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Short story tutorial: study Roald Dahl’s All the Way Up To Heaven

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If you aren’t familiar with Roald Dahl’s All the Way up to Heaven, read it now as there are spoilers ahead. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

The Way Up To Heaven shows how a writer can spin a tale with an ending that surprises the reader by both withholding some important information, and leaving other possible endings open. This story concerns a married couple, Mr and Mrs Foster. We learn that Mr Foster is a bully and that he deliberately plays on his wife’s fears of unpunctuality. This is important because it sets up the action, but it also makes the reader tend to sympathise with Mrs Foster.

The action takes place as Mrs Foster attempts to leave the house to catch a plane. She is travelling alone to France so that she can visit her daughter. This, of course, makes her highly anxious and her husband plays on it by deliberately delaying her.

We then learn that Mr Foster goes back into the house alone, supposedly to retrieve a mislaid gift. Hysterical about missing her plane and unable to wait any longer, Mrs Foster goes back to the house to call to him. This is the clever bit. We’re told that Mrs Foster hears sounds from inside and decides to depart without her husband. We are not told what the sounds are, nor their significance.

It is only when Mrs Foster returns six weeks later that we discover what she had suspected to be the case. The noises she’d heard in the house were an internal lift stopping between floors thus trapping her husband and resulting in his death.

The reason that the surprise ending works is that up until the point she returns home there are other possible endings that are equally believable. Perhaps Mrs Foster is intending to divorce her unreasonable husband. Maybe she will stay in France with her daughter and not return at all. Only when she lets herself into the empty house to find post on the floor inside the door and an unusual smell pervading the place is she, and therefore the reader, sure that her husband is in fact dead. This, despite the fact that subtle clues were dropped into the narrative.

Helen M Walters will be looking at more classic twists in the December issue of Writing Magazine. Get ahead of the game now by reading our other recommended texts:
The Open Window by Saki
An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce
A Perfect Day For Bananafish by JD Salinger

And make sure you don’t miss out by ordering your copy today.

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