What Just Happened? Allusions and Settings are Oh So Character Building . . .

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: DAVID FRANKEL ON THE POWER OF SUGGESTION IN THE SHORT STORY

man shuffling

“In the short story there is no slack. Everything is a clue – a glimpse that hints at something larger. Often, a great deal of the plot is implied and this intensity requires more of the reader. It is a world in which it is impossible to be a passive consumer.

Graham Greene once advised that writers should ‘keep in mind the question the reader is asking.’ For writers of short stories this is doubly important. The tools of omission and implication are not only necessary because of the obvious constraints of length, but can be instrumental in providing the intrigue that keeps the reader involved. This can be especially effective at the beginning of a story where omitting backstory can engage the reader immediately, drawing them into a ‘live’ situation and prompting them to ask questions: why is this happening and what happens next?

Hemingway was a master of this. In many of his stories (two that spring to mind are ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and ‘Hills Like White Elephants’) we are pitched straight into the action mid-situation. Description is pared down to a minimum and dialogue is sharp. ‘The Snows Of Kilimanjaro’ opens mid-conversation .We read on, at least to begin with, in order to discover who is speaking, and what is going on:
‘“The marvellous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
“Is it really?”
“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odour though. That must bother you.”
“Don’t! Please don’t.”
“Look at them,” he said. “Now is it the sight or is it the scent that brings them like that?”
The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick moving shadows as they passed.’

In ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, the subject of the story (an unwanted pregnancy and prospective abortion) is never made explicit. This story is a particular moment in time, convincingly rendered with sparse but vivid detail and dialogue that makes no attempt to explain what is occurring for the benefit of an observer. The real theme is implied subtly. This has the effect of turning the readers into eavesdroppers as the protagonists skirt around the issue. It is our nosiness that makes us listen.

I often think of a short story like a low-budget film where characterisation and a limited number of sets are all that the director has, to evoke a whole off-screen universe. As though we are watching the protagonists through a single camera lens, and from that limited observation we must form an idea of the rest of their lives, projecting out into the world.

A great example of this is ‘Jesus’ Son’ by Denis Johnson. It is a collection of stories about people ‘passing through’, all seemingly at the end of a particular chapter in their life, or at the beginning of one. The collection follows an un-named narrator through a kaleidoscopic series of encounters, each with someone we will never meet again. Because of this, every action they take, every word they speak gains more weight. These glimpses become the evidence on which we will build our impression not only of them but also of the narrator’s world. Even more so than Hemingway, Johnson’s stories pitch the reader in mid-situation, forcing them to piece together what is happening. Unlike Hemingway, Johnson keeps the reader off-balance, never quite giving them all the information they need about the situations the narrator describes. The reader is prompted to imagine scenes that have happened off-screen, as in the story ‘Two Men’.

It begins,
‘I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. I was being taken out of the dance by my two good friends. I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hadn’t yet come to light.’

What this ‘misunderstanding’ might be is never made clear. Nor, strangely, do we meet the second man promised by the title and the opening paragraph. This feeling that we are not quite being let in on everything makes us want to know more. His endings cut off mid-action too, as if the author is afraid to write what happens next, or the narrator too ashamed to tell. ‘Two Men’, for example, ends with the narrator in pursuit of an adversary.

After breaking into the man’s flat he finds that his quarry has escaped and in the final scene he holds a gun to the head of a woman he finds there:
‘I took two steps over to the living-room window and looked down into the parking lot. I couldn’t tell for certain, but it looked like Thatcher’s car was gone.
The woman hadn’t moved. She just lay there on the rug.
“He’s really not here,” she said.
I knew he wasn’t. “I don’t care. You’re going to be sorry,” I said.’

It is a powerful ending precisely because it leaves so much to the imagination of the reader. A short story often works best when it signifies something bigger, when it asks us to imagine the shadow cast by what has happened on the page. In doing this, the short can get away with something that a novel rarely can – it can leave a question hanging, a life unexplored, an idea unresolved, inviting us to extrapolate from what we have read. In the hands of a skillful writer this gives short stories the ability to haunt the reader long after they have been read.”

Blog curated with kind permission from David Frankel, and Over The Red Line.

David Frankel is a writer and artist. His stories have been published in anthologies and magazines including The London Magazine and Lightship Anthology. His work has been shortlisted for a number of prizes, including The Willesden Herald Short Story Prize and the Fish Memoir Prize.

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