Flannery O’Connor and the magic gesture: how literary short stories work (tip 79) Reply

In our last video, we considered the similarities between short stories and jokes. We said that, just like the punchline of a joke, whatever happens at the climax of a story is unexpected, but in retrospect seems obvious and inevitable. In this video, DD Johnston develops that idea and think about what it is that happens at the climax of most successful literary short stories. (We say ‘literary’ short stories, since in other genres the endings of stories can sometimes be more about plot resolution than character transition.)


In our last video I considered the similarities between short stories and jokes. Well, rollercoasters provide us with another analogy for the structure of a short story. Imagine you’re sitting on this rollercoaster, waiting as it slowly climbs to the summit. You set off, creaking higher and higher, taking in the view. Through much of the ride, not much is happening, but you’re certainly not bored. In fact, your excitement’s building with every metre you climb; the higher you go, the more dramatic will be the plunge, and the plunge is getting closer all the time.

So the structure of a story is a bit like a rollercoaster. Crucially, just like the roller coaster that climbs higher and higher before the climactic moment, a story must intensify. It must escalate [see tip 16]. If on the first page the protagonist feels a bit reflective, then by the fifth page they probably feel an intensely melancholic nostalgia. Up, up, up, goes the rollercoaster, the pressure builds inside the reader, and at the top there is a climactic release, a thrilling plunge into something new. Well, we know what happens at the apex of a rollercoaster. But what usually happens at the apex of a literary short story?

I’ve spoken before about how most successful narratives chart some fundamental journey of the protagonist [see tips 37 & 73]. A short story only matters if its events, which are often private matters of no obvious great consequence, have some lasting impact on the protagonist; which is to say, short stories usually describe a turning point. The form is kind of a trick in this sense, since I suspect that in reality we are changed gradually by myriad events over a long period of time. But short stories remind us that a whole life story is made up of many small incidents. According to Richard Ford, the form

[L]ends itself to acceptable expressions of caution: ‘You!  You’re not paying enough attention to your life, parcelled out as it is in increments smaller and more significant than you seem aware of.’ – Richard Ford

So most stories achieve their effect by just hinting that the seemingly insignificant events of the narrative have had some profound and transforming impact on the protagonist, and this transformation relates to some fundamental theme to which all humans can relate. For instance, a person closed to love has opened themselves to real human connection. Alternatively, perhaps we see that the protagonist has resisted a potential transition; the person had the opportunity for human connection, but, for better or worse, they have resisted changing.

Now, the point at which this transition becomes evident, the point at which we learn what if any effect the events of the story will have on the protagonist, is always at the end. And the transition, or lack of transition, almost always has to be made concrete. This is the key moment: the protagonist does something. It has to be something the protagonist actively does. It can’t be something another character does; it can’t be something that happens to the protagonist; it is only through the protagonist’s action that we can sense how the events we’ve read about might impact the future course of their lives.

And, crucially, what the protagonist does at the end of a story, is usually something they could never have done at the start of the story. But the author has prepared the moment so that when it happens the action is not only believable, but seems – for that character at that moment – to be an inevitable gesture.  And this revelation surprises us.

Perhaps this sounds a bit abstract and vague, but I’ll give you a couple of specific examples in a minute. First, I have to admit that although I was pretty proud when I came up with this theory, it turns out that the great Flannery O’Connor said something similar, decades before I was born. She said:

I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.  This would have to be an action or gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. – Flannery O’Connor

Examples? OK. In Tim O’Brien’s great Vietnam story ‘The Things They Carried,’ the protagonist is Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. At the start of the story, Jimmy carries letters from a sweetheart back home, a girl he’s in love with. It’s the one thing that keeps him going through the horrors of the war. During the story, those horrors multiply. Near the end of the story, he burns the letters. It’s unimaginable he would have done this at the start, but when it happens it seems inevitable. It tells us his transition: he has lost his innocence, closed himself to love, hardened. And it cements the theme of how war is dehumanising and psychologically devastating.

Or how about this. In John Updike’s ‘Here Come the Maples,’ we learn at the outset that Richard and Joan are getting divorced. It’s been a long marriage but now they are separating. Richard remembers with embarrassment that at their wedding he’d forgotten to kiss her. Maybe the whole relationship was a mistake? But throughout the story, Richard reflects on their marriage and finds many positives. It is still time for them to separate, but he learns gratitude for their time together, and the great human connection of his life. In the end, just after the divorce has gone through, he does what he never did on their wedding day: he kisses her. At the start of the story this would have made no sense; by the end of the story, it not only feels right, it feels inevitable:

The lawyers sagged with relief, and a torrent of merry chitchat – speculations about the future of no-fault, reminisces of the old days of Alabama quickies – excluded the Maples.  Obsolete at their own ceremony, Joan and Richard stepped back from the bench in unison and stood side by side, uncertain of how to turn, until Richard at last remembered what to do; he kissed her. – John Updike

One final point: because the ‘magic gesture’ is so important, it’s usually preceded by a short delay. In this regard, it’s again very similar to the punchline of a joke. Note how the short and percussive resolution – “he kissed her” – is built up with a complex sentence. We have a participle clause, a main clause, two subordinate clauses, “until Richard at last remembered what to do; he kissed her.”

You can find similar ‘magic gestures’ in most successful literary stories. But note that I say most. Art can’t be explained by rules, even if we teachers kind of have to try.

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

The cover image for this video uses an image created by Norm Lanier. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: http://normlanier.com/

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