Editing while airborne

The other day I posted a short story here called Airborne. If you haven’t read it then you may want to go back and take a look, it’s only short, and the rest of this won’t really make sense otherwise. Here it is: https://gamboling.co.uk/2011/02/08/airborne/

After reading the article on the site, my friend Fourstar let me know what he thought about it offline. One of the things he said was that he wasn’t sure the story needed the last line:

“Well, um, well… Honestly, I thought I had been dreaming, but…”

It’s an interesting point and something I thought about before I pressed ‘publish’. Without that line, the story has a very formal ending. If you imagine it like an episode of the Twilight Zone, this would be the moment that the opening title sequence kicks in with some music and the cheesy graphics.

The problem, for me, is that removing that line makes the story the main character is telling emphatically true to the reader. Ending it on that line would fit so much into the pattern that it would make the whole situation true. But is it true? Did he really see what he thought he saw? That’s what I was aiming at.

Perhaps shorter isn’t the way to go either? If, after where the story currently ends, there were an extra line, it would probably have involved the air stewardess looking at him unbelievingly. Then she’d probably say something about how she would just have to keep looking and our character would realise that both he and the stewardess are looking at his empty vodka and tonic glass.

Now if I had added that, it would have been more deliberately ambiguous. I tried to have my cake and eat it by stopping half-way between these two normal places to end. I probably overthink these things (this story was first written in October), and in this case it probably means that it satisfies neither set of reader (the ones who want it to be true and the ones who suspect it was a dream).

When writing this kind of short story, you are trying to arm a slingshot. What I always want to do when writing these very short mysterious stories is to set you up so that you can finish the story. Getting the last line correct is key to this. I’m always trying to find a good way to get you to wonder, ‘what happened next?’. I want to store up kinetic energy of plot and character in your head and then with the last line pull the trigger for you to continue the story yourself.

So I’m always wary of ending the story too formally because then you don’t get that effect. I think that if I had stopped a line earlier it would probably have been a better story. I think on balance I probably should have written more and made you deliberately question if he saw the man or was dreaming or drunk. That might have set you all going more. But I don’t know, what do you think?

Please do let me know, remember Fourstar mentioned what he thought and that might make the story better. I’d love to hear your comments, whatever they are.

5 thoughts on “Editing while airborne

  1. Nick Ollivere says:

    I’d argue that you might want to rewrite the whole conversation with the stewardess. Why? Well, it’s about a change in the theory of how you want the story to continue after its end, and how’s it’s been written up to that point. So far, everything exists in Stephan’s head – the ambiguity resides there alone. However, when you bring the stewardess in to acknowledge that there was a man sitting next to Stephan and that he’s now missing, you effectively force a conclusion. Something has to do be done, has to be resolved. We can imagine Stephan either deciding not to say anything, or saying what he saw. The search would continue and either the man will be found or not. By including the stewardess, and effectively the rest of the plane, you force the story down a finite number of routes.

    My suggestion, then, would be to rewrite that whole conversation and remove any explicit mention of the man next to him. The stewardess could simply be coming to Stephan with some other strange, but connected, concern. Or she could implicitly mention the missing man, but leave the reader uncertain as to what she’s suggesting. This way you introduce more options, but I have to admit it’ll be hard to hit just the right note. And this is, of course, just a theory.

  2. Christine says:

    This is fascinating.

    If it was me, I think I would not have the final four lines of conversation with the stewardess. So, she points at the empty seat, and then you could have Stephan look back out the window, then back at her.

    The ambiguity is still there – should he tell her, should he keep quiet so as not to seem crazy – but it’s moved up a bit.

  3. @Nick

    If leaving it totally ambiguous is the aim then perhaps that would be the best way to go? There is a chance to get to an outcome there where some people think he’s just been dreaming and that’s all that happened. Whereas now we currently think that the man has at least disappeared. So yes there would be even more options… But it might be hard to convince people that it might not be a dream. A tough one.

  4. @Christine

    I think this is probably the right place to go. Enough ambiguity. Not too much direction from the speech. On twitter it was mentioned to me that it seemed a little unrealistic that the guy could come up with something to say so quickly. I am usually wary of that kind of advice because it’s often only given when somebody is looking back and editing rather than something that you actually notice as a reader.* But in this case the advice is valid, I think, because his thinking and answering quickly and assuredly also alters the ambiguity.

    * This is like the situation with he said, she said. Lots of newbie editors mention this when they are looking through your manuscript because they have a vague memory of the mantra don’t repeat yourself. However “said” is a word like “it” and “and” and “the”. Readers don’t notice it. But if you change the word each line they soon will.

  5. Andy Theyers says:

    I loved it, but the last 5 lines jarred with me slightly. I had been wondering how I would have ended it myself. If, for example, simply deleting them would do?

    As previous commenters have said very short stories like this one live by their ambiguity.

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