Tell Them What You’re Gonna Tell Them…
There’s a simple adage in giving factual talks: “Tell them what you’re gonna tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.
I am going to suggest that’s what happens with a good short story.
See? I’ve just told you what I’m going to tell you. Has any suspense been lost? Or are you set up to pay attention? After all, I CAN’T be right, can I?
My story “Ballistics”. Well, yes, the title tells you that ballistics will feature, so no suspense there, then, and the text?
A set of car keys, fat as a grenade, is arching towards your eyeball. The tip of one key, v-shaped will precisely pierce the dark core of your eye. You're not yet two years old but this won't protect you. You are not old enough to understand that these keys, thrown in anger, began their journey a year before you were born, that maybe, a psychiatrist will say, they began even further back when a mother left a father, or further back than this, when a mining foreman, bitter, too bad for drink, strapped his wayward son.
So immediately, my premise is set out. Nothing is accident, things are not chance. Everything we do has a consequence. The story goes on to detail the accident, what happened to the child, and then the adult woman, but not before, paragraph two, we hear: One day you will marry a much older man, a man with a criminal record for violence, who shaves his head brutishly short, who has his country's emblem tattooed on his chest, but nothing, nothing of this exists yet…
The story brings the girl now woman and the now older father together. There was an affair, anger, the father threw keys, but the young woman now wants to know about the other woman, did her father love her? Perhaps the story has become richer, but still, it’s ballistics, just like the title and the opening said it would be.
Another story, “Miguel Who Cuts Down Trees” is about a guy, guess his name and what he does. It opens:
When I was a little boy, I had a wooden truck. One day the truck began to move by itself. It went around the yard and then it came back to me. I went to sleep. When I woke it was just a wooden truck.
When I was fourteen I was flying a kite. I saw an angel alongside my kite. She was very beautiful. I found I could make the angel move by pulling the string of my kite, but then I fell asleep and when I woke my kite was broken and trampled with mud.
Ask yourself. Will this be a happy story? Is the boy to be man destined to be rich and famous? You know he’s not, but why? Hasn’t the author directed you? Sure, you expect a plot, not everything is pre-explained, but don’t you sense the essence? If I show you the third paragraph are you now in any doubt about Miguel’s life?
When I was fifteen I loved another boy. He was beautiful, almost as beautiful as the angel on my string. My boy kissed me when it was dark but then I was awake and my father sent me to a far island to be a fisherman.
Poor Miguel will spend a life, use, abused, lost. And how will he end up? From the title, do you think he will have found an accommodation with the world? Do you think he has powers, or sees things?
All these stories are winners of first prizes. What do you think will be the main element of the story: An Old Man Watching Football After Sunday Lunch? Go on, guess.
I’m an old man watching football after Sunday lunch. Earlier we went to The Sun in the Wood. I had Cold Turkey, Mary had Roast Lamb, her mother looked like mutton dressed up, with mint-sauce. There we were, lording it, our Sunday-best, our table reserved as usual in the annexe, four bottles of Chateau Neuf du Pape opened and breathing, waiting for us when we arrived. El Perfecto!
My grandson plays soccer. (The manager is a clown). It’s a crap day, wet, wind, and I have to remind myself I’m a volunteer, here to watch my boy. When he pulls on that red shirt I realise he is the most important thing to me.
OK, so he’s old and watching soccer, but do you really think that’s all it will be? Why not? We know he (granddad) has a bit of “an attitude”, likes a hefty drink. We know what he does every Sunday. We know what is the most important thing in his world.
Each paragraph establishes facts and sets us up for what will come. But one hundred words in, frankly couldn’t this story go anywhere? Well, no, not anywhere, but it needs narrowing in.
Let me back-track a moment. For my pains, years back I sold my one decent novel. Now I hack out lousy copies, shadows of that first one, and for whatever reason I still get booked to talk to writers. Yesterday I was in Wales, a shit-hole seaside resort called Porthcawl – a writers conference – and I found myself visiting the town’s Rest Bay Hotel, a hotel for gentle-folks.
There’s that “attitude” again, but the guy is an old writer with an attitude, and is it not highly likely the attitude, the grandson, the idiot manager will all come together to make the story’s point?
In my story Green Glass, do you think glass will feature, and what colour will it be? Exactly!
When you say it, finally say it, when you tell her you're leaving, when you finally realise that loving her isn't enough, not if she can bring you so much pain, your anger is so great you crush the wine glass you're holding. You watch as splinters embed in your hand, as a long, wicked shard of dark green glass hooks into the flesh of your thumb, your Mount of Venus, and you watch the blood from your palm, your arm, flow magically red to the floor.
The blood is everywhere, the rug, the drapes, but she laughs at your crucified hand, your slashed wrist. She says, "My, honey, so much drama for such a pathetic little man. Rush yourself to the hospital, why don't you?"
You know green glass will matter. You can see the end of a relationship. So the story will be about a guy finding himself again, and that glass will feature. But will he love women or hate them or be afraid of them? Will the answer to that create the story’s tension? You tell me. Next paragraph.
There is a moment so black you want to kill her, then kill yourself, but you don't. You just leave. You leave her without another word, drive one-handed to the emergency room, get fixed. The nurse is older, thin-faced, with small grey eyes, a nose so sharp it looks dangerous. She doesn't much like you and when she speaks, spittle forms in the corner of her mouth. "Suicide," she says, "you need the stroke this way." She thinks this is funny, "Up the arm, and it's better with a razor."
You try to say it was an accident. "Sure," she says, and you think two bitches in one day, Jesus.
Do you think now he’ll get on the road?
The first night is anger-easy. After Nurse Ratchett has sewn you up you start driving. Earlier, you had thrown your typewriter, a bottle of Southern Comfort, a clean shirt in the trunk of the car. You check into the first motel you see as soon as darkness begins to drop across your eyes, you pay cash for the room, then you take the bottle, the shirt and the typewriter indoors.
So you know everything. This will be about how he loses then how he changes. I shan’t tell you more… and don’t forget the glass.
Who do you think The Bastard William Williams will be about?
I’m making you think, aren’t I?
I am the bastard William Williams, late of The Universal Pit, Senghennydd, then Abertridwr, and latterly the cellars of The Commercial Hotel, as pot man. Now that the dust have slowed me I am easy to find. I am still lived next door to the English Congregational Church, Commercial Road, Senghennydd. I venture from my place only for the English Cong, and in summer, if I am lucky, a visit from a relation.
Until the coaldust on my chest confined me to my front room I have been known as a hearty man. My years is matched exact to the century and for the most part it have been a good life, wholesome. I think though, with what have passed, I shall not like to be here when the clock strike two thousand.
Very quickly we get the man, his Welshness, and importantly that he refers to himself as “bastard”.
That has to matter.
We get a little bit more of “Wales” and then: I am not one for writing, and never was much of a one for talking either. I would not tell you of this, I would just let it go, but Lord forgive me, I am writing it down. I have a good copperplate strapped into me at town school which has never left me; I have my retirement pen, my Quink, a pad to write this and enough hot in me to bore a new pit-shaft. I must record the visit of the man Allen Jones. If I am not to get this out of me, I will surely be bursted, so better or worse, it shall go down.
Allen Jones, with long red hair like a woman, a liking for his own voice and him on a fired-up mission to discover his past.
And there it is, the whole set up. But then there’s this bastard thing, which must matter. Why do we know it matters? Because the author “old us.” He told us by making his title and by having the bastard nature emphasised in the first sentence.
Openings and endings, of stories, lectures, books, are important. Also the beginning and end of a paragraph are important. It’s there in a lecture that we make our big-hit points. See how in paragraph one we get “bastard” at the start and “visit” at the end. In para two we get his health at the beginning, then his age and date at the end. Then see how the specific importance (the reason for him telling the story) is at the end of a paragraph, and see how in the last paragraph his visitor is described, then the mission.
Most importantly we have all the ingredients of the story “up front”.
Mother, Questions is about a woman questioning her mother.
The first paragraphs do a lot.
Mother, can I ask, with you and Dad, my father, how did it happen, how was it? Were you frightened, excited, was he strong, was he clumsy?
You told me once, before you died, you said, "We walked out for almost a year and then, one day, on a bridge over the canal at Alt-y-ryn, he asked if he could kiss me." You said you laughed, couldn't help it. He ran home.
So Mum, how did you get from there to being my mother? How did that shy young man learn to make love? Was he your first, Mum? Nellie said to me once, (she was drunk on gins), she said you had a beau everyone wanted, but he was "a bit of a lad, a heart-breaker", wouldn't take no for an answer.
So we know immediately that the woman wants to speak about the father and sex (paragraph one) but then paragraph two shows us these questions are being asked of a dead mother. Is the daughter well?
Note too (end of a paragraph) that the father is shown refusing to take no for an answer. Why might that be?
Like with other stories, this one could still go in different directions, but the next paragraph is:
I always wondered, wondered how I happened. I'm here, some kind of me, and I'm you, the bridge across the water, my hopeless father. Am I my sisters too, am I my brother? If they hadn't come before me, you would have been different, things would have been different, nothing, nothing, nothing would have happened exactly as it did. I wouldn't be this me, I wouldn't be able to ask these questions. How can it be that I exist without it being necessary that I exist? But how could these loves, bridges, kisses, how could they have all made my history, made me this, put me here?
So, in this fiction we have a daughter, clearly tortured, reflecting on even being alive. And we know from earlier that she’s talking to her dead mother. Would it surprise yout to discover she was in a mental hospital? And is the tone not sad? Do you not have a fair guess at where this story is headed?
I’d like you to guess about the core fact in the story The Last Love Letter of Berwyn Price. Go on, try. Did you think it might involve a love letter? Do you think Berwyn is alive or dead?
So I have given away two-thirds of the story. Have I killed it? Well “Berwyn” placed second of 5,000 entries and has earned £1,150 to date, so maybe not?
The story itself opens unusually, with a Rugby Almanac entry which quickly tells us about Berwyn’s athletic life. We discover Berwyn was a famous rugby player and won a gold medal for sprinting. Then, right at the end of the entry is a small sentence: Son of Philip Price, Swansea & Aberavon, one Welsh cap.
This is fiction. Why on earth would we need that last sentence? Could it be that parents and children, the family line continuing, would be important?
Would you think that a rugby international, the son of a rugby international, might quite like a rugby international or two for sons?
And is Berwyn dead?
Mrs Bethan Price, if you're reading this, then it looks like I must have managed it, after all. I went and over-did it and popped my clogs, just like you and Doctor Llewellyn said I would. So bugger me, I'm dead, well what do you know? I'm sorry love, but if that's what happened, then it happened. I'll bet I died happy, though. Was it at the Arms Park? I bet all I could see when the moment finally came was red and white and green. I bet I could smell the lads and the mud, see the flags and hear Bread of Heaven!
I bloody well hope it was like that. I hope I didn't keel over on the way to the stadium. You and the girls…
So we know the man, his sporting history, that he was married, that he loved his wife, that he has died (and we think we know where) that he almost certainly wanted sons, but none are mentioned, and it’s about “men things”, sport, going there…
And does the tone suggest depressing or uplifting? Do you see how much has been given to you?
A story called The Quarry… Is it about a quarry where something is mined, or about a quarry being hunted? Could it be both?
It begins with a page of a young boy describing how to make a home-made crossbow. That description is straightforward but there are words underlined (emphasised to point them out to you.) What do they do or might they do?
This is how you make your crossbow. A piece of three-by-two pine [u]you got from a building site[/u], cut it up. Make a [u]crucifix[/u], two nails at the centre, otherwise the cross-piece moves. [u]You’ll have to buy[/u] the thick rubber, but no problem. [u]Get over the wall at the back of Feraro’s Chip Shop, steal a few pop-bottles, [/u]take them back in the morning for the deposits.
Nail the rubber along the cross-piece. Don’t put the nail through the rubber. It’ll split. Use a couple of nails each end, bang them in either side of the rubber, then smash them over the rubber till it squishes down. You have to do two nails, otherwise it can come out. That happened to Colin Hicks. [u]It’s why he’s got a glass eye.[/u]
Never mind the plot, think character. What kind of kids? Are they law-abiding citizens? Note crucifix and nails. What religion is the narrator?
Approximately one page in, the instructions finish. We then get this:
Practice a bit over the Gollers, hitting cans and shooting at the rabbits. You’ll have to be a dead-eye dick. You won’t get two shots.
You use your sister, practice in the front room. You tell Maddie it’s the only way. You have to get good because otherwise, well just, otherwise...
So we know these kids are petty thieves, make seriously dangerous home-made-crossbows, that something is dangerous as they won’t get two shots. We also know it involves Maddie and they must practice until they are perfect. While you can’t precisely know what comes next, you have to presume this involves the narrator, his mate or mates, crossbows, Maddie, and great danger.
They have or quarry or this happens in a quarry.
In L for Laura; L for Love the protagonist is an “OK”, but not too bright bloke:
Ay for orses, remember that? A for orses, B for mutton? C fer yerself, D fer payment? Not sure I could remember it all. I'm not even sure if that's right, A-B-C-D.
A is really for Alice, B for Billy Smith she ran off with. C is for Clown, me for not noticing. D is for Diane my second, after we had to wait all those years until I was officially deserted.
It’s a fair bet this is about “Laura” and love. But is the protagonist a lucky guy? We know almost immediately that he’s been twice-cuckolded. What’s the betting that what’s to come is a new woman? The question is, will he finally get lucky or end up cheated again. See how little is withheld.
Ford Maddox Ford’s novel “The Good Soldier” opens, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Let’s not settle down for a comedy, then!
Of course, being “up front” with the reader doesn’t always mean being direct and obvious.
But “what will come” can also be heralded subtly, with vague hints, with the tone and music of the piece as well as blatant “telling”.
In The Smell of Almond Polish the title is NOT a clue. We can only presume that almond polish and its smell will feature. And when the story opens:
Paddington, London, 1954
Bridie Collins steps down from the train, waits for the crowd to wrap her up. She looks above her; pigeons scattering under the great glass roof. Someone bumps her shoulder, rushes on. In the half-light she shivers, picks up her cardboard case and walks towards the ticket collector.
We get the date and an important character. But what about the tone? Happy? Sad? When you have decided, ask where the tone comes from, and how much does the tone steer the reading?
But why is Bridie here, and like this?
On the train, from Wales, Bridie had listened to the clattering songs in the track. "Did she do right? Well, did she do right? What could she have done? What should she have done? Was it right, was it right, was it right?"
After twenty-minutes, about an hour-and-a-half ago, the train had slowed down, clacking and slapping as it crossed points, then easing into the dark Severn tunnel. Bridie had felt her first real moment of guilt, then. How could she have left Pat, Jenny, Ronnie? And Barbara, Angela? Smoke had leaked in through an open window, but then the train emerged into light sunlight, bright, fresh English green, and she was excited. Now the rails whispered, "Of course it was right. Of course it was right. What else could you do, could you do, could you do? It was right. It was right. It was right."
We now have Bridie’s recent history. She has left home. Do we think she is a good person or a bad person? I think the tone and the music, and one line declares how she should be viewed.
But in the case of this story we do not appear to have the full story and outcome given to us (clearly OR subtly) but if this was a lecture on Bridie’s story, what is here would say “Bridie left her husband and children to run away to London, because she feels she had no choice. But still she feels guilty. My lecture will show how Bridie fights to establish herself but remember that the pull of motherhood is very strong.”
OK, in this case we have to wait and see, but nevertheless, note just how many alternative possibilities have been eliminated. The reader can be in little doubt as to the kind of read that is coming.
Should we empathise and sympathise with Bridie? Is she big and strong, money in her pocket, or tiny, timid, a leave in the wind?
The ticket-collector is a darkie. He smiles, has gold on one tooth. Bridie smiles back. Steam hisses somewhere, everything smells of sulphur. People push round her. She picks up her little case and walks out of the station into a damp morning. She has nowhere in the world to go.
Let’s hear it for Bridie!!
As I have said, many good stories, prize-winning stories can open with a clear direction and “almost instantly” declare themselves. I’ve also said they can be more subtle. This is a recent flash.
THREE BROTHERS, ONE BOAT
We are brothers, three old codgers on a shingle beach beneath a staggering moon. We are old, old, with our trousers rolled, and we are each of us and all of us, a little crazy.
We are escapees, illicit, sucking in a feeling as deliciously wicked as a hand up a sitting skirt beneath a coat, as glorious as stolen icing sugar and marzipan in a Christmas kitchen, as lucky as death pushed back again.
By now the word must be out. Discrete alarms ring or buzz, three Welshman and the night is cold – related yes, and all as mad as a cat – yes, yes, dead or alive will be fine.
There is nothing direct here, but what will happen to these brothers? Ask, what do we have. The title, gives us “boat” (and could also signify “in the same boat”. We hear they are crazy, they are “escapees”. The word death and dead occurs in the first 108 words.
Go on. Guess.[/quote]