My grandmother was a spell-binding story-teller. I could sit for hours listening as she spun her tales, lacing her wisdom and lessons beneath the façade of characters. I never knew where truth disappeared and pure fiction began.
When I discovered that Grandma stretched the truth, I was angry. I felt duped, vulnerable and foolish. I could only imagine my slack-jawed expression as I bit into the bait she threw before me. She let it drift across my peripheral cognizance, knowing that accepting the lure was far more pleasurable than ignoring the temptation.
What enabled her to fool me was creating a scene that allowed me to walk into her fantasy. Granny gave me reference points that I was familiar with, and as she pulled along, she’d begin describing the character. By this point, my imagination allowed me to visualize the place and person. If it was spring, she’d often mention the scent of lilacs or the sound of an owl hooting from the depth of a forest, using my senses to accept what came next. I was hooked.
“What happened?” I’d beg to know. But before she raced ahead to the crises, the big event, she’d set up the conflict or the tone. It seems that Jack and Jill were not allowed to wander in the forest without a parent. She got me nervous. I knew full well that if my mother caught me breaking the rules there’d be hell to pay. The conflict was relatable, something I completely understood.
To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never met a real witch, but by the time Grandma’s story revealed a gingerbread house in the middle of a forest and an old crone with a cauldron, I could believe anything she told me. I was face-to-face with the crises in the story, primed, pumped and totally enthralled.
If she’d allowed those children to be stewed for supper, it would have been a horrible story, but she gave me resolution. The kids were saved.
The scene or setting is the backdrop of a writer’s masterpiece, the canvas where he will begin to build a piece of art by layering elements that will create a complete picture. But this isn’t a paint-by-numbers kit. The writer that organizes his writing by separating the basic elements and attacking each story requirement as a stand-alone challenge, will wind up with a story that sounds like a shopping list, something like this:
Paragraph one—description of setting
Paragraph two—introduce character
Paragraph three—introduce the conflict
Paragraph four—show crises
Paragraph five—give reader resolution
Using this formula, a story should never be longer than five paragraphs long, wouldn’t you think? That would be tragically predictable. Instead, it is important that the writer weaves the elements together, feeding the reader and encouraging him to go deeper into his world.
Some writers seem to go into a trance, becoming so hypnotized by a single element that they smother a story. Ninety percent of the time it’s scene setting. In the last week, I have read three stories, each written by a talented writer--all of them involved taking a walk. The first was through a post-Apocalypse city, the second, a subway ride and the last, a dessert island. In all three cases nothing happened. The writers got carried away, forgetting this was not a travel guide, but a story that required a conflict, crises and resolution.
Opinions on what constitutes a crisis may vary, but the final test to determine the quality of the story is always the satisfaction of the reader. As an editor, did I sigh? If I set a story down and my only comments are to commend the author’s creative use of adjectives, it won’t be published.
♦ Essayist, commercial copywriter and published short story writer Jade regularly demonstrates her ability to accurately assess writing talent as Page & Spine's Senior Story Editor. Her compassion for new writers is counterbalanced by her direct, often cryptic responses to submissions she does not favor.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.