A Reckoning: Short Stories and Obligatory Scenes

Eudora Welty’s story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” opens like this:

I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy, and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whittaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking “Post Yourself” photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up.

With these opening lines, Welty sets in motion a family drama that takes its energy from the tensions between the narrator and her sister. That tension must have its release by the end of the story, which we know from the title will be a defense of why the narrator is living at the post office where she’s the postmistress. The story is moving, then, from its opening to the scene that dramatizes the final break between the sisters. This is the obligatory scene, the scene that the writer is obligated to write. Every story must have its reckoning before it can end.

Rust Hills in Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular talks about how the end of a good story is always present in its beginning. Consider John Updike’s “A & P,” which opens with the line, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” Already, the story is leaning toward its obligatory scene, the one in which the narrator, a grocery clerk, stands up for the girls’ right to wear bathing suits inside the store, a move that ends up costing him his job, and a move that goes unrecognized by the girls.

Or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which opens with the line, “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” Instead she wants “to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind.” The first thing she seizes upon is the news report of an escaped convict, The Misfit, who has broken out of prison and is thought to be headed toward Florida. From the opening, the story is obligated to release the tension brought on by this headstrong grandmother and the menace waiting just outside her awareness. The reckoning comes, of course, when The Misfit’s path intersects with that of the family’s.

If you look at any story’s opening, you should be able to sense the tension already starting to rise. Even a story with an opening as pleasant as Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden-Party” (“And after all the weather was ideal.”) is full of tension because we know that perfection can never last. We know that something will happen on this ideal day to challenge our main character’s view of her world. The story finds its vehicle once word comes that a workingman in one of the cottages has been killed in an accident. The story is obliged, then, to bring its main character, Laura, into the world of death and loss, into the world of the working class, into the moment when she looks upon the dead man.

When we write our first drafts, we often turn away from our obligatory scenes. We let our writing get elevated, attempting to let language provide the release of tension. Or we avoid dramatizing the consequences of our characters’ actions. Or we avoid altogether the confrontation that’s been simmering throughout the story. We have to be braver in our next drafts. We have to bring the story to the moment where all that’s been promised is finally delivered. To prime ourselves for the task, we might read Raymond Carver’s short-short story, “Popular Mechanics,” a story in which a husband and wife wrestle, quite literally, for possession of their baby. I can think of no better example of the obligatory scene dramatized in vivid detail and action. Two characters want the same thing, the baby. Each is determined to have it. Carver holds nothing back. When our stories reach their tipping points, a reckoning has to come.


  1. Roy Bentley on January 30, 2017 at 9:16 am

    Beautifully said, Lee. When I taught the Flannery O’Connor story in Florida, that first line had real “bite”… Why? Because not wanting to go to Florida was/is unthinkable to them. I mean, East Tennessee? (Really.)

    • Lee Martin on February 2, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      Roy, interesting, isn’t it how stories play differently in different geographical locales.

  2. asha on January 30, 2017 at 5:03 pm

    Lee, this is great, so true, and I have been thinking about it a lot with the story I have been working on this winter – also the idea of having to earn that scene, to make sure that the build to the scene is complete. I have this scene at the very end of the story, and one friend I had read it for me said I should cut it due to its taking the character too far, making her unlikable and she would never come back from it. Well, I kept it- for the exact reasons you describe. Thank you for the post! Be careful out there.

    • Lee Martin on February 2, 2017 at 1:02 pm

      Asha, I’m always glad to hear that the work is going well for writers. I love what you say about making sure that you earn the scene by building toward it. Nicely said!

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