father who loses touch with his daughter after she makes several bad decisions. Years later, the father’s marriage disintegrates, and he visits an escort for comfort. They do the deed in the dark, and only in the harsh light of morning does he realize the prostitute was his own daughter.
You’d expect this to be the beginning of the story, wouldn’t you? But nope. As King relates, the story ended here, right at the most critical moment for the characters.
Here’s another example. At last month’s OryCon, I attended a critique session, where a writer read a sci-fi story about a family moving to a mysterious island they bought for an abnormally cheap rent. The island is infested with wolf-like monsters that scare the family into leaving. In the last paragraph, through an awkward perspective shift, the monsters are revealed to be aliens, tricking humans into provisioning the island with food they can then use for the voyage back to their home planet.
That is a fascinating concept, yet the whole story was wasted in revealing it.
I could go on and on. Every story idea ever conceived by M. Night Shyamalan, O. Henry, or another one of those initials guys also falls into this category, but that would just be belaboring the point. A thing I should probably get to.
The point being this: when you end your story with a big reveal you spent the whole thing building up to, you commit two critical mistakes. You elevate yourself above the reader, and you rob your characters of a better story.
I mentioned in my post about the 10 commandments of mystery writing that the reader should have all the same clues that the character does, but that’s not the whole story. There also need to be enough clues laid out that the reader can solve the mystery without the benefit of authorial intervention that the character enjoys.
More than that, though, it should be fulfilling, not condescending. If the whole point of your story is to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes, it winds up like one of those riddles meant to keep people distracted on long car trips. You know the ones: those awful “lateral thinking” puzzles that are just one sentence about a guy committing suicide, from which you are somehow supposed to derive a convoluted backstory about naval service, cannibalism, or the mafia when many easier answers are readily available.
Back to my two examples. I don’t want the story to end when the father realizes his horrible mistake. Show him fleeing the bedroom. Show me how they both individually deal with their guilt. That’s how a character is revealed–until then, they’re ciphers.
In the sci-fi story, let the alien scheme mean something. Let the family’s child stumble on the truth and have his world inverted by interacting with the starfarers. Let them come into conflict and find a solution.
A great idea for a twist, in summary, is only the beginning of a great idea for a story. Not the end.
In case this hasn’t made it clear, in the wake of completing The Clockwork Raven, I am focusing on short stories. I finally have a Duotrope subscription and have gotten three new ones on paper already. More posts to come!