Chekhov, no twist!

I’ve been reading a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov, and am enjoying it immensely. His characters are so bright and clear and amped-up that you can’t help but love or hate them. But more than any of that, I absolutely love the lack of twist endings in his stories.

Anton Chekhov, if you’re not familiar, wrote in the 1880’s and 1890’s, and is considered by many to be the ‘father’ of the short story. And I have to say, I prefer him to most of his offspring. It is hard to describe how refreshing it is to read a story that doesn’t try to rip the rug out from under me in the last sentence every. single. time. A story that says what it’s trying to say, and then ends, without having to manufacture a shock that turns everything you just read on its head, or somehow reverses the meaning of something important. Instead, I get to the end, and it’s over. His stories are not all preamble to some endorphin-triggering key word. They are not just a fuse leading to an explosion. They are enjoyable for themselves.

After reading Chekhov’s stories, I became very aware that today’s short stories, at least in the non-literary genres, are basically distilled twist. If there is not some shock or surprising reveal or reversal at the end, then what is the point of writing it? I fear, is what people think. Well the point, like any writing, is to make someone feel or think or identify or understand something. And there are plenty of things other than surprise that a story can make you feel.

I am learning a lot from these stories, and this is definitely going to affect my own writing in the future. I heavily recommend reading Chekhov to anyone who wants to write short stories!

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Sharp Objects blunted by twist ending

This post contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen HBO’s Sharp Objects, you’re in for a treat, go watch it. Then come back and read.

 

Sharp Objects is a show you have to pay attention to. It’s smart, and subtle, and you can miss entire plot points if you look away for even a few seconds. What I loved so much about Sharp Objects wasn’t the story as much as how it was told. That is, the story was shown, rather than told. You pick up clues, make inferences, put together implications and build for yourself the picture of what’s going on. It is supremely satisfying to be treated like an intelligent, observant, perceptive viewer.

And that’s why the ‘twist’ ending was such a shock to me. Not because the the actual revelation that Amma was a killer was a shock, there was enough hints and cues and clues throughout this very thoughtful and subtle show to put it together–if we’d been given the chance. The shock was that a show this subtle and evocative felt the need for something as trite as a twist ending at all. I expected a show like Sharp objects to leave me thinking, puzzling, wondering, with as many questions as answers.

Instead Sharp Objects ended like a teen slasher movie with the best buddy who you think has been helping the whole time suddenly baring fangs or pulling out a knife. Oh no, what a twist. Amma may as well have stepped into frame covered in blood and holding a handful of teeth.

At the very least if they’d cut it with Camille finding the tooth in the dollhouse (which had the nice out of focus shot of the doll sitting limp in the window to remind you of the original murder scene), you’d have a moment to think about it for yourself. You might think: ‘why would Amma have teeth… did she take them from her mother… or…’ then your mind rolls back over the show, you make connections, you get that ‘oh, god…’ moment. It’s satisfying to be shown instead of told the answer.

But we get it rubbed in our face by Amma showing up like a ghost who lost their jump scare violins ‘Don’t tell mama!’ And if that wasn’t enough, we have the post-credit scene to really hammer it home for any dummies in the audience who didn’t catch on. It left a disappointing taste in my mouth after such a monumentally impressive show.

All this leaves aside the question of why we need twist endings anyway. I know Sharp Objects was based on a novel, so to leave out the twist would have been a disservice to the author and fans. But why does a good show or movie need a twist at all? Why do so many authors and directors feel obligated to include one? Wasn’t it surprising enough that Camille’s own mother was the killer without having to flip everything on its head in the last seconds of the entire show?

Sharp Objects was about so much more than just who killed those girls. In fact, while watching it I was hardly ever concerned with that question. I wanted to know about Camille’s history, her family, her past and future. And I got to learn all that and more. That is what got me excited while watching Sharp Objects. Ending on a goofy twist that puts all the focus on the ‘who dunnit’ aspect seems like a major disservice.

Anyone who stuck with this show to the end is not going to be afraid of subtlety and ambiguity. Those aspects were the hallmarks of this exceedingly sharp show. It’s a shame it had to end in such a blunt way.