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"snapper in the tail" of the tale

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  • "snapper in the tail" of the tale

    How do people feel about stories with a surprise ending, which is to say, an ending that surprises the reader in some way because it seemed inevitable, but its ironic turn was unforeseen? The turn can have comic, serious, or (even) terror implications. O. Henry is notorious for this kind of maneuver, but I think he's usually disqualified because the ending is more a simple "shock" rather than something that seemed inevitable.

    My own feeling is that if it is handled cleverly, it's a very nice maneuver. It tends to work better (probably) in short stories rather than long ones, because it requires singleness of effect, for one thing; for another, if the ending really seems inevitable, it will occur to the reader before the conclusion is reached if the story is long.

    Some stories I like that fit this category:

    - "The Reticence of Lady Anne," by Saki (H. H. Munro)
    - "The Interloper," by Saki
    - "An Imperfect Conflagration," by Ambroise Bierce
    - "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," by Ambroise Bierce
    - "Mr. Arcularis," by Conrad Aiken
    - "Pythias," by Frederik Pohl
    - "Eurema's Dam," by R. A. Lafferty
    - "Mouche," by Guy de Maupassant

    The Aiken story probably isn't as well known as it ought to be.

    Anyone want to give it a try?

    LSN

  • #2
    Re: "snapper in the tail" of the tale

    Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg
    How do people feel about stories with a surprise ending, which is to say, an ending that surprises the reader in some way because it seemed inevitable, but its ironic turn was unforeseen?
    Love them.

    Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg
    It tends to work better (probably) in short stories rather than long ones, because it requires singleness of effect, for one thing; for another, if the ending really seems inevitable, it will occur to the reader before the conclusion is reached if the story is long.
    Chuck Palahniuk pulls it off quite well in his inaugural novel, Fight Club.

    Comment


    • #3
      Having a surprise ending to a novel and having a story that builds to a surprise ending (almost like a punchline, but not necessarily with humor) seem to me fundamentally different things.

      I have enough problems from a tendency to guess the conclusions of stories and novels early as it is. A surprise ending that isn't necessarily a logical conclusion of the apparatus of the novel since the very beginning *can* work, but it's not the same thing; it often seems like a random act of nature when it happens.

      Contrariwise, a novel that is built in such a way that it logically builds to a surprise conclusion looks difficult of execution. If there is that long a build up, and the novel isn't logically unstable, it will inevitably tip its metaphorical hand before the conclusion that something is up, and an array of the possible conclusions will occur to someone engaged in the old game of predicting "what happens next." If you anticipate the ending early, you've spoiled the desired effect, and the trick must be judged unsuccessful, even if you like the novel as a whole.

      The alternatives are maneuvers of the 1) don't play fair with the reader (hold back crucial details until the end and spring them without warning before the curtain ), or 2) don't worry about logical instability. Some writers can get away with these sorts of tricks (e.g., Cornell Woolrich did it over and over), but a lot of times it can be irritating. I have a rather vulgar expression describing such maneuvers, which I will not post on a "family forum" of this sort. :lol:

      ----

      No one has yet jumped on the "challenge" of trying to write one of these stories. I repeat, any takers?

      LSN

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      • #4
        ... ehm... O. Henry i am not, therefore... i await a more qualified short-story writer to tackle this one. :up:

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        • #5
          O. Henry is not an act I would encourage others to follow. His surprise endings belong (often, but not always) to the "hold something critical back and spring it before the curtain" school. This is a sort of cheating, I've always thought. It can be handled well, but it's hard to make some of us like it.

          LSN

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          • #6
            Jonathan Carroll has stories that build and surprise, and he has a few surprise endings.

            As for taking up a challenge...

            A relatively young professor was putting together his materials for tenure. He was sure the various committees would decide in his favor. Because he spent too much time on message boards, he was denied tenure.

            The end.

            No wait, that's the ending I don't want. Also why my participation has been sparse lately.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Doc
              Jonathan Carroll has stories that build and surprise, and he has a few surprise endings.
              Yes, he's a fine writer, but if you are thinking about the books that I believe you are, I'd say the surprise endings fail the "logic" test to which I alluded above. Because of the mode he writes in, he can get away with it, of course.

              I don't think they are "self-contained" (in the sense that the "surprise" ending is the logical conclusion of the main story) the way functional short-story snappers are, either, but that's not unusual with novels.

              LSN

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              • #8
                Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg

                Yes, he's a fine writer, but if you are thinking about the books that I believe you are, I'd say the surprise endings fail the "logic" test to which I alluded above. Because of the mode he writes in, he can get away with it, of course.

                I don't think they are "self-contained" (in the sense that the "surprise" ending is the logical conclusion of the main story) the way functional short-story snappers are, either, but that's not unusual with novels.

                LSN
                I agree with you, especially in that he gets away with things that others cannot. I was really mad at myself for not seeing what was happening in both Sleeping in Flame and Outside the Dog Museum. The Wooden Sea, in particular had an ending that surprised me, but it doesn't necessarily fit the rest of the story. Because of the way he tells stories, however, it somehow worked for me.

                Having said all of that, I like the surprises he writes before his endings.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by Doc
                  . . .
                  As for taking up a challenge...

                  A relatively young professor was putting together his materials for tenure. He was sure the various committees would decide in his favor. Because he spent too much time on message boards, he was denied tenure.

                  The end.

                  No wait, that's the ending I don't want. Also why my participation has been sparse lately.
                  How about:

                  A relatively young professor (who shouldn't resemble H*r*ld D*rt*n, Ph.D. very closely) was putting together his materials for tenure. He was sure the various committees would decide in his favor; insiders told him "the fix was in." He looked forward to a pleasant future with the appetizing position of "tenured professor" instead of "lean and hungry guest lecturer." Everything was w*o*n*d*e*r*f*u*l, including his private life, his sexual escapades, and even his private, bizarre fantasies. Perhaps he was a person of the highest moral caliber save that he was (to echo Fielding) "a little given to drink." And then it all started to unravel. . . .

                  I suggest things should unravel because the character loses his position, loses his status (degree called into question?) and perhaps even loses his identity. Optional whether the balance of the universe is restored, or if the character goes all the way down.

                  This sounds like a challenge story for our very own CK. I'm sure it would be informed by many amusing insights and striking aperأ§us. It is, of course, open to anyone willing to give it a try.

                  Thanks for the story challenge idea, Doc! The pattern is classic, and calls for a sort of neo-noir treatment, I think. :lol:

                  LSN

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    :clap:
                    Bravo!

                    The "given to drink" aspect comes after the decision. And that "highest moral caliber"-- is that a compliment or an insult?

                    A story challenge seems a far better solution to my recent stress than all of the narcotics I was considering. :lol: Of course, Carter would do it far more justice, as mine would certainly end up nihilistic and angry. At least before March.

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                    • #11
                      The "given to drink" is just a piece of throwaway sarcasm. I have known a few individuals (all of whom received tenure) that this could have been a description of. None of their lives unravelled after tenure was received, because (in one case) the various transgressions were covered up.

                      Doc, if you have no first hand observations of this sort of thing, S*n M*rc*s must be a boringly ordinary place. Sometimes, "boring" is goodness, of course.

                      Stick with it, Doc, and we'll be rooting for your tenure to come in like the proverbial ship, perhaps Drake's Golden Hind, loaded with ill-gotten loot for the survivors. (The lead up to getting tenure is stressful. )

                      LSN

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                      • #12
                        My friend seems to think that short stories all seem to have a twist in the tale in order to make it worth reading.

                        He doesn't read short stories.

                        Really, having a twist in the tale is a hard thing to pull off, Iain M Bank's books are supposedly notourious for having plot twists, but I've never seen them as such.

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by manmiles
                          My friend seems to think that short stories all seem to have a twist in the tale in order to make it worth reading.
                          Your friend sounds a bit of a hedgehog. (Cf. Sir Isaiah Berlin's famous monograph, The Hedgehog and the Fox.)

                          Originally posted by manmiles
                          He doesn't read short stories.
                          Oh. :roll:

                          I'm not sure he's entitled to deliver an opinion, then. (Vis. "informed opinion" versus "opinion.")

                          Originally posted by manmiles
                          Really, having a twist in the tale is a hard thing to pull off, Iain M Bank's books are supposedly notourious for having plot twists, but I've never seen them as such.
                          Having a twist in the plot is not (of course) quite the same thing as building to a single effect that is realised via a "surprise" ending.

                          To pick a rudimentary example that many people should be familiar with, consider Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation and its so-called "surprise" ending. I read this book at about 13, and I am sorry to report that I foresaw the "surprise" long before the end. A novel had better have a lot more going for it besides some trick up the sleeve of the writer at the very end.

                          As I've said before, if you play "fair" (logically, and all cards on the table), you can surprise a careful reader in a short story; the surprise in the payoff adds to the interest in the story -- if handled well. In a novel, it's hard not to tip him off before you reach the "surprise." The book had better have something more going for it than the "shock and awe" effect of a snapper in the tail.

                          LSN

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                          • #14
                            This kind of story can work well so long as characters and events aren't forced to bring about the denouement, and so long as there's no resort to deux ex machina, or the story isn't contrived soley for the twist. Take the film Sixth Sense, this would have worked well except that I figured out the twist.

                            It's perhaps an effect which is fine if it can be made to happen naturally, but is terrible if the characters and events are just cyphers for the final twist.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg
                              In a novel, it's hard not to tip him off before you reach the "surprise." The book had better have something more going for it than the "shock and awe" effect of a snapper in the tail.
                              Precisely why I mentioned Fight Club. The twist in the end is only one small part of a very poignant and thrilling story. Yet the "snapper," once it is revealed, echos back throughout the entire tale.

                              I'm surprised more people here have not read this book.

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