When is a story over?

Yesterday I received a rejection for a story that essentially said it was very good, but felt like a part of something much larger and didn't seem to stand fully on its own. I've had that with other stories as well--from IGMS and Writers of the Future, a review of one of my published stories, among others. And I've had that at times from those in my critiquing group, especially a story I revised and submitted yesterday. Sometimes I look back and realize that I could have done a bit more--I have a tendency, in early drafts especially, to leave things very understated, expecting readers to tease out exactly what it means. But I usually fix that in revision, and I don't think that was the case with these stories.

So a part of me wants to suggest that it comes down to preferences. I like stories that imply a wider world. I like stories that finish what they're about but encourage the reader to imagine what that might mean for the wider story. Really, when it comes down to it, any ending is artificial anyway. So I end the story I intend to tell--"Untouched by Fire" (which drew such comments from both WotF and IGMS) begins with a character suddenly outcast, untouchable, and it's that word--untouchable--that cripples her at the beginning, especially since she comes from the highest caste of her society. It ends, in a literal but understated way, with her coming to grips with being untouchable (allowing another untouchable to touch her hand). To me, that's the perfect ending. You don't know how she continues to handle being untouchable. Society doesn't change and suddenly accept her. But her character arc is complete (as much as a short story allows--this story did become the setting for my current novel in progress, and the character one of the principal characters). It's an ending that fits the opening. But there seem to be other types of readers, and I'm not surprised that IGMS fits in here, who want a more definitive ending, who want the story to play out longer, and I wonder if it ties into being more firmly within the popular confines of the genre. I don't think that explanation covers it all--the readers in my critique group for that story I worked on yesterday wouldn't fall into that explanation. But if so, that's probably good--my target is the markets more on the literary end of the genre as opposed to the pop end.

Or maybe I'm just rationalizing it for myself and I really should develop the endings more, push them a little further. I'll take a look again before I send yesterday's rejected story to another market and see.


I'm glad you posted this, because I've been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately--trying to find that thin line between understatement and over-explaining. It always seemed that the general wisdom I heard was to trust your readers to fill in the necessary blanks, yet I feel like when I'm doing that, I frequently get the "the story's good, but you should have explained A, B and C" type comments.

But it's so hard to tell when it's you not doing enough or when it's simply a case of the reader's preference. I have one story on which the first few rejections said it wasn't fleshed out enough. So I fleshed it out, and the very next rejection said the story was over-explained.

In other words, I'm glad it's not just me racking my brain over this sort of thing. :p
Daniel Ausema said…
Trust your reader--that's exactly what I was talking about, the advice I remember from creative writing classes back in college. And I can see on some stories that I've trusted the reader too much. But...
visionbird said…

Thought I posted one the other day, but I guess I didn't press the final button to upload the comment!

Anyway, the story sounds really interesting to me. Have you tried sending it to any press that is primarily literary but accepts speculative works? It would be ineresting to see if they accept less clear cut endings, or if their comments are different than more genre based publishers.

Cheers and good luck with it!
Daniel Ausema said…
Thanks--I hope the story will be somewhere you could read it soon! I haven't yet decided where to try next, but we'll see. When I look at the places I've tried...there was at least one more literary one that I thought I'd submitted it to but hadn't yet. Several of the places it's been kept it for several months, so it seems like I've sent it to more than I have. It really got very good comments from IGMS, so I don't want to beat on them--but they certainly are more genre-centric than most of my stories.

So we'll see what I try next. =)
visionbird said…
Cool! I'm looking forward to seeing it out there!