The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 13: The World of “What Happens?”

May 1, 2015

Tags: 6. Making Stories

And after all, it is not the expectation of a happy ending that carries us on. Rather it is the unraveling of the story itself; it is the traveling and not the destination.
—Jane Yolen, introduction to Folk Tales of the World

What makes a story? There are lots of answers to that question. Some people think that story demands a main character driven by desire. Others think that stories require lots of action, or conflict. My view is different. I believe that, at its most basic, a story is a series of happenings. To make a story, in its most elemental form, is to say: This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.

Whenever I have spent time with small children, I have heard this fundamental narrative drive. Phoebe, then five, once told me this story:

“Once upon a time there was a princess and a king. They have lived for a long, long life. And then one day when the Princess was picking berries out in the forest, a wolf came. But the Princess was brave, so she quickly ducked under a branch. And then the King came, and the wolf never ever came back again.

“So the Princess and the King went back to their castle. The next day was a great day. But suddenly in the middle of the night the Princess heard a knock-knock on the door. And then she said, ‘Who’s there?’ And little crying faces began to cry. It was two little babies lost, and they wanted the Princess and the King. And then the princess took the little ones inside to cuddle up. Then they became their little babies. And then the visitor came and said, ‘Mail came.’ So, the princess and the king went out, and then something struck. Lightning and thunder came crashing down. Rain came splittering and splattering on to the castle. And then it turned into a rainbow. It was yellow, pink, orange, purple, blue, and white. And it was so beautiful they had to go outside and play. And with their royal babies, they had the most wonderful day in their whole entire life.”

When I read this story to a group of adult writing students and asked them, “What do you notice?” they said, “It’s all about and then what happened?

The world of story is indeed the world of happenings. In this it may often differ from the world of contemporary short fiction. When we read or hear stories from oral tradition, we are told about events and doings, about actors and actions. When we read stories in a book of modern “short stories,” we do not necessarily get any of these things. In fact, many of the writers who are considered to be masters of the contemporary short story deliberately chose not to write the kind of story that could be told aloud; they were more interested in psychology and states of being, in how people felt rather than what they did. And to convey these more nebulous conditions, they often chose to write in a more impressionistic way. Most of all, they wrote fiction that was designed only to be read on the page; they wrote sentences that were intended to travel directly from the writer’s mind to the mind of the reader, without ever being spoken aloud. In short, they didn’t tell stories on the page; they wrote fiction.

Academics and literary critics have, in general, been full of praise for these more intellectual writers, and have disdained or ignored their counterparts who continued to be storytellers. (Writers who are good storytellers— such as Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson—do not get the same attention and praise from academics as more “advanced” fiction writers.) But while the intellectual writers may have refined the short story and advanced its practice, as the professors and critics insist, they also lost touch with the roots of storytelling in oral tradition.

And, at the same time, most ordinary people hunger for and delight in well-told stories. Evidence can easily be found in the continuing popularity of genre fiction, young adult fiction, movies, and television programs. Just consider the immense popularity of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, or of the “Harry Potter” books!

Many agents and editors are also looking for writers who are good storytellers. Here, for instance, is veteran editor Chuck Adams, interviewed in a recent issue of Poets & Writers Magazine:

“To me these are the two most important things: I want a voice and I want to be hooked into a story…I used to joke that I was going to put a big sign over my desk that said, ‘Quit writing and tell me a story.’… I’m old enough to have started reading back when it really was primarily about stories… Edna Ferber and Daphne du Maurier and Mary Renault and Thomas B. Costain. These are writers you don’t hear anything about any more, but they were brilliant storytellers. They were also good writers, mind you, but they were BRILLIANT storytellers. They would grab the reader right away and just not let go.…Today I’m seeing better writing than the writing in those books, but I’m not seeing better storytelling.”

There is tremendous power in story; and one of the main sources of “story-power” is that in the world of story, things happen.

The Basic Shape of Story
The basic story shape is very simple—just listen to this story, retold from English oral tradition by writer Kevin Crossley-Holland:

He was alone, and in the dark; and when he reached out for the matches, the matches were put into his hand.

Yes, this is the entire story, called “Talk about Short,” from Crossley-Holland’s collection, Short! A book of very short stories.

Try reading this story again, out loud and slowly.

What do you notice?

In this 22-word story we can easily perceive the basic shape of story: beginning/ middle /end. Or, to put it another way: the set up of the situation/ something happens/ and then what?

When we begin to write stories, it’s helpful, I think, to have a sense of this basic story shape, and to see how all three elements have to work together to create an effect.

Take that Crossley-Holland story, for instance: He was alone, and in the dark; and when he reached out for the matches, the matches were put into his hand.

Notice how all three of the elements work together: He was alone, and in the dark—that’s the set up, and the words alone and in the dark have certain associations that can create in the reader tense anticipation. Then, the event: and when he reached out for the matches. With the event, the character does something. And then we wonder: And then what happened? The story gives us the answer, another action, or reaction, that results—in this case: the matches were put into his hand. A whole story in one sentence, the three elements all moving in the same direction.

What would happen, I once wondered, if we kept two of the parts of this story and changed the other? We might get something like this:

He was at a crowded party, alone. On a table beside him rested a silver box of matches, and across the table stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. From his pocket he drew out a pack of cigarettes and extracted one, looking down at it to calm his nerves. He reached out his hand for the matches—and the matches were put into his hand.

Here I tried making use of a different set up — then the same action as in the original. What’s the effect of this version?

Take the original Crossley-Holland one-sentence story and imitate it any way you like. For instance, take one part of the story and keep it essentially the same, while changing the others. Or keep two the same and change one. Or….

What did you notice in doing this?

Go back to the lists of materials you collected from stories you’ve been reading. Read through your lists and copy any bits of material that speak to you right now. Then choose three or four of them.
With these elements, make a story that follows the basic story structure: First, set up a situation. Next, have something happen. And then answer the question, And then what happened…?
Unless you have lots of time, feel free to keep this short.

Using the Crossley-Holland story as a springboard, I once came up with this story, based on an anecdote told by a co-worker about her brother:

He was alone, late at night, studying for a final exam the next day. He put his hand to his throat — a lump! A lump he’d never felt before! He jumped up from his desk, ran out the door, and hailed a cab to take him to the nearest emergency room. After a long wait, he was shown in to an examining room.
“Doctor,” he stammered, in a cracked voice, “my throat…a lump….”
The elderly doctor put a hand to the student’s throat. When he took his hand away, he was grinning.
“Young fellow,” he said, “that’s your Adam’s apple.”

The Shortest Stories: Anecdotes
Stories like this are known as anecdotes, and, not so long ago, when people entertained at home by giving dinner parties, if you had a good supply of anecdotes you could “dine out” on them for months.

While an anecdote, being so short, can’t qualify as what is now considered a whole story, it can provide a writer with material for both nonfiction and fiction. In nonfiction, anecdotes give us a way to make our points through story rather than argument or opinion. For example, here’s a story from a book about science and religion:

Joseph Campbell [the great writer on world mythology] was in Japan for a conference on religion and overheard another American delegate, a social philosopher from New York, say to a Shinto priest [Shinto is one of Japan’s religions]: “We’ve been to a good many ceremonies and seen quite a few kami shrines, but I don’t get your ideology, I don’t get your theology.”
The Japanese [Shinto priest] paused as though in deep thought and then slowly shook his head, saying, “I think we don’t have ideology, we don’t have theology—we dance.”
—Jeremy W. Hayward in Letters to Vanessa

Anecdotes enliven all kinds of nonfiction:

The old man who lived next door to us, in the thatched house, was always known as “‘e in the corner.” Go out on any starlight night and ‘e in the corner would be standing by the gate, one eye shut tight and the other pressed to an ancient telescope.
“Venus is clear tonight,” he would say if we happened by. “She won’t be as near again for a thousand years.”
One night ‘e in the corner spied something special in his telescope. Excitedly he shouted, as if he were greeting the heavenly body, “Jupiter! Jupiter!” and a small voice from the darkened roadway replied, “No it isn’t, Mr. Horne, it’s me, Claudie, Claudie Collis.”
—Mollie Harris, A Kind of Magic: an Oxfordshire childhood in the 1920s

On one occasion, while walking near the banks of the Danube, I heard the sonorous call of a raven… in response to my answering cry, the great bird, far up in the sky, folded its wings came whizzing down at breathless speed, and with a rush of air checked his fall on outstretched pinions, to land on my shoulder with weightless ease… I felt compensated for all the torn-up books and all the plundered duck nests that this raven of mine had on his conscience.
—Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon’s Ring

Many folktales are simply anecdotes. Here’s one from Ireland, via Jane Yolen:

There was a famous character in our country. He lived at Bellanaleck; he was the name of John Brodison.
He was a famous liar.
Aye, he was a famous liar. I knew him. I was often talking to him. He was a kind of smart old boy, you know: quick-witted.
He was coming out of Enniskillen one night with the ass and the cart. And the law was: ye had to have a light after a certain time on a cart, do you see, when it was dark. Ye had to have a light.
So the policeman was standing at Bellanaleck Cross, and Brodison knew that the police would be THERE at the time.
So he got out of the cart.
And he took the donkey out of the cart, and he tied it BEHIND.
And he got into the shafts, and he started to pull the car, and the donkey walking behind him anyway.
And when he came to the Cross, the policeman says, “Brodison,” he says, “Ye have no light. Where’s your light, Brodison?”
“ASK THE DRIVER, “he says.
Aye. “Ask the driver.”
Well, that was the sort of a boy he was.
Ah, he had great bids in him.

And here’s a tale from China, retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland:

It was a crackling afternoon at the end of the autumn, and the man decided to chop some wood. But when he went to his garden shed, his axe was missing.
It’s that little beast next door, he thought. He’s nicked it. To hack off the leg of the dining table! To whack his sister into pieces. He looks like a thief. Little thug! What’s the world coming to? You can’t even trust your own neighbours!
Then the man stumped over to the stack of logs at the back of his garage and that is where he found his missing axe.
“Huh!” said the man. “I must have left it here.”
The man set up his chopping-block and began chopping wood. A few minutes later, the school bus drew up on the road outside. Out stepped his neighbour’s daughter, and then their son, and they both waved to him.
Pretty normal, thought the man. They look all right. All right as kids go.
—Kevin Crossley-Holland, “On the Chopping-Block” in Short!

Look at how he turns this simple incident into a story! There are a number of techniques at work here, I think. First he sets up anticipation: It was a crackling afternoon at the end of the autumn, and the man decided to chop some wood. But when he went to his garden shed, his axe was missing. There’s an event: the axe is missing. So after only two sentences, we want to know: what will happen? And because it’s an axe, there’s something particularly sinister about its being missing. Then there’s the reaction to the event: It’s that little beast next door, he thought. He’s nicked it. To hack off the leg of the dining table! To whack his sister into pieces. He looks like a thief. Little thug! What’s the world coming to? You can’t even trust your own neighbours! And he’s heightened the anticipation: what will happen next? Is there an axe-murderer next door?
Then another event, another reaction: Then the man stumped over to the stack of logs at the back of his garage and that is where he found his missing axe.
“Huh!” said the man. “I must have left it here.”

And then a quick summary of events: The man set up his chopping-block and began chopping wood. A few minutes later, the school bus drew up on the road outside. Out stepped his neighbour’s daughter, and then their son, and they both waved to him. And then one last reaction:
Pretty normal, thought the man. They look all right. All right as kids go.

Thinking about action (including speech) and reaction (again including speech) can help us turn ordinary incidents into anecdotes.

Find a very short story from oral tradition and retell it. What do you notice about its structure?

Start by making a list of any small things that happened to you recently (or some incident that you heard or overheard) . Pick one. Now see if you can collect all the details of this incident (the way Crossley-Holland did, for instance); write them all down. Write, This happened, and then he said, and then I said… if you like. Then, when you’ve collected all the “happenings,” decide which one is the central one, order the others (remember the shape of beginning/middle/end), and see if you can make this into a story, rather than just reporting it. How can you order these happenings so that the reader will wonder And then what happened?

Writers of fiction sometimes make use of anecdotes by having one of their characters recount one. Small stories like this can reveal something about the theme of the story, about the teller, or both. Here’s one example, from Somerset Maugham’s “The Voice of the Turtle.” The teller is an aging opera singer, very conceited. She’s talking about one of her many lovers:

“…We had a row on the boat because a young Italian officer was paying me a good deal of attention.… I told Benjy [her lover] where he got off, if you understand what I mean, and he slapped my face. On deck if you please. I don’t mind telling you I was mad. I tore the string of pearls off my neck and flung it in the sea. ‘They cost fifty thousand dollars,’ he gasped. He went white. I drew myself up to my full height. ‘I only valued them because I loved you,’ I said. And I turned on my heel.… I wouldn’t speak to him for twenty-four hours. At the end of that time I had him eating out of my hand. When we got to Paris the first thing he did was to go to Cartier’s and buy me another just as good.”
She began to giggle.
“…I’d left the real string in the bank in New York, because I knew I was going back next season. It was an imitation one that I threw in the sea.”

Stories a character tells can also help move a larger story forward. Agatha Christie, for instance, often has characters in her mysteries tell stories to Hercule Poirot, her detective, and part of the fun of reading her books is trying to figure out which of the tellers is telling the truth.

Take one of your characters and have her or him tell an anecdote to one or more other people. What do you notice in doing this?

Jokes as Stories
As you did these practices, you may have realized that anecdotes are akin to jokes. In his book, Tell Me a Tale, Joseph Bruchac says that most jokes are just very short stories that make people laugh. He encourages beginning storytellers to pay attention to the structure of jokes. He explains that jokes can be divided into three parts: the setup, the development, and the punch line.

The setup, he says, introduces the main character or characters and the setting of the joke. The development gives the rest of the information needed to prepare the listener for the joke’s conclusion. And the punch line is that conclusion.

In oral tradition, most stories follow this basic structure of beginning, middle, and end, a structure that Aristotle identified as the essential structure of all stories.

If you enjoy humor, try writing down some jokes you know (or find some in a book), paying attention to their basic structure.

The Movement of Story
After you’ve read a number of stories from oral tradition, perhaps you will find yourself thinking, “These stories don’t have much in the way of plot.” True…and yet we can, I think, still learn something from traditional stories about one way stories can be put together.

A story begins with a character (a person, an animal, a supernatural being) in a particular situation: Once upon a time there was a poor young man who left his parents’ cottage to make his way in the world… A situation means what is happening in a particular place at a particular time. Note that a good story-situation is not static— Once there was a young man with blue eyes.. Rather there’s a kind of instability in it which demands that something happen. After setting up the initial situation, the story then continues with happenings: either something happens to the character, or the character makes something happen. Sleeping Beauty, for instance, is put under a spell (something happens to her); the Fool sets out to seek the hand of the princess, an action. That first happening sets the story in motion, and it rolls on from one happening to the next, until it comes to a stopping place.

Here’s what award-winning writer and teacher Ursula LeGuin has to say about such a string of happenings, otherwise known as “narrative”:

Even if a narrative is just a trip down a supermarket aisle or some thoughts going on inside a head, it should end up in a different place from where it started. That’s what narrative does. It goes. It moves. Story is change.
Story, then, is always movement—and it’s always (well, almost always) movement forward in time.

Rather than trying to work out elaborate plots (and, as LeGuin says, how many plots are there, really?), we can concentrate on finding ways to let our stories move.

Choose a character and write down a simple story situation for him or her, one you take from your reading of stories or from your own invention. Use only a few sentences to sketch the situation. Now tell something that happens to the character, or something the character does to respond to the situation. Again, use only a few sentences. Now answer the question: And then what happens…?

If you like, keep asking and answering that question until your story comes to a stop. What change has taken place during the story?

What did you notice in doing this?

Do the same practice again, and this time, invent the most exaggerated, outrageous happenings you can. In doing this you will be writing what’s known as “tall tale,” one of the staples of folklore. Here’s an example from Joseph Bruchac’s Tell Me a Tale. In this story, Bill Greenfield and his father go out for a walk on a very cold day:

“…They walked along until they saw some birds on a tree branch. But those birds were not moving. When Bill and his father got close enough, they saw those birds were frozen solid. They could see little frozen songs coming out of their open mouths.

"They walked on a little farther until they came to a clearing, and in that clearing they saw a rabbit. It was all crouched down and it looked scared, but it didn’t move because it was frozen solid, too. Bill looked around to see what had scared that rabbit. There, frozen in midair, was a fox that had just been about to jump on it. Bill, who was kind of soft-hearted, felt sorry for the rabbit, so he took that fox and turned it around in midair so that when spring came and the two animals thawed out, the fox would miss that rabbit and it’d have a chance to get away.”

What have you noticed in doing these practices? What questions do you have about where you want to go next? Which practices do you want to make part of your regular practice routine?