Stay True to Rodney

There’s a particular kind of story that shows up in my slush pile with depressing regularity. It’s characterized by the ending. Here’s an example (and pretty bad one, at that!):

Rodney aimed his gun at the betentacled horror that loomed over him. The creature roared at him in a voice that sounded like that of his beloved wife, Sheila.

“No, Rodney, no!” the foul creature roared.

But Rodney was not fooled. His beautiful Sheila was gone, long gone; she had been transformed by unspeakable eldritch powers into this drooling, ravenous beast. He pulled the trigger. The creature shrieked in agony and then died.

As Rodney stood over the body, panting, his vision seemed to clear, and he was aghast. It was Sheila laying at his feet, not a creature from the abyss! Oh no! He dipped his finger in her blood and wrote a message on the wall.

Then he raised the gun to his temple, and squeezed the trigger.

* * *

“Ewww,” said the cop, a rookie who had never worked a homicide before.

“Seen it a million times,” said his partner, a grizzled veteran. “Just don’t puke on the evidence.”

“You mean evidence like that message written in blood on the wall? That says ‘I KILLED THE MONSTER FROM THE ABYSS. I AM NOT CRAZY. REALLY.'”

“Yup,” said the veteran. “Tragic, ain’t it? Guy reads Lovecraft, goes insane, kills his wife, then himself. Yep, that’s what happened here. You can tell because she’s dead, and he’s crazy. That’s what happened. Saddest damn thing.”

Then they went to the old cop’s retirement party.


OK, see why that sucks? (I mean besides the clumsy prose, clich├ęd characters, and the tired reworking of Lovecraft.)

It’s insulting. I am smart enough to figure out that Rodney killed his wife and himself without the cop explaining it. Really.

It’s disengaging. Any time you shift POV in a short story, you risk losing the reader. You’re interrupting the connection I’ve formed with the character, and it takes a lot of skill to bridge that interruption so that the reader is transported easily. How much more disengaging is it when I’ve spent the entire story in Rodney’s head, watching with horror and empathy as his world disintegrates around him, only to find myself abruptly shoved off to two new characters that I don’t know about or care about?

It’s unnecessary. If the body of the story has done its work, you don’t need an extra scene to explain. If you find that your critique group is confused by your story, the answer is not to tack on an explanation, but to strengthen and clarify the main story so that your intent is unambiguous.

It’s oversimplified. Lots of stories create tension by ambiguity throughout–is Rodney insane? Or are there really eldritch forces at work? It’s Rodney’s story, and it’s his vision of the events. Don’t betray poor Rodney’s vision by replacing his experiences with a quick summary by a bored cop at the end. Stay true to Rodney.

It’s insecure. Have faith in your story and your skill and your audience.

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