Resolution versus resonance

Short stories divide into two broad, overlapping categories: the traditional plotted story and what, for lack of a better name, we'll call the contemporary literary short story.

The traditional plotted story is easy to recognize. Its ending is like that of a novel: The plot complications are resolved, for better or worse, and the fates ofall the major characters are made clear. This is the kind ofstory we all grew up on: "Cinderella" and "Peter Rabbit" and the mystery stories in Boy's Life. Cinderella lives happily ever after; Peter Rabbit is punished while Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail get blueberries and cream; the youthful detectives solve the mystery. When the story's over, there are no loose ends.

A good example of an adult traditional plotted story is Shirley Jackson's much-anthologized "The Lottery." At the start of the story we see a New England town preparing for some sort of lottery. In the middle, the workings of the lottery are dramatized as the candidates are narrowed down to one "winner." In the concluding paragraphs the situation is clearly resolved: We learn what the lottery has been about, what happens to the winner, what is the role of the rest of the townspeople, and why we shouldn't hang around small New England towns in the spring.

Other well-known examples of the traditional plotted story are Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," and Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about Sherlock Holmes.

The ending of the contemporary literary short story, in contrast, may not seem to resolve anything, or to account for what happens to the characters. Indeed, people who don't like this type of writing often finish a contemporary literary short story and say, "But nothing happened." Or "There isn't any ending— the story just stopped." Or even, "Am I missing the last page?" But the nonresolution of situation and plot is actually deliberate. Stories of this type aim at examining a situation but not resolving it because the situation itself is ambiguous, interesting in and of itself without resolution, or impossible to resolve.

This is easiest to see in an example. Ernest Hemingway's well-known story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" takes place in a Paris café, near closing time in the small hours of the morning. The protagonist, a middle-aged waiter, observes several small events: the reluctance of an old man to leave the well-lighted café and go home; the eagerness of a young waiter to leave work and go home to his wife; the glint of light on the metal insignia of a soldier's uniform. After the café finally closes, the waiter goes to another bar and has a drink, reciting to himself a version of the Lord's Prayer in which "nada" has been substituted for most key words. The story ends.

Obviously, what happens to the waiter the rest of his life— or even the rest of the night—is not important here. In that sense, the ending has no resolution. What is important to Hemingway is making the reader feel a situation in which life and death, youth and age, are evoked in various ways through the symbols of light and darkness. The story doesn't resolve because not even Hemingway could neatly wrap up the question of ever-approaching death. But the story resonates: It sets off in the reader a complex intellectual and emotional reaction to the skillful rendering of a meaningful situation. That is the whole point of the contemporary literary short story. "Literature," writes critic Roland Barthes, "is the question minus the answer."

In making this rough distinction, I don't mean to imply that traditional plotted stories don't raise questions or resonate in the mind. Good ones certainly do. Nor do I mean to imply that contemporary literary short stories are just a bunch of symbols stuck together, without a real ending. Good ones have endings as well crafted as any traditional plotted story. But it's a different kind of ending, dependent more on symbol and nuance than on resolution.

What makes an ending resonate? There's no simple answer. What resonates for one reader may be uninteresting, boring or baffling to another. That's because the whole idea of "resonance" is that the ending strikes chords of recognition and meaning in the reader: I, too, havefelt that or I've always thought that but Inever had words for it before or just I've wondered about that, too—it really happens, then. For this resonance to work, you need a sensitive reader: one capable of making subtle connections between the world of the story and the world he lives in. Not all readers can— or want—to do that. A great many prefer to escape from this world into one that is more brightly colored, more exciting or faster-paced—without being reminded of the world they left behind. That's why contemporary literary short stories have a much smaller readership than do commercial novels.

From a writer's perspective, you create a resonant ending by suggesting connections between your story and a larger context, often through the use of symbols. The protagonist's action at the climax must mean more than it appears to. There are no easy prescriptions for doing this—we're talking about art here—but there are examples to study. Two are examined later in this chapter: Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," mentioned earlier, and Stephen Minot's "Sausage and Beer." Both use common occurrences (respectively, coldness and prayer) as symbols to encompass more than what occurs in their stories—in other words, to make their stories resonate rather than resolve.

Do you want to write that kind of story? That's up to you. The point here is that by the time you reach the ending, you must know what kind of story you are writing. A traditional plotted story signals from the beginning that it is plotted. There is a clearly delineated problem, a plot is unfolding, characters are engaged in purposeful action or reaction. Readers easily pick up on these signals. They then expect a traditional resolution— that's part of the promise your story made—and will feel seriously cheated if they don't get it.

A contemporary literary short story also sends out signals. The beginning and middle may feature more ambiguous action. There is usually more use of symbol, more attention paid to nuances of language, less obvious plot. Such a story doesn't have to end up unresolved—some end more or less traditionally after all—but it can be left unresolved without violating the promise made to the reader.

Another clue is where a reader finds the story. In the so-called "little magazines"—periodicals that often pay only in copies—a knowledgeable reader will expect a preponderance of contemporary literary short stories. In mass-market magazines with huge circulations—Ladies' Home Journal, Ellery Queen's Mys-

teryMagazine, Playboy—most ofthe stories will be traditional plotted fiction. Reader expectations adjust accordingly.

What does this mean for you, the writer? Another version of what we've said all along: Your ending must satisfy the expectations your story has raised. After you know which kind of ending you're writing, you can devise successful closing paragraphs.

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  • QUINTO
    What is resonance in story endings?
    8 years ago

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