Exploring the art of prose


Diane Williams and a Taxonomy of Flash Fiction Endings


By Matthew Duffus •

In a June 2014 interview with The White Review, Diane Williams described one of her writing goals as “to provide some mystery, a place to meditate, where I might be nearing a new insight, if in fact I haven’t reached it.” In keeping with this, Williams aims to elicit emotional responses from readers at the same time that she refuses to provide easy solutions to her characters’ problems. This balancing act is evident in her endings, which risk abruptness in their desire “to provide some mystery.” Considered carefully, such endings suggest one distinction between traditional short fiction and its briefer subgenre: where longer stories typically end with some type of resolution, Williams often chooses to conclude before this resolution, at a moment when her characters first glimpse the larger significance of events, leaving readers to fill in the rest for themselves.

Williams’s 2016 collection Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine offers a masterclass in flash-fiction writing. Consisting almost entirely of short-shorts, the book contains numerous works that defy readers’ expectations for resolution and closure. Throughout this collection, Williams ends stories before their natural conclusions, leaving readers straining toward insights her characters may never achieve. Two interrelated types of endings are commonly found in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine: the ominous and the narrative-interruption. These categories highlight the possibilities available to flash-fiction writers and elucidate some of the challenging stories found in this excellent collection.

Like many Williams stories, “Cinch” presents the thoughts, attitudes, and dialogue of a single character, making it a fictional version of a dramatic monologue. While many readers and reviewers often conflate Williams and her (often) female narrators, this one is certainly a distinct, separate character, one who dedicates fewer words to his abuse of his spouse than to the rec room he’s building for their house: “So I slapped her and drilled holes for anchor bolts, used a shim to level bedplates and my half-inch nuts to secure the bedplates.” He describes the end of their relationship coming sometime after his wife Tamara “behaved unfavorably toward me, for I had laid my hands on her small-sized, stooped back, or I had prodded her.” She is replaced by Hesper, who first notices the gopher hole that has appeared in the yard. “After you catch a gopher,” the narrator explains, “you tap it headfirst, dead, right back into the hole! That’s good fertilizer.”

The relish with which the narrator describes this activity contrasts with the matter-of-fact way he abused Tamara, a contrast that evolves into a conflation at the end of the story, when he asks, “But after I put to death a friendship, a marriage?” Ominously, he offers no straightforward answer to this question, nor does he elaborate on how one “put[s] to death” such a relationship. The story ends with an even more ominous paragraph, quoted in full: “There are people to take their places, who move in from other areas, of course. There are people who are dedicated to the true good, who work toward this goal. There are animals that may not.” His version of a friendship—or marriage—with Tamara has ended and been replaced by one with Hesper, who “is so perfectly content to pursue me,” a form of “dedicat[ion] to the true good” of building a marriage, and a rec room. Conversely, the gopher—and, by extension, Tamara—is an “animal” whose existence is at odds with this “true good.” At the end of “Cinch,” readers look back at the seemingly innocuous statement, “By the next May, Tamara had departed” and wonder if she, too, has become “good fertilizer” for the narrator’s yard. In this way, Williams leaves us productively struggling to thread together the strands of this story, as we are forced to reconsider all aspects of its brief form in light of the warning contained in its ending.

Unlike “Cinch,” with its subtle narrative style, “Head of the Big Man” features an assertive third-person narrator who continually inserts herself in the story, which spans a remarkable stretch of chronological time for flash fiction. The story begins mundanely enough, with a sentence of setting and character description, but the second sentence cuts off any thought that this opening will be typical of the story as a whole: “It is not our purpose to say anything imprecise about their scheme, how they had gotten on with tufted and fringed furniture, with their little tables, a parquet floor, a bean pot.” While this sentence adds detail to the description present in the opening, it leaves readers wondering what the narrator’s “purpose” truly is. Similarly, the narrator reappears in the fourth paragraph, asking, “But what kind of confident people behave poorly by not being confident enough?” Soon after this, we learn that Elrida Cupit, ostensibly the protagonist of the story, has suffered the loss of three of her four children and her first husband in a drowning accident. She tries to recover by marrying Blade Cupit and bearing several more children; but later in life she withdraws from the world, opting to see no one besides her husband, at dinner, who often “left the table before she arrived and then edged himself up the back stairs.” We never learn what made this formerly “rough riding” man of “numerous good works” afraid of his wife, but that seems to be the implication. Instead, the story flashes forward, to after their deaths, when their mansion is “open to tourists who were apt to get exhausted touring it.”

At first glance, the story seems to end where it began: with description of the Cupits’ luxurious home. But our narrator is not finished interjecting. The final two paragraphs, separated by a space break, consist of one sentence apiece, which both celebrate the Cupits and warn readers of the dire consequences of appearing in a Diane Williams story:

None of this would have been possible without the involvement of morally strong, intelligent people who were then spent.

Young farmers and rural characters, obstetrical nurses, scholars, clergy—all the rest!—will have their great hopes realized more often than not—unless I decide to tell their stories.

On the one hand, we have acclaim for the “morally strong, intelligent” Cupits; on the other, we see them “spent” and in their graves, as though the point of the story is not to depict characters in their preferred setting—their mansion—but to reduce their lives to its merest essence: life, childbirth, success and disconnection, and death. Here, Williams ends on a note of caution. Beware, all those readers who look for enchantment in books, who long to lead the types of lives dramatized in their favorite authors’ works. If one ends up in a Diane Williams story, one should not expect a happy ending.

Looking at these stories with an eye toward their endings, I cannot help but notice the menacing qualities they share. “Cinch” implies that the narrator has occasioned the death of his wife, Tamara, so that he can replace her with a more accommodating spouse. “Head of the Big Man” concludes with a warning from the narrator regarding the types of people, and events, that end up in her stories. What can we make of this commonality? I want to make it clear that not every story in the collection ends in such a troubling manner. Taken as a whole, however, the percentage of stories that do end this way is probably akin to the work of Flannery O’Connor or early Raymond Carver, to name two writers of longer stories. Ultimately, Williams’s attempt “to provide some mystery, a place to meditate, where [she] might be nearing a new insight, if in fact [she] ha[s]n’t reached it” succeeds thanks to her expectation that readers do the work of filling in the gaps.

I could imagine some readers being frustrated by this open-ended technique, but Williams succeeds in crafting endings that require a reconsideration of the whole, almost akin to the volta at the end of a sonnet. One can no more discuss the ending of her stories without referring back to what came before, the “place[s] to meditate,” so to speak. To my mind, this is part of what makes Williams stand out among the many flash-fiction writers active today. Her stories benefit from rereading in a way that the work of many of her contemporaries does not. In trusting her readers to fill in the “insights” that she rarely allows her characters to experience for themselves, she demands the type of active reading that we should all be encouraged to do.


MATTHEW DUFFUS is the author of the novel Swapping Purples for Yellows and the forthcoming story collection Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories (October 2020). He lives in rural North Carolina and can be found online at matthewduffus.com or @DuffusMatthew.