Anniversary Contest Finalist #1 – Surprise Endings: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

This post, from PJ Kaiser, originally appeared on her Inspired By Real Life blog on 3/6/10 and is reprinted here in its entirety with her permission. This is PJ’s entry in our anniversary contest, in which the winners are selected based on total unique page views. So if you like it, and would like to see PJ become a regular Publetariat Contributor, spread the word and the link!

As readers of this blog will know, I’ve been writing stories and working on my novel for several months now and I am approaching the point where I am considering submitting some stories to literary magazines.  A few weeks ago, I started perusing some of the magazines listed at Duotrope’s Digest and I came across several magazines and online sites that admonish writers to avoid O. Henry endings.

The first one or two times I saw this warning, I didn’t take much notice.  But then as I began to see the same message over and over, I tried to interpret its meaning.  I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t violating some sort of unwritten – or, in some cases, written – rule with my stories.

I confess that if I have ever read an O. Henry story it has been many, many moons ago.  O. Henry was an American story writer who lived in the late 19th century/early 20th century.  He lived a short and difficult life but published scores of short stories during his lifetime.  So, I read a smattering of O. Henry stories and did some research and discovered that O. Henry endings are so notable that I found an entry referring to them in several online resources such as this site compiled by Dr. Wheeler of Carson-Newman College:

“O. HENRY ENDING: Also called a trick ending or a surprise ending, this term refers to a totally unexpected and unprepared-for turn of events, one which alters the action in a narrative. O. Henry endings usually do not work well with foreshadowing, but particularly clever artists may craft their narratives so that the foreshadowing exists in retrospect. The term comes from the short stories of O. Henry (a pen name for William Sidney Porter), which typically involve such a conclusion. Note that an O. Henry ending is usually a positive term of praise for the author’s cleverness. This is the opposite sentiment from a deus ex machina ending, in which the unexpected or unprepared-for ending strikes the audience as artificial, arbitrary, or unartful.”

Not all would agree with the assessment above that “O. Henry ending” is a positive term, as we shall see.  In trying to understand the O. Henry endings, we have to look at the relationship between the author and the reader.  I recently took a class with Stanford Continuing Education with the author Seth Harwood.  The class focused on creating suspense and Harwood explained that there are three ways to create suspense:

1) where the reader and the main character don’t know what’s going to happen and the reader learns what’s going on at the same time as the main character (e.g., a typical mystery novel in the Perry Mason tradition);
2) where the reader knows what’s going on but the main character doesn’t know the full story (e.g., a mystery where the reader has been given some additional insight such as seeing a murder take place or knowing that the ‘bad guy’ is nearby); and
3) where the writer and the main character know some critical information that the reader doesn’t.  In this case, the reader is often left feeling deceived.

Suspense works best with the first two approaches because the reader has more identification with and empathy for the main character and is hoping that everything turns out ok in the end.  In the third approach, the writer has employed deception and has betrayed the reader’s trust.  Harwood went on to say that the ending to a story using the third approach is likely to be met with groans rather than applause.  Many stories that have surprise endings use this third approach.

So, let’s consider some examples of O. Henry’s writing.  Some of his most well-known stories use the surprise ending to great effect.  “The Gift of the Magi”, “The Retrieved Reformation” and “The Ransom of Red Chief” all employ some element of surprise in the ending, but we learn of the events along with the main characters and they are as surprised as we are at the endings.  This is why these stories work well.

I came upon two examples of his stories that have surprise endings that, for different reasons, do not work well in my view.  “The Girl” appears to be a story about a man proposing marriage to a girl, but in the end it is revealed that the man is not proposing marriage at all but is trying to hire a cook.  This ending had me rolling my eyes.  “The Pendulum” is a very believable story and, especially for a cynical reader, the ending is understandable, but the way the ending was written was very unsatisfactory to me.  It used a sort of literary trick in that rather than trying to explain the reason John, the main character, reverts back to the status quo, the story points to an abstract notion the author refers to as “the Order of Things.”

In further exploring why writers should stay away from “O. Henry endings,” I consulted with Seth Harwood (mentioned above) and Victoria Mixon, a professional writer and editor.  They both had some terrific insights and they can be boiled down to these points:

  • Harwood pointed out that because O. Henry was so prolific and virtually all of his stories involved surprise endings, this approach is “well done and finished.”  So, literary magazines may come away from reading a story with a surprise ending simply thinking “been there, done that.”  They are looking for fresh, modern voices …”in the sense of ‘making it new’ and not just ‘new to you.’”
  • Harwood also emphasized the point that surprise endings are “very hard to do well and all too easy to do terribly.”  The bottom line is that literary journals are looking for good writing and the writer who is relying heavily on surprise endings tends not to be focused on the quality of the writing (I’m paraphrasing).
  • Mixon put it very well by saying, “…there is a big difference between surprising the reader and tricking them.”  This comes back to the description above of the three ways to build suspense and the need to avoid the third approach.  The element of surprise is a mainstay in literature and when it’s done well, “You do that with an ending that throws a whole new light on the story while at the same time feeling like the inevitable conclusion this story must have been headed toward all along.”  (Mixon also promises me that she will be writing about this very topic in her upcoming book!)

I hope this post has provided you with some insight about the perils of surprise endings.  Thanks for reading!