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.

Toward a conclusion

Here is an excerpt from E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. The excerpt is from late in the book, in the last few pages of the edition I have. I like the way it models a conclusion, and I’ll try and do something similar with the project I’m working on.

Fourteen months had passed, but Margaret still stopped at Howards End. No better plan had occurred to her. The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden. July would follow with the little red poppies among the wheat, August with the cutting of the wheat. These little events would become part of her year after year. Every summer she would fear lest the well should give out, every winter lest the pipes should freeze; every westerly gale might blow the wych-elm down and bring the end of all things, and so she could not read or talk during a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now. She and her sister were sitting on the remains of Evie’s rockery, where the lawn merged into the field.

So, here are some obvious fiction writing strategies, just in this excerpt, that bring readers toward the conclusion. The passage of time is stated directly and connected to a specific place and character in the first sentence. The second sentence restates that connection to the character. The third sentence suggests the past and present in an ongoing natural process associated with the environment: “The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden.” The fourth sentence strengthens these connections, repeating them with minor and more specific differences. The fifth sentence is shorter than those around it, more general, but also connects the natural repeating processes with the character. The sixth sentence is one of the longest, is specific about the place and how it influences the character. A short seventh sentence contrasts with the previous one both in terms of length and its content: “. . .  a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now.” The last sentence focuses readers back on the characters’ present moment, using setting, and prepares for, creates an expectation of, one of the final scenes.

Below is a rough attempt to use some of the same strategies. I’m not moving toward another scene, and though I’ve got a smaller cast of characters, more of them are present as I try to wrap things up.

Eighteen months later, after Reynolds remarried, just the three of them still lived in the townhouse. Asking Elizabeth to move out was as strange an idea as asking her to stop using her feet and walk on her hands all day instead. The tiny garden they shared still needed replanting; the compost pile needed turning, little as it was. October would arrive and they would have to clean the gutters and downspouts. In December, they had to keep the walk and deck free of snow and ice. Billy would post photos of them working. The routines they set for themselves were part of how they stayed together. Every summer they would consider new air conditioning, every winter a new furnace. As Billy lost more hair he wore one cap to keep him warm and another to stop sunburn. As Cassandra got older she wrapped blankets tight to stay warm and drank ice water to stay cool, all within the same five minutes.

When Elizabeth finally moved in with one of her boyfriends, the townhouse became too tranquil, too quiet. Together they finally discovered the peace of an empty nest, but without ever having had children.




Reading craft online

Poets & Writers has a series of online craft essays. They take just moments to read and are usually useful. Here is a representative example.

Brain Pickings has collected the advice on writing that they’ve shared over the years. This advice always has excellent authors as its sources.

Finally, Literary Hub lists short excerpts from 25 books on writing by famous authors. If nothing else, the list acts as a possible shopping list for books on the craft of writing. The excerpts can help in deciding from among all the books.

Characters and information

I read Cryptonomicon probably ten years ago. An excellent novel. One I obviously still think about. It ends with a system for encoding information. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, if I remember correctly, includes in its narrative instructions for creating spy networks. What information might one of your characters teach another (and perhaps incidentally the reader)? How might that “teaching moment” characterize the teacher and the student? How informally could it happen?

Controlling point of view

I’ve been reading Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. It is the third of the Neapolitan Novels series. I’ve found them all compelling. The book is narrated in a distant remembering first-person. Notice how completely and naturally this narrating character moves within the inner lives of other characters/people in her life:

He wasn’t in a good mood, in fact he seemed emptied of energy, as if the practice of violence had swallowed up his craving for action. . . . Certainly he was bothered by the critical tone she had used in alluding to the morning’s expedition. He’s convinced, Lila thought, that I don’t understand why he hit Gino like that, why he wanted to beat up the guard. Good or bad, all men believe that after every one of their undertakings you have to put them on an altar as if they were St. George slaying the dragon. He considers me ungrateful, he did it to avenge me, he would like me to at least say thank you.

The quotation begins and ends one paragraph, though I haven’t quoted the paragraph in its entirety.

Context lets readers know that this paragraph begins with the narrator’s female friend interpreting a male they both know. We’re reminded that we’re inside Lila’s head by the attribution “Lila thought” which also creates an opportunity for an “I” (in “that I don’t understand why”) besides the “I” of the first-person narrator (who rarely uses the first-person pronoun, probably strategically, making room for others’ use of it). The next sentence is unattributed, but it seems likely that readers will see it as another of Lila’s thoughts. The sentence after that comes from deep within Lila’s consciousness, deep enough that it includes “me.” This sentence reveals the most about her, her perception of the guy she’s thinking about, and significantly the first-person narrator. That first-person narrator’s interpretation of her friend and their mutual friend also characterizes the narrator. It allows her to write in first-person and move deeply within another character’s inner life in compelling, but not confusing, ways.

So, to characterize, consider the following technique: a minimal, distant remembering first-person that uses an explicit attribution of feeling or thought (“Lila thought”), followed by an “I” referencing that other character (Lila), at least a sentence that can be considered more of that other character’s thoughts (the “St. George” sentence), and then a sentence deep within the other character, one that references that character explicitly, with “me,” in this case.

Lessons from a sentence

I’ve just finished reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West: A Novel. It’s an excellent text book on novel writing. Allow me to demonstrative (hopefully) with just one sentence, written as three of the characters cope with the death of another:

“Saeed’s father encountered each day objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion, and Nadia encountered each day objects that took her into Saeed’s past, a book or a music collection or a sticker on the inside of a drawer, and evoked emotions from her own childhood, and jagged musings on the fate of her parents and her sister, and Saeed, for his part, was inhabiting a chamber that had been his only briefly, years ago, when relatives from afar or abroad used to come to visit, and being billeted here again conjured up for him echoes of a better era, and so in these several ways these three people sharing this one apartment splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time.”

First this sentence is a reminder of one of Donald Barthelme’s exercises, called, I think, “Assignment: Write a sentence with some attention to the notes below.” To summarize, Barthelme asks what should readers demand from sentences in fiction? He mentions four things: sentences should surprise, be true, be beautiful, and turn “the mind toward original questions, first principles, the deepest sort of search for meaning.” Barthelme’s exercise encourages those performing it to consider possible examples in the light of each of these criteria. As high as these expectations are, Hamid’s sentence meets them.

His sentence also illustrates two other principles. The first is that setting reveals the characters. Readers come to know and understand these characters because they are seen in this particular place. The objects that they have chosen to surround themselves with helps identify the characters.  Saeed’s father, having kept objects that belonged to his wife, is jolted from the present as he encounters them. Nadia, encountering objects from Saeed’s past, is reminded of her own. Saeed experiences nostalgia as he rediscovers a childhood room. In all of these cases, characterization and setting blur.

Secondarily and similarly, characterization and plot blur. The characters in this sentence are all responding differently to the death of Saeed’s mother. Their responses involve tiny changes in how they see and are in the world. What has happened to these characters has changed their way of being in the world. Their encounters with the objects and the place around them, the sentence clearly suggests, is different than it had been. Saeed’s father’s consciousness is swept from its current moment, Nadia finds connections between her past and Saeed’s, and the setting conjures up memories of a better era for Saeed. Characters acting or being acted upon, even in these subtle ways, are forms of plot.

And it would be easy to go on by considering how characters can mesh in thematically significant ways like they do here, or how the sentence is organized, or this sentence and Charles Baxter’s counterpointed characterization from his book Burning Down the House.

If you want to do any of these things, Hamid provides a model.

Humor and what readers know

“For example, let’s say you have a main character whose feelings can be hurt if he’s spoken to sharply—unlike you, ha-ha-ha. Say he is also a little like you in the sense that when he gets a bit depressed or tense, he heads for a rib joint to eat a pound of burned, fatty meat. So he is perhaps also a little overweight—not that you are overweight. I’m sure your weight is just fine. Anyway, let’s make him someone who works in an office, someone who’s been pampered—what could he say that lets us see this?”

from “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott

Lots of interesting things going on in these sentences. Humor is one of them. The suddenness, the surprising transitions might be part of this: “spoken to sharply–unlike you, ha-ha-ha,” for example, but also the end of the sentence after the next one: “not that your are overweight.” The sentence after that, “I’m sure your weight is just fine,” protests too much, as Shakespeare might say.

The use of second person and the distancing effect (“This ‘you’ is not me. Oh, no, no, no. Not me”) associated with it gives readers room to laugh, a bit, at how autobiographical a main character might be. At the same time, the persona doubles-down on the connection between the reader and the main character: “Say he is also a little like you . . . .” Readers can laugh at the autobiographical connection while knowing, to an extent, of its connection to them, humans generally, and Lamott’s persona.

The last phrase of the last sentence is a question, but one that the example before it answers. The persona is saying things that let the reader know the hypothetical main character is pampered, overweight, eats when depressed, and sensitive. Subtle and effective.

Lessons from reading

Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson contains endless lessons for writers. Here are four:

  • Don’t be afraid to expand and explore. Rather than Netherland, which demonstrates the virtues of a tight focus, Cryptonomiconexplores widely and wildly. For example, I imagine a simple comparison like “The Vickers cut through the roadblock like a bandsaw cuts cheap wood” in a rough draft.  Stephenson seems to have revised by expanding both the tenor and vehicle of the comparison into long detailed paragraphs. The vehicle (a bandsaw) becomes a several page flashback from the narrating character’s past and the tenor (the Vickers) becomes a several page scene in the character’s present.
  • Stephenson seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the main subjects of his book: WWII, cryptography, information theory.
  • The novel consists of several long narratives that I expect to interconnect as the novel continues. Stephenson connects them thematically, obviously, but also by simply having the characters be related. The narratives take place years apart, but the characters are generally part of two families.
  • The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing (a composition textbook) suggests what it calls the “Old/New Contract.” Old information, information readers either have already been told or can reasonably be expected to know, is presented before new information. The effectiveness of this for some forms of writing is obvious. But Stephenson builds many of the sections within his chapters (and the chapters themselves) in a “New/Old/New” pattern. This pattern seems likely to increase reader engagement because it offers at least some degree of surprise consistently. For example, characters often begin sections in new, relatively unexplained situations. The next paragraphs in the section explain some backstory, explain how the character got into that situation. Then the section or chapter ends with more new information, usually shown in a scene, pushing the narrative forward. This new information creates a new hook or “cliff hanger” to varying degrees, but always propelling readers on.