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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 440 Response

Story vs. Vignette

with Thomas F. Wylie

In Challenge 440: Is Alexander Tozzi’s “Meal for a Monster” a story or a vignette? What other endings might it have?

Interesting questions about this excellent piece of writing. Frankly, on short story vs. vignette I don’t have an “academic analysis” that would hold any weight as literary criticism. But I will tell you this is one delightful and creative piece that quickly pulls you in. When I began reading the stage was set with the lines “the sun going down,” and “it would be she who was that beast’s meal” foreshadowing what might come next.

Then as I read through the second, third, and fourth paragraphs of the first page, I was deeply hooked thinking to myself, where is this going and how will it get there?

The turning point proved to be the sound in my head of “clanging bones and chattering teeth” – a scene ripe for pictorial imagination. Then it all came together with the connecting link of “the taste of blood,” and then in the last paragraph, “the sun had set [...] the best way to end a good meal.”

Delightful details, a rich story; “Flash Fiction” at its best! It is a short story; it has all the features of beginning, ending, plot, main characters – each creatively described with a role to play that unfolds quickly to a crescendo in just two pages!

To this reader it is not a vignette due to the completeness of the story’s central features. This is difficult writing to accomplish!! The choice of words and imagery; the sense of completeness of the narrative, all work very well.

Alternative endings? Creative imagination is endless e.g. the witch and monster sharing a meal, the monster chokes on the witch’s meal/blood and thus frees her of further meal-making duties, as she enjoys the setting sun. But neither of these holds the strength of the story as is; why seek to change something that works so well?

Tom Wylie

Thank you, Tom, for your encomium of Alexander Tozzi's “Meal for a Monster.” It’s forcefully stated. And you underscore reasons why the flash fiction was accepted: the descriptive narration has a lot to recommend it.

A short, working definition of a vignette is that it is a scene from a larger story but is not a story in itself. Why, then, might others not see a complete story in “Meal for a Monster”?

The short answer is that a vignette leaves the reader asking “So what?” The long answer is that a vignette lacks the logical coherence of a story, especially in terms of cause and effect.

Let’s take a neutral example by way of illustration. Suppose we had a one-scene play in which a gentleman by the name of Oedipus — king of Thebes, as it happens — learns that his wife Queen Jocasta is his mother. Oedipus proceeds to blind himself. Curtain.

Any audience would exclaim, “Why does Oedipus marry his mother, of all people? And why does he put out his eyes? Couldn’t he have said, ‘That was a big oops, wasn’t it?’ and let it go at that? What is going on here?” That’s a sure indication we have not a story but a vignette.

Thankfully, we know the answers to the hypothetical audience’s questions, and the scene I summarize makes perfect sense as the conclusion of a larger story. And that story goes a long way toward explaining why Sophocles enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a playwright in Athens.

What happens in “Meal for a Monster”? A monster lady prepares a grotesque meal for her monster husband. He comes home, devours the meal with gusto and kills his wife. And that’s it — a rather strange way of showing appreciation, if that was his idea.

Turn the premise upside down. A tidy suburban housewife prepares a gourmet meal for her upstanding, hard-working husband — “Honey, I’m home!” — who pushes the meal aside and makes wild, passionate love to his wife. And that’s it. Again, a rather strange way of showing his appreciation, if that’s what it is.

In either case, readers will ask, “What on earth is going on here? The monster enjoys his meal, but he sure won’t get any more. And the suburban husband is not likely to get any more, either. Why are they acting like this?”

Is the monster’s killing his wife a metaphor for making love to her? No. Remember our motto: “Readers take everything literally unless they know to do otherwise.” There’s no indication that the monster does anything other than what we’re told he does.

Readers may imagine possible endings and speculate about causes for the effects. But, as you say, they may not be inclined to do so. When they start doing the author’s work for him, they’ll wonder why they need the story in the first place.

In the end, readers’ reactions will differ; that’s part of the fun of reading. And “Meal for a Monster” has a lot of good lines.

But is it a story? The Review Board’s consensus is that it is not. However, when a work’s qualities as well as the Review Editors’ opinions diverge significantly, we take note. That’s why we have the Order of the Hot Potato in our Quarterly Reviews.

Our contributors are not expected to write like Sophocles; who can? But we do ask them to think like Sophocles. As a result, we’ll have something in common to talk about, and “Great taste! Less filling!” non-arguments can be left to funny beer advertisements.

Don Webb
Managing Editor
Bewildering Stories

Copyright © 2011 by Thomas F. Wylie
and Bewildering Stories

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