Some time after Flannery O’Connor’s death, her friends, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, compiled several of Flannery’s essays and speeches on writing in a book called Mystery and Manners. If you’ve not read it, you can get it here. If you’re serious about the art of fiction, this is a book you’ll want to read and keep handy while you work. Go ahead, order it. I’ll wait.
Done? Good. Now turn to page 111. O’Connor says, “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 a 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.”
At least her expectations aren’t too high, right?
Something unexpected, but inevitable. There are several popular examples, perhaps the most famous being “The Sixth Sense.” And while I doubt O’Connor would praise the film, the ending was rather unexpected but inevitable. *SPOILER ALERT* When Bruce Willis is shot in the first five minutes of the film, and we see him shortly after, we assume that he has made a full recovery. At the end of the film, we realize we were mistaken. Of course he died. It was inevitable. But we wanted to believe he was alive. It was easier, more comforting. But fiction isn’t always about comfort. M. Night Shyamalan had to include a short montage of critical events in the film to show us how we misinterpreted them.
Please don’t misunderstand. This is not to say that every work of fiction should have a twist ending. Far from it, actually. Twist endings usually are just poorly foreshadowed pleas for shock. The writer of twist ending covets the oohs and ahhs of his or her audience, wants the acclaim of “genius” that comes with it. “Never saw it coming,” the audience exclaims, and the writer feels a sense of accomplishment. He has duped his audience. Hooray for him. But what’s left beyond that? The problem with “twist” endings is that they either fail to be true to the character, or they do not transcend the character. They may suggest the world, but not eternity, or vice versa.
O’Connor herself really mastered this art. Whether it’s the theft of a wooden leg (Good Country People), the attack of an old woman on a bus (Everything That Rises Must Converge), or the abandonment of a deaf-mute bride on her wedding day in a roadside cafe (The Life You Save May Be Your Own), her stories always have an action or gesture that are perfectly in character, but somehow transcend the simple skin the character is in. They are more.
The best example might be from A Good Man is Hard to Find, her iconic short story about The Misfit, a roadside serial killer. His presence, his danger, is foreshadowed heavily throughout a story that follows a simple family vacation. When, eventually, the grandmother comes eye-to-eye with the killer, we’re not surprised, but it sure feels like it. Ultimately *SPOILER ALERT*, the old woman says, "Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!" The line is completely unexpected, a desperate plea for life. She’s grasping at straws, understanding that she will be the next, and last member of her family, killed by The Misfit. It is in character for her to make this plea, but transcends her character by alluding to several different things. I won’t bore you with my literary interpretation of what she says, what matters is that it is universally accepted to refer to something more than The Misfit, more than the grandmother. This fact is further supported by the succeeding lines: "She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest" (The Complete Stories 132).
His action, shooting the grandmother, is unexpected. He lets her live for so long, compared to the rest of the family, which never stood a chance. His conversation with her leads us to believe that she may get out of it yet. Of course, there is no hope, but we hope nonetheless. O’Connor plays on that hope, cultivates it, develops it, and then summarily reminds us that the murder of the old woman was wholly inevitable. This is not a twist ending, though it feels like one.
Your endings need not be so tragic. Hope can be just as surprising as tragedy. An old teacher from Antioch first mentioned this principle to me in context of an ending of one of my stories. While I won’t detail the ending (it appears my narcissism only goes so far) of my work, I will tell you that it is equal parts tragedy and hope.
Regardless, the idea remains. If the actions of your characters don’t surprise you, they won’t surprise the reader. Lean to let go in your fiction, allow your characters to act out, to fulfill their ascribed roles, or to rebel and go in a different direction. There’s no fault in a character exerting his or her will. It is, according to O’Connor a victory.
Go back through your writing and try to find this action, this gesture, which both embodies the character, and transcends it. Happy hunting.