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The last line ruined it.

So, I found a "gift" in my in-box, a short story from someone who normally sends a newsletter my way. In it was a very touching, well written story, that had tears in my eyes until I got to the last line.

I'm going to back up here. I want to note that I'm not offended by stories where God (be it the God of the storyteller or the God of the characters) is important. One of my all time favorite movies is Amadeus, which is really the story of how Solieri grapples with his faith in God, his belief that God gave him musical talent to use to praise God--and his crisis of faith caused by the fact (in his view) that God gave the very irreverent Mozart more talent than He gave Solieri. Now, I don't know if the real Solieri felt this way, but the movie-Solieri was fascinating and his story riveted me, all because of his relationship with God.

There's plenty of other great stories where God (or some metaphor for God) is an integral character or at least an integral part of one or more characters' experience of the world. What would Star Wars be without The Force? Or Narnia without Aslan?

But this story--this was a tale of a boy who saw someone being picked on and instead of walking away reached out, offering friendship with the very simple act of helping to pick up books that had been tossed to the ground. In beautiful, clean prose, I saw the friendship's inception and I read how it blossomed and grew.  Finally, the story climaxes with the second boy, now valedictorian of his class, admitting for the first time that he'd planned to commit suicide that day, and didn't because at that low point in his life a stranger befriended him. I had tears in my eyes from reading this beautiful story about the power of simple human kindness.

Then I got to the last line, wherein the author (admittedly still in first-person narrative format) writes that God places us where we are needed.

It threw me right out of the story.  One moment I had tears in my eyes and a view of the young man in his cap and gown at the podium, and the next I was sitting there thinking about the author's choice to use this story to--what? Proselytize? Preach? In short, I was thinking about the author's religion and politics instead of about the story itself.

Then, of course (being a writer), I was analyzing my own reactions to the story--my reaction before I got to the final preachy line, and my reaction to that line.  It totally changed my experience of the story.  Wow--how powerful a single sentence can be!

I ended up thinking about how we experience stories, about how much of our experience of a story is what we bring to the story, and how what we bring--or don't bring--interacts with what the author put there.

I bet there are people who didn't mind that last line--but I also bet those are people who brought God to the story, who added Him into it from the very first line.  I didn't.  I'm as likely to read stories by or about atheists as by or about believers in one religion or another.  For that last line to work for me, I would have needed God to show up in the story itself.  For instance, I think perhaps if the two boys had become altar boys together or otherwise were portrayed as religious, the last line wouldn't have jarred me out of the intense, inspiring experience I was having up to that point.

It's kind of the opposite of "deus ex machina", that term for the variety of flawed writing where the author can't figure out how to empower the characters, so  (in essence) a miracle is plopped into the story to fix things.  Here, the characters did it all by themselves, no miracle was needed--but then God was plopped into the story so He could be given the credit at the end.

Heh--I guess it says something about me that instead of worrying about whether God should or should not be in a story like this, I spent all this time analyzing story writing technique and trying to understand why the author's chosen last line didn't work for me!



( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 25th, 2011 07:10 am (UTC)
It's kind of the reverse of Chekov's smoking gun - if the gun suddenly appears but was never mentioned before, the reader becomes irritated that the author isn't playing fair.
Nov. 25th, 2011 07:56 am (UTC)
Yes, that's definitely part of it!

But also, I was getting this great emotional experience about the goodness of people, and how much difference we can make in each other's lives, and suddenly the author was no longer supporting the message that was meaning so much to me in that moment. I felt kind of like I was promised strawberry ice cream, put the spoon in my mouth, and found lemon sherbet instead.
Nov. 26th, 2011 03:25 am (UTC)
I could see that as well. -_- If the narrator was a churchgoer and someone who prayed regularly, it'd make sense. Ah well! It's proof that sometimes cutting from a story does make the story better. };)
Nov. 26th, 2011 06:05 pm (UTC)
Or proof that cutting from a story can ruin it--no way to know if the author originally had some references in there to saying prayers or being on the Church softball league or taking food to the elderly on Christmas.

Reminds me, there's a group of Minnesota Pagans who deliver food to the elderly on Christmas _because_ that's not their holiday, and it leaves the regular volunteers able to be with their families for Christmas while still giving the old folks both their food and friendly Christmas company.
Nov. 26th, 2011 06:17 pm (UTC)
Could be, re: cutting supporting evidence! Though if I were writing a story about God helping people through mysterious ways, it would be about faith through actions, not ritual, and it would have to contrast those approaches through the story to properly explore the theme. Like, maybe the bullies go to church, the victim doesn't, and the kid brings the victim to church and suddenly the bullies are forced with having to be nice to someone they viewed as a target!

The way you describe the story makes it sound like something tacked on at the end.
Nov. 26th, 2011 07:28 pm (UTC)
It felt very much "tacked on to the end" to me.
Nov. 26th, 2011 06:51 pm (UTC)
That's a surprisingly charitable way of putting it. I've read things that made me feel similar, and it's more like being promised strawberry ice cream and getting spoiled liver.

Even when it's not set up to be a particularly jarring surprise, the religious message displeases me on two levels. First, regardless of what flavor of religion is being invoked, I absolutely believe in free will; the idea that God is directing everything is anathema to me. I get the strength to make it through life as well as I do from the knowledge that the decisions I struggle to reach are my own. To believe that they're only an illusion, that some other power or natural force is really running them, would sap the limited will I have to make choices and do things at all. Second, I have been exposed to so much of the nasty, un-Christ-like sort of Christianity that is so visible today that anything that remotely smacks of it raises a strong reaction.
Nov. 26th, 2011 08:00 pm (UTC)
It is true that there have been a large number of people who vocally proclaim themselves Christians who do not exhibit what I was taught is "good Christian behavior".

Knowing that we are all fallible, I try not to judge whether these people are actually Christians. It's not my right to tell them their self-labeling is inaccurate. But I compare them to the many charitable and open-minded Christians I've known, including the majority of the nuns and priests I've known personally, and I feel both sad and outraged that the intolerant hypocrites are so often the Christians that give a face to the religion.

Unlike many Pagans, I don't have an antipathy toward my birth religion engendered by un-Christian behavior. I can see a lot of good in that religion, but that doesn't mean it's the right path for me. My reasons for not following my birth religion can be pretty well summed up into two categories--first, the disrespect I felt as a girl because the Christian Churches have enshrined women into a lower status than men, and secondly the fact that the mystical experiences I've had do not match the stories of that religion.

As to free will, most Christians would say that God caused you to be in a position to see someone in trouble, but whether you take action or not, and what action you take, is totally up to you. But still--I do empathize with what you're saying. It offends me that so many people want to give credit for all "good works" to God, but blame for everything else to humans. The logic is flawed, and the attitude is uncharitable/unkind. Either the good and the bad you do should be equally attributed to you, or you should be let off the hook for all of it. Getting to own only the bad stuff seems like a very bad deal indeed!
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 26th, 2011 09:26 am (UTC)
I have nothing against God (though there are many different views of who he, she, zie, or they might be).

I will admit to having had bad experiences with a number of people who worship a deity that could be the God in this story, however, I've also had too many bad experiences with people who think that everyone else should see the world the way they do. However, those issues aren't with the real or imagined power of God, those issues are all about the very real behavior of people.

The last line didn't taint the goodness of the protagonist for me at all. The things you mention as part of that line of thought don't match my views or experience of the story or of religious people I know in life. But that is really not the central point. The central point is that the last line jolted me out of the story so that I was no longer thinking about him or his virtue, or even about the power of human kindness.

That is at least partially why I strongly disagree it would have been "wrong" for the narrator to have mentioned God earlier in the story. To the contrary, I believe that if the point of a story is how God works in people's actions, then it is wrong to tell the story in a way that could allow an attentive reader to assume the narrator is an atheist. After all, the concept of no-God exists, and there's plenty of people who are certain that there is no God.

Edited at 2011-11-26 09:26 am (UTC)
Nov. 25th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
Trying again.
I was thinking about the author's religion and politics instead of about the story itself.

Yes. Exactly.

You immersed yourself in the story's reality in good faith, trying to make it your own for the duration of the story. That's not power you're giving God; that's power you're giving the writer, and the usual name for it is willing suspension of disbelief.

And then suddenly it all turns out to be a cheat. The reality you'd been lured into, the reality we would all like to believe in--where people can choose to do good, where small acts of kindness can build into life-changing friendships--all turns out to have been a painted scrim meant to fool the eye until the author whisks it away to reveal--Ta DA!--god, from whom all blessings flow. And don't you feel silly that you didn't assume he was behind it all along?

It's as unsatisfying as if she'd whisked it away to reveal Chairman Mao, the concept of whom also exists, and to whom some people also give credit for the good in this world.

If God had been present in the story all along, that would not be the same kind of problem. The act of reading a story includes believing in things the reader wouldn't ordinarily buy--talking animals, monsters under the bed, whatever.

The problem is having all the characters' good decisions and good faith and effort and trust turn out to be due to the monster under the bed even though she only turns up in the last sentence.
Nov. 26th, 2011 08:38 am (UTC)
Re: Trying again.
Stories are supposed to lure people into different realities. That's one of the reasons I like first person and very close third person so much. I get to live life as someone else for a little while, someone with different skills, different experiences, different beliefs.

But when you don't set a variable early in the story, you let the reader fill it in. If the reader fills in one value, and then the writer later puts in something quite different, the story doesn't work for that reader.

A good example is one of the first guided meditations I was part of. The guide told us all to imagine we were at our favorite beach. My favorite beach, at that point was on Lake Michigan. I had the scene all pictured, the burning hot sand underfoot, the shockingly cold water, the dunes in the background, and the warm breeze in my hair. The guide told us to walk along the beach and I did, stopping every few paces to bury my feet a couple of inches into the sand to find the cooler, damp sand there, letting my skin cool a bit before proceeding further. Then the guide told us to step into the warm water--

Well, that was that. My favorite beach doesn't have warm water, not ever, not even on the hottest day in late summer.

It was a beginner's mistake, assuming that everyone's favorite beach had warm water lapping its shores.

Returning to this particular story, my assessment is that the assumption in question is not simply a beginner's mistake. There's a huge body of stories out there that enshrine this particular ethnocentric view of the world.

I don't think it was meant to be a cheat, though I must admit I felt cheated. I felt cheated because a wonderful story that was relevant to me, that touched my heart, suddenly seemed to be merely manipulative propaganda for a certain, limited view of deity.

You made me laugh, here, using the monster under the bed as a metaphor for the God in the story. Thanks.
Nov. 27th, 2011 01:59 am (UTC)
Re: Trying again.
:-) You're welcome, and I'm glad it spoke to you.

I grew up on the West Coast. Beaches didn't have warm water.

The first time I walked into the Atlantic I was very surprised.
Nov. 25th, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
If there's anything worse than glurge, it's liturgical glurge. If it's any consolation, there's very like versions of that story wandering the internet with the God-add-on.
Nov. 26th, 2011 08:41 am (UTC)
Oh, I know there are--both on the internet and elsewhere. Happily, however, there's not lots of versions of similar stories with the God-add-on in my e-mail!

Glurge--what a wonderful word.

Nov. 26th, 2011 12:11 pm (UTC)
It does seem like an extraordinarily apt word for this kind of stuff. :)
Nov. 25th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC)
You know why it bothers you? The same reason that very line bothered me, years ago, when I read this story. It's bad writing!

The story pulls you along, touches your heartstrings, lulls you into a sense of what YOU THINK the story is about--the kindness and fortitude of humanity--and then SLAM! It TELLS you what you've already been shown. Gadzooks, I hate that. It slams you over the head with a message that, if you are a religious person, already got and, if you are NOT a religious person, also already got! Instead of letting you take your own message and interpretation from the piece, it TELLS YOU WHAT IT WANTS YOU TO TAKE FROM IT!!!

And that's just bad writing, plain and simple.
Nov. 26th, 2011 08:47 am (UTC)
There are stories that put a moral at the end that I like--but those are like the punch line of a joke, an integral part of the story, not an intrusive add-on.

Jan. 9th, 2013 09:44 pm (UTC)
I remember reading that story a while ago. I don't remember that last line. But if it were there, I expect my reaction was on the order of "Oh Crikey! (eye roll)" and I promptly forgot the entire story.
Jan. 10th, 2013 05:28 am (UTC)
"Oh, Crikey!"
Yeah! That. Except I had to go analyze my reaction!

( 19 comments — Leave a comment )


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