Friday, March 16, 2012

Not a "Setup" Story

A "setup" story is our term for any piece of fiction that promises the reader a good story, but never gets around to delivering it. We get a few of these in every contest. Sometimes they read like the first chapter of a novel. The problem is, stories like that don't work without the rest of the novel.

The first time I read our third Honorable Mention story in Issue 16, The Hand of God, I wondered if it was a "setup" story. I felt closure at the end of it, though, so I didn't think it was. I took a deep look at it to figure out why I found the ending so satisfying, when one could argue the story leaves enormous, and important, questions unanswered.

Without spoiling anything, here's why I think the story is complete, rather than just a setup. The first key is, the reader knows more than the protagonist. The protagonist is a kid, and is interpreting everything through a kid's eyes. We can read between the lines and see more about what's going on, and more importantly, what's going to happen next, than the kid can. 

I think this story exemplifies OTP's theory of what a story does and needs to do. Does the story raise questions in the reader's mind about the story's elements? Definitely. Does it address those questions? (Note that I didn't say "answer," I said "address.") Yes, it does. Does it answer them completely? No, but it does answer one question pretty thoroughly, and that's the question of how life in this town has coped with its weird event, and how this kid is coping. Furthermore, we think we can extrapolate what's going to happen next, at least to a degree.

That last point might be the most important. Because we can guess with some certainty what's going to happen to the characters after the story officially ends, we don't need to read about it. Adding more scenes to the story would make the story dull unless those scenes added believable, but unexpected, new events.

In fact, the only way to make The Hand of God longer would have been to add a new series of events that fit the world, but did not fit our expectations. Since the story doesn't do that, we can assume our suspicions about what comes next are correct. That means the story does not tell an ending or even show an ending. Instead, it evokes an ending in our minds by leading us to a conclusion that we can't avoid.

Therefore, to us, The Hand of God is not a setup story, but a complete story that evokes an ending we supply ourselves. And we liked it enough that it made "Honorable Mention."

For fun, compare the evoked ending to The Hand of God to the ending of A League of Pity (first-place winner), which leaves absolutely no doubt in any reader's mind about what happens next: nothing of consequence. League's last paragraph ends the story completely. (Is that why it takes first place? No. I'm just making the comparison to show you there's more than one effective way to end a story.)

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