How to Write Break the Contract with Your Reader

11 Jun
Murray Farish's story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about X, X, and X.

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken.

In stories and novels, we occasionally write ourselves into corners of inevitability. The story dictates that a particular thing must come next, but we can’t or don’t want to write that ending. Often this is because the ending is going to be unpleasant for everyone involved: characters, readers, and writer. So what do we do? We can scrap or rewrite the story, or we can find a way to write the inevitable ending in a way that honors the narrative momentum that has been built but also changes the way we think about that narrative. Sometimes, this means breaking the contract with the reader—a big no-no in workshop but sometimes a necessary risk to take.

In his story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” Murray Farish writes an ending that radically shifts point of view and tone. You can read it now at FiveChapters. Tomorrow, Farish will talk about the risks of writing this kind of ending.

How the Story Works

Every story makes a contract with the reader—or, as various quotable writers have said, works of fiction teach their readers how to read them. This means that the first paragraph of stories and novels teaches the reader how the narrative will proceed in terms of point of view, style, and tone. Here is the first paragraph of “Inappropriate Behavior”:

George and Miranda Putnam have been called to another meeting at their son’s school. It’s hard for Miranda to get off work, but she’s going to be there. For George, it’s no problem, and there’s a part of him that’s glad for something to do. There’s a part of him that’s glad to have another grievance to nurse deep into the night. For Miranda, in this economy, this is all a real inconvenience.

The terms of the contract have been set. The story will be told in third person, switching between George and Miranda’s points of view, closer to George’s than Miranda’s. The tone is pretty straightforward—some version of realism. Of course, there is room to move within these terms, but if, for instance, the story shifts into extended first-person narration or if Godzilla rumbles onto the page, the reader might drop the story and walk away. Broken contracts don’t normally bode well for a work of fictions’ relationship with its readers.

Now watch how Farish begins the final section of this story:

Once upon a time, there was a man. He lived with his wife and his son in what he’d always been told was the greatest country in the world. God-loved and manifest. A city upon a hill. Commensurate to his capacity for wonder. The last, best hope of Earth. Then when the man reached what should have been his happiest and safest and most productive years, everything went wrong.

Farish has switched from close third person to a much more distant point of view. George is now “a man.” This change is straining against the bounds of the contract, but nothing has been broken yet. Then, Farish switches the focus of the point of view, from George to his son, Archie:

Their son watched all of this, and he was a smart boy. Everyone thought he was stupid, but he wasn’t. He didn’t understand why everyone thought he was stupid, but it didn’t matter, because he knew he wasn’t. The boy watched his parents. He knew they were scared. But the boy was not scared.

Again, this change is pushing against everything the reader has accepted and known thus far, but it’s a discomfort the reader will likely adapt to. It’s not like Godzilla has appeared on the page:

As soon as the father got in his car, a monster picked up his car and threw it all the way to where the boy couldn’t see. The boy got his sword and Mr. Carrots got his laser, and the boy said the spell to go through the door so they could rescue the apartment complex. Then they killed the monster.

Okay, now the contract is broken. How does Farish pull it off? Some readers will say that he doesn’t. Any narrative risk that a writer takes is bound to alienate some readers, and it’s not because those readers lack sophistication. At a certain point, liking a book isn’t about the book’s quality but about the readers’ taste. Some readers will give a story more leeway to break against expectations. That said, this story tries to set up the reader for the extreme change it has in store. First, as I wrote yesterday, the story continually breaks the frame of its own narration, which makes the reader comfortable with a story that will reach beyond its immediate setting. Second, the story eases into the ending, first tweaking the distance in the third-person POV and then changing the person that the POV follows. When the POV shifts from George to Archie, the tone necessarily changes as well, and it’s not unexpected. We’ve gotten to know Archie pretty well over the course of the story. So, Farish has set up the ending as much as possible.

But why make these changes at all? Why not stick with the terms of the contract? (Spoiler Alert) The story begins with Archie causing trouble at school, George out of work, and the stress taking a toll on George’s relationship with his wife Miranda. By the end, Archie has been removed from the school and placed in an alternative school for children with behavioral problems. George is still unemployed, his relationship with his wife has deteriorated, and they’ve lost their home. They’ve living in a small apartment in a dangerous part of town. Things are bad. Here is the scene that ends the story: George gets a call for an immediate job interview, but he has nowhere to go with Archie, who is at home. So George puts on Mario and tells the boy not to open the door; then he leaves for the interview. In this scene, nothing good can happen. Given the Job-like string of misfortune that has befallen the family, only a misfortune of the very worst kind can happen now. The way that the story must end is clear. And yet, as a reader, I don’t think I could bear it; it’s possible I might not finish the story. I’m not sure Farish, as the writer, could stand the ending, either.

So what is to be done with the story? Farish’s solution is to keep the scene but tell it from a POV that permits the reader to finish the story. It gives the reader enough emotional distance to keep going. In a way, by breaking the contract with the reader, the story works in partnership with the reader to create the ending.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write an ending that breaks the contract with the reader, using the ending from Murray Farish’s story “Inappropriate Behavior” as a model:

  1. Choose a story that you can’t finish. Every writer has unfinished stories stashed in a folder. Read through the story again and ask yourself this question: Given what has occurred in the story, what must happen at the end? Now, ask yourself a second question: Do you want to write that ending? If the answer is yes, then go ahead and write it. Sometimes you just need to look at the ending logically. But if the answer is no, then you need to figure out why. Does the ending feel wrong? In other words, does it not fit your sense of the characters and place and tone? If so, you’ll need to adjust the way you’ve handled the characters, place, and tone (and what happens to them) so that you can get to the ending that is right for the story. You likely took a wrong turn somewhere; you’ll need to go back and find it. But perhaps the ending is right, and the problem is you don’t want to do that to your characters. In that case, you need to find a way to do what needs to be done.
  2. Try out different ways to break the contract with the reader. The most likely way to break the contract is to change the POV. Can you change the amount of distance in the point of view (close to distant third person)? You probably can’t switch from third to first. You might be able to switch from first to third. You can also switch the character at the focus of the POV. If you do this, you will also likely change the tone of the story since the character will have a different sense of the world. Another way to break the contract is to jump forward in time. Or go back in time. This type of break is more common but carries the same level of risk. Whatever type of break you choose, you should choose it intentionally. You can’t sneak a change past the reader.
  3. Ease into the break. What smaller changes can you make to prepare the reader for the big change? Farish first changes the distance of the point of view. Then he changes the focus (man to boy). Finally, he drastically changes the tone. Think about the break that you’ve chosen. What are small ways that you can begin to push against the limits of the contract before finally breaking it? Doing so can prepare the reader for what you’ve got in store.

One final thing to keep in mind. Farish breaks the contract at the very end of a long story. If he had broken it halfway through, all readers probably would have quit. Keep in mind the readers’ psychology. If they see that there is only paragraph or so left in the story, they’re likely to keep reading. Every workshop teacher in the world will preach not breaking contracts with readers, but if you must do so (and sometimes you must), then try to do it in a way that makes it easier on the reader.

Good luck!

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