Edging Towards Competence by Mike Smith

One of the flash fictions in my collection Other Stories and Rosie Wreay ends in a word, an adverb as it happens, tagged on after a comma to the final sentence. It qualifies, describes, comments on, the way the action of the verb was to be imagined. 

It’s a fiction I was pleased with, and still am for that matter. It was based, as the story tells, on a memory shared with me by an old man I’d never met before, but who lives within a few miles of my home. He was recalling the Second World War and his experiences as a boy during that time.

I embellished the story, but at its heart was an unusual detail that he claimed to have witnessed and testified to. There was, I felt, a conclusion that could be drawn from it, with a little bit of pointing: something that would ‘make plain’ as V.S.Pritchett said, what ‘real life only hinted at’.

I ran the fiction past a couple of writing buddies, just to see if I had got it right. One of them thought I had. The other liked it, but quibbled about that last word. It was so obvious, he said, it didn’t need to be there. The other reader though, had recognised that it was precisely because it was obvious that it did need to be: the point of the story being, in effect, to pose the question ‘isn’t that obvious?’ And by doing so to raise a doubt about whether or not it was!

I’ve no doubt that the endings of short stories are ‘what they are about’: that they point us to what must follow, to what is, or to a reassessment of what has been. When they do this with a few final words, it’s good. When they do it with a single final word, better still! Here I usually cite Zola’s Attack On The Mill, which ends on a single word, repeated once. It is an ending which, I was informed in an introduction to it, and later confirmed for myself, is unforgettable, even after the details of the story itself have vanished from recall. More significant, and perhaps surprising, is that the recollection of that ending carries with it all the power of the forgotten story.

I have tried over and again to find a metaphor that carries, like some sort of magic talisman, all that I need to remember about short story endings, but I find ones that get only a partial grip on this essential element of the form. One that came into my head recently, while looking again at another story of mine that I’m not so pleased with, was that of the reader being brought to an edge of some sort: a kerb, a cliff, the parapet of a bridge or high building, and teetering there.

When we get to such endings, as writers, there is often the temptation to give the reader a shove, or perhaps to pull them back from the abyss, and I think what the analogy was telling me was that neither is the right course of action. It’s the teetering, the consciousness of the possibility of the fall, that holds the power of the story. The reader will either plunge, or draw back of their own accord, depending on what sort of reader they are, and what in their lives, as well as in my, or your story, has propelled them to that edge.

I removed three words from the end of the tale in question. Hopefully, job done!

Mike Smith

Mike Smith writes poetry, plays and essays – mostly on the short story form, in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com . He lives on the edge of England within sight of a sliver of Solway Firth.

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