The Story You Tell

Even if we all read the same story, we get something just a wee bit different out of it.

“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t…Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.” ― Dorothy Allison

You sit at your desk and write and rewrite and then rewrite again.  No matter how carefully you craft your story, you can’t entirely control what your reader gets out of it.  In part, this is because each reader brings his or her own experiences to the table.  A child who has been physically abused will get things out of Julie of the Wolves that a child with a different background will entirely miss.

You can also see this effect with a really good picture book.  Because picture books are meant to be read by adults to children, the very best entertain both the adult and the child.  It is absolutely necessary if you want the adult reader to agree to read the book again and again and again upon request.  Check out What Really Happened to Humpty? by Jeanie Franz Ransom as a good example.  A child gets the slapstick nature of the physical comedy and the surface humor of an egg in a trench coat.   But when you apply the term hard-boiled detective to an egg in a trench coat, it funny in a very different way for the adult.

But there is also the problem of the story you meant to write vs the one you actually got down on paper.  No matter how carefully I craft a story, there are always things that were in my head that somehow never made it into the story.  I ferret out these issues in two ways.  First, by having someone else read the story.  Whenever my read has a question, it usually means that something didn’t make it onto the page.  Secondly, I analyze the story.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that analyzing my work is not something that comes naturally to me.  To do it well, I need to follow a series of steps such as those laid out in Darcy Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis.

Stories are like parfaits.  You never get the whole story down in one try.  To find out what you need to strengthen and shape, you need to analyze and then rewrite.  Layer upon layer the story builds until you are ready to hand it over the reader who will dig in, exposing the various layers for their own enjoyment.  The more effort you put into it, the longer this enjoyment lasts.


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