Writing

Lessons From the Inconclusive Writing of The Doorway

Your expectations are already set too high. Doorway Empty by Jpatokal used under CC BY-SA 4.0

Since Chris is critiquing short stories on Mythcreants now, I figured I would copy pay homage to her posts and do a critique of my very own. So I searched the internet for the finest short story with which to dazzle you. Instead, I found The Doorway* by Evelyn E. Smith, published in 1955. Smith was a prolific author at a time when women writing spec fic faced even more difficulties than they do now, and she produced a lot of quality stories. But everyone has a bad day or two, and The Doorway is not a good story. Perhaps it was better in its original context, but I can only examine it in the context of 2016. May it help writers learn from the mistakes of the past.

Don’t Start With Something Boring

“It is my theory,” Professor Falabella said, helping himself to a cookie, “that no one ever really makes a decision. What really happens is that whenever alternative courses of action are called for, the individuality splits up and continues on two or more divergent planes, very much like the parthenogenesis of a unicellular animal … Delicious cookies these, Mrs. Hughes.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Gloria simpered. “I made them myself.”

“You must give us the recipe,” said one of the ladies—and the others murmured agreement, glad to get their individualities on a plane they could understand.

So the story starts with a professor eating some cookies and droning on about… something to an undefined number of ladies who have no idea what he’s talking about. Not the world’s most exciting opening, which is a problem. This is a really short story; it doesn’t have time to build interest. A beginning like this can send readers running for the exit.

When you have so few words to work with, it’s vital to hook the reader as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean every first paragraph has to be full of swords and lasers, but there should be some kind of conflict. Instead of establishing the concept of alternate universes with dialogue that is long and difficult to parse, the story could have opened with Falabella activating a device to look through the dimensional divide. That would have been much more engaging than a theoretical lecture.

Then there’s the issue of a supposedly intelligent man lecturing to a group of oblivious women. That’s pretty sexist, and it raises a serious question: Why are all these women listening to a lecture on a subject they have no interest in? Hopefully that will be answered later.

The use of “simpered” as Gloria’s dialogue tag finally draws attention after that impenetrable first paragraph. By using “simpered,” Smith is telling us that Gloria is sucking up to Falabella. We’ll find out why later. That’s good for the reader to know, but it would have been more effective if shown through body language. Something like this…

Example

Gloria smiled. “Thank you, Professor.” She fluttered her eye lashes. “I made them myself.”

Don’t Wait to Introduce Your Protagonist

“Since most decisions are hardly as momentous as the individual imagines,” Professor Falabella continued, “and since the imagination of the average individual is very limited, many of these different planes—or, as they are colloquially known, space-time continuums—may exist in close, even tangential relationship.”

Gloria rose unobtrusively and took the teapot to the kitchen for a refill. Her husband stood by the sink moodily drinking whiskey out of the bottle so as to avoid having to wash a glass afterward.

“Bill, you’re not being polite to our guests. Why don’t you go out and listen to Professor Falabella?”

“I can hear him perfectly well from here,” Bill muttered—and indeed the professor’s mellifluous tones pervaded every nook and cranny of the thin-walled house. “Long-winded cultist! What is he a professor of, I’d like to know.”

Still not sure what’s up with Falabella. At least through Bill’s dialogue, I can figure out that Falabella is meant to be a little off. But does anyone know what mellifluous means? Apparently it means “sweet or musical.” Huh. That’s certainly not how I imagined him sounding. From the never-ending lecture and Bill’s reaction, I was imagining Falabella to have a droning or grating voice – another reason why it’s important to show rather than tell.

Oh, by the way, meet Bill. Believe it or not, Bill is actually our main character. I know that sounds strange, but believe me, it’s true. No, I don’t know why the story waits until five paragraphs in to mention the main character by name. I can tell you why it’s a bad idea, though.

The longer you wait to introduce your main character, the more chance your audience will get attached to someone else. What if readers already liked Gloria and were fascinated by her attempt to curry favor with a man who sounds insane? In a longer story you can afford to wait, because the reader will have more time to adapt to a late-protagonist entry. In a story this short, there’s just no time!

Given what we’re about to learn about Bill, there’s no reason he couldn’t have been in the room when the story started. He could even have provided some much needed conflict. But at least we’ve met Bill now. I wonder what kind protagonist he’ll turn out to be…

Don’t Make Readers Hate the Protagonist

“Professor Falabella is not a cultist!” affirmed Gloria angrily. “He’s a great philosopher.”

Bill Hughes said something unprintable. “If I’d married Lucy Allison,” he continued unkindly, “she’d never have filled the house with long-haired cultists on my so-called day of rest.”

Gloria’s soft chin trembled, and her blue eyes filled with tears. She was beginning to put on weight, he noticed. “I’ve been hearing nothing but Lucy Allison, Lucy Allison, Lucy Allison for the past year. Y-you said yourself she looked like a horse.”

“Horses,” he observed, “have sense.”

He was being brutal, but he couldn’t help it and didn’t want to. Professor Falabella was only the most long-winded of a long series of mystics Gloria was forever dragging into the house. The trouble with the half-educated, he thought bitterly, is that they seek culture in the most peculiar places.

[Bill is mean to his wife for another few paragraphs.]

Oh. He’s a jerk protagonist.* He’s self-absorbed and incredibly cruel to his wife, whose only crime so far is inviting over a guest he doesn’t like. This is exactly the sort of behavior that will make the audience detest a main character. He’s not doing cool anti-hero stuff like Malcom Reynolds pushing a mobster through the ship’s engine. Bill’s just being petty. 

It’s possible this was meant to be a two-way marital dispute, but that’s not what’s coming across. For one thing, the gender-based power dynamic, which is exacerbated by the story’s time of publication, means any conflict will be weighted in Bill’s favor. For another, Gloria hasn’t actually done anything bad yet, and she won’t for the rest of the story. If mutual conflict was Smith’s goal, then Gloria needed to have much more power in the relationship than she does.

Making your protagonist so unlikeable can work, but it’s a risk. The audience will expect either a major redemption or the character getting their comeuppance. In a story of this length, comeuppance is a lot more viable. Without more time, it’ll be very difficult to pull off a successful redemption for a main character as detestable as Bill. Let’s hope Smith is planning a suitable punishment for him.

This section also features a sudden viewpoint shift. Because the story followed Gloria as she went to get more tea, I assumed it was in her viewpoint. But now it’s in Bill’s, as demonstrated by his thoughts about being brutal to his wife. The story will stay in Bill’s viewpoint from now on. That’s a jarring change, and it makes me wonder again why Bill wasn’t there from the beginning. 

Use Action Early

Professor Falabella was still talking as Bill and Gloria emerged from the kitchen. “I believe that it is possible for an individual who exists on a limited plane of imagination to transpose from one plane to an adjacent one without difficulty … Great Heavens, what was that?”

Something had whisked past the archway leading into the foyer.

“Don’t pay any attention,” Gloria smiled nervously. “The house is haunted.”

“My dear,” one of the ladies offered, “I know of the most marvelous exterminator—”

“The house,” Gloria assured her coldly, “really is haunted. We’ve been seeing things ever since we moved in.”

And she really believed it, Bill thought. Believed that the house was haunted, that is. Of course he had seen things too—but he was enlightened enough to know that ghosts don’t exist, even if you do see them.

Yay, something is happening! This is probably where the story should have started, instead of wasting valuable time with Gloria going into the kitchen to get abused by Bill. A story that opens with weird ghosts interrupting a social gathering is interesting. Opening with a strange professor going on at length to an audience that doesn’t care is a lot less interesting.

We also see an intriguing use of third person omniscient that, sadly, is not followed up on. The ghost is described after Falabella’s reaction to it. With a limited viewpoint, that sort of description is awkward because it isn’t how a character would perceive events. In omniscient, describing events out of order is great for upping the tension or producing a humorous effect. Unfortunately, Smith never employs omniscient again, which makes her use of it here look like a mistake.

This section is also interesting because it introduces the idea of a couple who live in a haunted house and are non-plussed about it. The ghost is irritating, but it doesn’t make them fear for their lives or want to flee the house. This plays against the audience’s expectations for haunted houses and could be the seed of an excellent story.

But the story wastes its potential with Bill’s thoughts on the ghost. He’s been seeing the ghosts ever since they moved in,* and he still thinks they’re not real? That’s not skepticism; that’s just straight denial. It would be one thing if Bill had some alternate idea for what they were or just admitted he didn’t know, but he seems dead set on the idea that he’s just seeing things.

At least we know why Gloria has been bringing occultists to the house, but this raises even more questions. Has the amorphous group of women never seen these ghosts? They seem pretty common. Is this the first time Gloria has invited guests over? If this was where the story started, raising all these questions wouldn’t be a problem as there’d be more time to resolve them.

Emphasize Your Story’s Core

Professor Falabella cleared his throat. “As I was saying, it is possible to send the individual through another—well, dimension, as some popular writers would have it, to one of his other spatial existences on the same temporal plane. It is merely necessary for him to find the Door.”

“Nonsense!” Bill interrupted. “Holy, unmitigated nonsense!”

Every head swivelled to look at him. Gloria restrained tears with an effort.

“Brute,” someone muttered.

But ridicule apparently only stimulated the professor. He beamed. “You don’t believe me. Your imagination cannot extend to the comprehension of the multifariousness of space.”

“Nonsense,” Bill said again, but less confidently.

[Falabella talks more about how people can go through doorways.]

We’re seeing a trend here. Bill is rejecting the supernatural even when it’s obvious. First he dismisses the ghosts he’s seen himself, and now he’s calling the professor’s theories nonsense. We may have just discovered the core of this story: Bill’s journey from denying the supernatural to facing and accepting it.

Unfortunately, Bill’s still a jerk. That makes it hard to care much about his personal arc, unless it’s in the direction of making him less of a jerk or punishing him for being a jerk. Since accepting the supernatural has little to do with whether he’s a jerk, I can’t imagine why he was written as such a despicable person.

Worse, Bill already knows the supernatural is real! He admits to having seen ghosts and has no rational explanation for them. It’s like he’s denying chairs exist while he’s sitting on one. This makes his denial feel less realistic and robs the audience of an additional source of suspense: whether the supernatural exists in this story. We don’t get to discover it with Bill; we can only watch him deny the truth while wondering when he’ll stop being an idiot.

Give Your Climax Suspense

Bill opened his mouth.

“I know what you’re about to say, young man!”

“You don’t have to be a mind reader to know that,” Bill assured him. His consonants were already a little slurred and he knew Gloria was ashamed of him. It served her right. He’d been ashamed of her for years.

Professor Falabella smiled. His teeth were very sharp and white. “Very well, Mr. Hughes, since you are a skeptic, perhaps you will not object to being the subject of our experiment yourself?”

“What kind of an experiment?” Bill asked suspiciously.

“Merely to go through the Door. Any door can become the Doorway, if it is transposed into the proper spatial dimension. That door, for instance.” Professor Falabella waved his hand toward the doorway of what Gloria liked to call “Bill’s study.”

“You mean you just want me to open the door and go into that room?” Bill asked incredulously. “That’s all?”

“That is all. Of course, you go with the awareness that it is the threshold of another plane and that you step voluntarily from this existence to an adjacent one.”

“Sure,” Bill said. He had just remembered there was a nearly full bottle of Calvert in the bottom drawer of the desk. “Sure. Anything to oblige.”

“Very well. Go to the door, and keep remembering that of your own free will you are passing from this plane to the next.”

“Look out, everybody!” Bill called raucously, as he pulled open the door. “I’m coming in on the next plane!”

No one laughed.

Believe it or not, this is the story’s climax, where the action is at its highest and the main question is answered: Is the supernatural real? Bill will decide that by going through a doorway while thinking magic thoughts.

Too bad it doesn’t feel particularly exciting or climactic. This is because the story has given us no reason to doubt the outcome. Suspense is based on the audience not being sure what is going to happen next. Even a traditional story of good versus evil, where you can be pretty sure the protagonist will win, must create the illusion of doubt. This bluff is essential.

The Doorway has no such bluff. At this point, it’s obvious that Bill is about to walk into another dimension, no matter how much he denies it. Previous events and Bill’s own thoughts have made it clear that the supernatural is real. At this point, the only surprise would be if Bill didn’t cross through to another dimension.

The only hope left for satisfaction is that passing through this doorway will lead to Bill getting his just deserts for being a terrible person.

Keep Mood in Mind

He stepped over the threshold, shutting the door firmly behind him. A wonderful excuse to get away from those blasted women. He’d climb out of the window as soon as he’d collected the whiskey and give them a nervous moment thinking he’d really passed into another existence. It would serve Gloria right.

For a moment, as he crossed, he had a queer sensation. Maybe there was something in what Professor Falabella said. But no, there he was in the study. All that mumbo jumbo was getting him down, that was all. He was a nervous man—only nobody appreciated the fact.

Taking a cigarette out of the pack in his pocket, he reached for the lighter on his desk. It wasn’t there. Time and time again he’d told Gloria not to touch his things, and always she’d disobeyed him. Company was coming and she must tidy up. Cooking and cleaning—that was all she was good for. But this was carrying tidiness too far; she’d even removed the ashtrays.

And where did that glass block paperweight come from? He’d had a penguin in a snowstorm and he’d been happy with it. This was too much. He’d tell Gloria off. Stealing a man’s penguin!

We actually get some very good description in this scene. Bill looking around his office for familiar things and not finding them is great for creating unease. He reaches for his light, but it isn’t there. Smith doesn’t tell us it isn’t there because he’s stepped into another dimension; she lets us wonder for a minute. Then he can’t find an ashtray. Another little thing that isn’t right. Through description, Smith has shown the reader that Bill isn’t in his home anymore, even if Bill himself hasn’t figured it out.

Of course, mixed into that is more of Bill being a jerk to his wife, but at this point that’s par for the course. Gloria is a good cook and keeps the house clean — what horrors Bill must endure!

And then we have the line about stealing a man’s penguin. That line is really funny. It’s the first bit of humor we’ve seen from this piece. Too bad it clashes with the uncanny atmosphere of the previous paragraph. If this was meant to be a comic moment, then it would fit in well, but Smith’s description before the penguin line created a sense of creepiness and unease. The sudden comedy clashes with the established mood.

Make Your Resolution Matter

He opened the door into the living room and bumped into Lucy Allison. “Don’t you think you’ve been in there long enough, Bill?” she asked acridly. “I’m sure your guests would appreciate catching a glimpse of you.”

“Why, hello, Lucy,” he said, surprised. “I didn’t know Gloria had invited you—”

“Gloria, Gloria, Gloria!” Lucy cut across his sentence. “You’ve been talking about nothing but that dumb little blonde for months.” Because of the people in the room beyond, her voice was pitched low, but her pale eyes glittered unpleasantly behind her spectacles. “I wish you had married her. You’d have made a fine pair.”

Gently, caressingly, the short hairs on the back of Bill’s neck rose.

“Come back in here,” Lucy said, hauling him back into the living room where a number of people who had been enjoying the domestic fracas suddenly broke into loud and animated chatter. “Dr. Hildebrand was telling us all about nuclear fission.”

“Can’t find an ashtray,” Bill muttered, seizing on something tangible. “Can’t find an ashtray in the whole darn place.”

“We’ve been over this millions of times, Bill. You know—” she smiled at the guests, a smile that carefully excluded Bill. “—I’m allergic to smoke, but I never can get my husband to remember he isn’t to smoke inside the house.”

Finally, Bill the jerk has passed through the barrier between worlds in order to get his comeuppance and… he ends up in a slightly different version of his normal life? With a different wife he’s seemingly a jerk to? The only terrible thing about this reality is that Lucy doesn’t let him walk all over her the way Gloria does.

That’s exceedingly disappointing. I’ve been waiting this whole story for karma to punch Bill in the face, and all I get is this weak tea? Where’s the satisfaction? Where’s the pathos? What’s the point of making Bill such a jerk if nothing was going to come of it?

Even if Bill didn’t deserve a terrible fate, this falling action provides no closure. Our expectations are not subverted in the slightest, because this is exactly what Falabella said would happen, and we had every reason to believe him.

If Falabella had warned of grave danger and tried to convince Bill not to cross the dimensional threshold, then this reveal could have held some interest because our expectations would have been subverted just a little. Instead, everything we thought was going to happen, happened.

Use Your Resolution to Resolve Things

“Now take the neutron, for example,” Dr. Hildebrand said through a mouthful of pâté. “What is the neutron? It is only … What was that?”

The wraith of Gloria crossed the foyer and disappeared. Bill took a step forward; then stood still.

Lucy smiled self-consciously. “That’s nothing at all. The house is merely haunted.”

Everyone laughed.

“Forgot something,” Bill muttered, and dashed back into the study. He yanked open the bottom drawer of the desk. Sure enough, there was a bottle of Schenley, nearly a third full. “There are some advantages,” he thought as he tilted it to his lips, “in having a limited imagination.”

This is the story’s closer and it does nothing but raise more questions. First, why are the people on this side so chill with seeing Gloria’s shade walk across the room? They seem to be discussing neutrons without so much as noticing a ghost in the room. Is cross-dimensional imagery just common knowledge in this new world?

Second, did Bill just kill his extra-dimensional self? The Bill native to this new dimension doesn’t seem to be around anywhere. Was he shunted into Gloria’s dimension, or did the first Bill overwrite him, like saving over a file with the same name?   

Third, can Bill just go back? Apparently all he needs to do is walk through the doorway thinking about interdimensional travel. If he goes back, will the Bill from this new dimension reappear? I can’t tell how serious this situation is because there isn’t enough information.

The questions continue: How did Falabella know the secret of moving between worlds? Is Bill about to become super famous as the first human to cross dimensions? I could go on. This ending is the opposite of a resolution. I’m more confused now than I was at any other point in the story.

Open-ended stories can work, but the different options all need to be satisfying. With The Doorway, none of the options are satisfying. No matter how a reader answers the various questions, it’s clear that Bill is never punished for his bad behavior, and Bill getting what he deserved was the only reason to read this story all the way to the end.

An ending should create some feeling of closure. The Doorway provides none. Without any dramatic impact, it’s just a list of made up events. It doesn’t feel like anything in the story mattered because the ending is so inconclusive. That’s among the worst results a story can have. 

Combine Your Plot Elements

What ultimately makes The Doorway fail is that Smith doesn’t bring her plot threads together. For the first half, the major plot thread is Bill being a jerk to his wife. Then the second half is dominated by Bill crossing the dimensions. These two plots are so compartmentalized that they’re almost separate stories.

To do this story justice, the two halves need to be joined. For instance, the supernatural elements could have been used to demonstrate how Bill is a jerk and give him his recompense. When Gloria asks Falabella to help her get rid of the ghost, Bill declares that he’ll do it, because he’s obsessed with control and can’t bear the idea of his wife doing anything on her own. He crosses the barrier against Falabella’s warning and suffers some terrible fate. Perhaps the shade was actually a lure by whomever is waiting on the other side.

Alternatively, this could be a story about Bill having his eyes opened to the existence of other worlds. In that case, he needs to be a lot nicer. His cruelty toward Gloria is nothing but a distraction. His primary motivation would be skepticism, so he shouldn’t be certain he’s seen ghosts. He saw something out of the corner of his eye, and his wife insists the house is haunted, but he doesn’t believe in that nonsense. Even so, he can’t help being afraid. Then Bill stumbles through the doorway and realizes the truth at last.

Either of these options would give us a complete story. As it is, The Doorway is two parts of different stories badly mashed together. The ending provides no satisfaction because it doesn’t resolve any issues raised at the beginning. That’s why I’ve dubbed this writing inconclusive. When you get to the end, none of the elements come together to form a greater whole.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Alice

    I’ve come back here a few times and I think it’s a shame there aren’t any comments, so I thought I’d let you know I really enjoyed this article. It made me laugh a few times and I’ve found it helpful in pointing out problems in my own work that I hadn’t thought about before. I hope you can ‘pay homage’ to Chris’ posts more.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hah, thanks Alice, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ll put that vote down for doing another of these, if I can find a decent story in the Public Domain.

  2. Kroz

    I feel like the story subverts your expectation for comeuppance when it’s really a story showcasing a point. The author instead wants to show that marital problems are not your spouse’s fault (they can be) but your own. She shows that he hates the marriage he’s in and complains, then he goes to a different dimension where he’s married to the person he wishes he’d married…when we get there we find that Bill is still the same jerk and that he still has his whiskey in the drawer showing that Bill is Bill and that no matter who he married, he’d still be a jerk and still be hating his life. The problem isn’t Gloria, the problem is Bill.

    Personally I think the Author is able to set up the idea of comeuppance to only subvert your expectation and instead shows a more nuanced point. Who you marry isn’t as important as who you are, which is a point I wish more people understood now-a-days. Bill could have been happy with Gloria or Lucy, but he was too busy thinking the grass is greener on the other side.

    I personally enjoyed it but would absolutely agree with the opening…it was terrible.

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