Learning from “The Zebra Storyteller”

“The Zebra Storyteller” by Spencer Hoist is an outstanding narrative. Here it is:

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.

That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.

Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.

“Hello there!” says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic. “It certainly is a pleasant day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing. Isn’t the world a lovely place to live today!”

The zebra is so astonished at hearing a Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why—he’s just fit to be tied.

So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.

The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.

He began to boast to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact that he hunted zebras.

The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.

One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and through his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, “That’s’ it! I’ll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That’ll make ‘em laugh!”

Just then, the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, “Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn’t it!”

The zebra storyteller wasn’t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language because he’d been thinking about that very thing.

He took a good look at the cat, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about his looks he didn’t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.

That is the function of the storyteller.

There is so much to learn from this as writers. Here are few thoughts:

  1. The first four words of the first sentence let readers know the genre and that in turn creates expectations for them. The rest of the first sentence presents the premise of the story. That premise implies a question.
  2. The last sentence of the story, as it provides a moral, meets the expectations created by the first four words. The last sentence in the story also reminds readers of the title. Reminders or echoes can help bring closure. 
  3. The second sentence of the story gives readers a setting and interesting language.
  4. The first two words of the third sentence create immediacy. The rest of that sentence characterizes a zebra. 
  5. The paragraph after that is a tiny scene in which the Siamese cat and the zebra interact. The story takes a phrase literally in the next paragraph because the zebra is fit to be tied. (I believe it was in The Artful Edit that I first heard the phrase “surprise is the drug of editors.”) 
  6. Janet Burroway, among others, describes powershifts as part of plotting, and by the sixth paragraph the little cat has the power in the story. 
  7. The next two paragraphs characterize the cat and the paragraph after that characterizes the zebras. It also suggests the implications of how the characters’ world has changed because of the cat’s actions. Language stays interesting, even suggesting a larger history/world building.
  8. The next paragraph introduces a change or difference in the story because this zebra is the storyteller of the zebras, reminding readers of the beginning of the story and the first scene in which the Siamese cat appears. The cat’s language in this paragraph echoes that used with the first zebra that died at his hands. Knowing the zebra storyteller is in danger, tension increases for readers.
  9. Powershifts back, however, because the zebra storyteller is not alarmed by the cat. In the second to last paragraph of the story, power has shifted irrevocably providing a climactic moment.

Consider trying one or many of these techniques in a way that pays homage to Hoist.

Learning from Bellairs

Consider what we can learn from the first paragraph of the first chapter of John Bellairs’s The Face in the Frost. Here it is:

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either. He lived in a huge, ridiculous, doodad-covered, trash-filled two-story horror of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest of elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked into the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces; a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads, and fat women in togas holding sheaves of grain; a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed, twisty-copper-columned observatory. On the artichoke dome of the observatory was a weather vane shaped like a dancing hippopotamus; as the wind changed, it blew through the nostrils of the hippo’s hollow head, making a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof fixing slates.

The first sentence includes at least one implied question. If readers know Prospero from Shakespeare, they are likely to feel congratulated for their knowledge and wonder who this other Prospero might be, if it’s not the one they’re thinking of. If readers don’t know Shakespeare, they will wonder both who this Prospero is and who the one they don’t know is as well. In either case, readers begin the story with an implied question, one they may not even be completely conscious of. They are likely to read on, hoping for an answer. There’s also in the very last phrase of the first sentence an effort to connect, without being smarmy, with readers.

The rest of the paragraph describes the house this character lives in, in ways that create a little bit of distance between the narrator and the character. The description of the house also lets readers know a little bit about the genre or at least suggests it. It helps shape expectations. At the least readers expect a story about eccentricity. The Face in the Frostquickly lets readers know it is a fantasy that does not take itself too seriously.

We might try the following similar techniques in our own work:

  • Begin with an implied question. 
  • Begin with a classical allusion and compliment readers who understand it while creating curiosity in readers who do not. 
  • Write a description of a place that matters to a character and let that description characterize the character. 
  • Write a description of a place that matters to a character but let the description create distance between the narrator and the character. 
  • Use an abundance of details and sensory language and unusual images to create interest in anything you are describing.

Learning from “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back”

Here is a brief quotation from The 2015 Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy anthology, specifically from “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” a short story by Neil Gaiman:

In addition to its unusual pockets, it had magnificent sleeves, an imposing collar, and a slit up the back. It was made of some kind of leather, it was the color of a wet street at midnight, and, more important than any of these things, it had style. (134)

The metaphor used to describe the coat’s color stands out more than the other details because, even though it is a comparison, it is more specific: the street is wet at midnight. The other details include some information, but not particularizing information. The coat has pockets and those pockets are unusual, for example, but that language isn’t as interesting as the metaphor. It quickly stands in for the coat as a whole.

The coat and the main character’s desire to have it back reveals the marquis to the reader and provides a motivation. Seeking after the coat moves the story forward and provides the character with at least two problems to solve or be helped out of. The coat is useful in the story then, and you might use a similar strategy in one of your stories. But, in addition to this, Gaiman uses that interesting metaphor at least two other times in the story. Once he uses it as its own sentence, which surely highlights it: “The coat was the color of a wet street at midnight” (152). One of the character’s enemies is wearing the coat when that sentence appears. The metaphor appears again once the character has recovered the coat: “. . . the last of the flock wore a most magnificent coat. It fit him perfectly, and it was the color of a wet street at night” (156).

In addition to the ways the coat and the metaphor are useful in the story that have already been mentioned, readers remember it. The triggering of that memory when the metaphor appears again is pleasant in the way knowing or realizing something can be. This use of the metaphor is also similar to what some screenwriters call “superior knowledge,” when readers or viewers know or have information characters lack, but it is different in an important way. Having information characters lack can help us be concerned for them, but it also creates a difference between readers and characters. In the case of Gaiman’s story, because readers know the Marquis knows what his coat looks like—the color of a wet street at midnight—the information connects readers and the main character. The return of the metaphor joins readers and the character in contrast with superior knowledge while allowing them to be concerned for the main character.

Repeating the metaphor also allows Gaiman to mark important plot points. Finally, the metaphor acts as a refrain and repeating that refrain helps close the story.

Consider giving this a try.

Thickening

Not long ago I finished a draft of a novel. It felt thin in spots. It’s hard to describe perfectly, but rereading it, I found myself thinking, “There should be more there” about some pages and scenes. In some cases, I’d written dialogue but it wasn’t revealing a character’s thoughts. Or, the dialogue lacked context in the form of setting or actions that the characters took while they were speaking. The draft was also shorter than I wanted it to be. It was under 50,000 words.

I decided that the main goal of the next draft would be to address both the thin spots and the length. Happy with the plot, adding a subplot or another character seemed like a bad idea. Instead, I think I was influenced by the Oulipo group’s larding exercise.

If you’re facing similar concerns with a complete draft of yours, try this:

  1. Determine the number of words you’d like your final draft to be. This number is your goal.
  2. Subtract the number of words of your current draft from that goal. This is the number of words you lack.
  3. Divide that lack by the current number of pages of your draft. The resulting number is your target number.
  4. Read through the draft again. Add—in some way that helps your draft—your target number in words to each page.

For example, let’s say you’d like a draft to be 50,000, but it is currently 45,000. The difference between those numbers is 5,000. Your 45,000-word draft is 85 single-spaced pages. Divide 5,000 by 85 and you need to add about 59 words to each page to reach your goal.

The crucial thing is finding ways to add those sixty words that help the draft. For example, I reviewed ways of making setting interesting and my characters’ backstories before I started. The words I added improved characterization and setting as a result.

Vonnegut’s tips

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Epistemological storytelling

There’s something epistemological about storytelling. It’s the way we know each other, the way we know ourselves, the way we know the world. It’s also the way we don’t know: the way the world is kept from us, the way we’re kept from knowledge about ourselves, the way we’re kept from understanding other people.

–Andrea Barrett

Creatures of narrative

Memory, according to Bergson, occupies the space between mind and body. It conveys mind to body and body to mind. It gives us our quality of life—makes possible, in other words, the narrative that keeps our lives going forward to the next thing. If the thing is not next it loses its richness—isolated and unlinked to a history, it becomes meaningless, even ridiculous. Biologically and neurologically, we are creatures of context, of narrative. . . . By nature, then, the activity of the neuron is narrative, metonymic, associative.

–Karen Brennan