Last Friday I went to a presentation of artwork done by the children of the art program my son just finished. A friend's daughter was also there, though she wasn't in my son's class, and I got to look at her work. Her group did a day where they created an Eric Carle style picture to be the cover of a short story they wrote.
My friend's daughter's book had a brightly colored, mostly pink, cat on it. It was all sorts of cute. But the thing that got my attention was the story... When she showed me the book, the girl said the story was really bad. This may be evidence she's destined to be a writer because she was wrong about that.
The tale was about a girl who wanted to be a cat. She goes to a farm run by a magic user and makes her wish. And now the farm is guarded by a cat statue.
Yep, that's right. The girl gets turned into a statue of a cat.
Isn't that awesome?
I really wasn't expecting such a dark twist there in the last line. Which is, of course, why it works.
Part of the surprise came from the cover, which was very pink and girly. If it had been dark and Goth and looked like something I'd wear on a t-shirt, I wouldn't have been as delighted by the ending because I wouldn't have been expecting things to turn out well. And part of the surprise came from knowing the author, who feels I shouldn't wear so many skulls even if they do have heart-shaped eyes. But a large part came from the story simply seeming innocent and happy right up to the closer.
There's a lesson there about reader expectation. Defying it can seriously strengthen the impact of a story's ending. But one has to be careful. A lot of people wouldn't have liked the ending of the cat story and would have felt betrayed rather than delighted. I think it's easier to pull this kind of switch in shorter fiction than in novels because the reader's invested less time in it and thus are less tied to their notion of how it's going to end. Rather than saying, “I spent a week reading this and you end it like that???” they're out only a few minutes of their time. It gives you a lot of freedom.
I've never felt drawn to writing short stories, but I have to admit my friend's daughter has me feeling inspired.