Story is everywhere

[First part of a weekly series related to my new story analysis service So, What’s Your Story.]

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Even the most esoteric subjects have story, with all the elements of a fictional novel or screenplay…even text books about business or biochemistry or writing.

There’s no story in text books!

Yes, there is.

Only here, plot is less about action sequences and more about the interplay of the different aspects of your subject and the causes and effects that drive your theses or perspectives forward. This can be reflected in the cadence of your descriptions, as you walk the reader through your arguments, leading them to your conclusion.

Likewise, your characters are less about personalities and more a sense of the…you guessed it…characteristics of your subjects. In the broadest sense, the conflicts and synergies between the component parts or ideas of any topic are what effectively humanize the topic, providing a familiarity to the reader or viewer.

Without story, your manuscript or presentation has no narrative drive, nothing to draw the reader or viewer forward. Instead, it reads like a specification sheet or spreadsheet; a series of minimally connected facts and figures that provide information but only to the most intrepid reader.

Story is one of the reasons why you can have hundreds (thousands?) of different versions of the same facts, and how publishers and book retailers stay in business.

So, if you’re working on a nonfiction manuscript or presentation, let’s talk and see how well you are bringing your ideas to your audience.

Reach out and tell me: What’s your story?

Twitter: @createdbyrcw

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/storyanalysis/

Website: [to come]

The Drive (a short story)

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“Are we there, yet?”

The phrase that irritated me for the thousand times a week it bore into the back of my head now haunts me.

It had taken forever for me to convince the boys to leave their seat belts alone, to keep their hands from compressing the buttons that stood between confinement and filial battle. And more than once, I found myself wishing that rather than cross their laps, the belts crossed their mouths, stilling the staccato tarantella that skipped across my brain.

Silently, I would curse my husband for wanting children so close in age; built-in playmates, he would argue as though siblings were naturally adept at civility and sharing. Never marry someone who was an only child, I would remind myself; too many delusions of a happy peaceful family to dispel.

“Are we there, yet?”

The words and whine a cattle prod to my ear drums, my head involuntarily snapping to one side, threatening to glance off the door frame, the open window insufficient to drown the drone from the back seat.

“Are we—“

“Has the car stopped moving?” I’d shout at the rear-view mirror as though it was the source of my agony rather than simply a reflection of what I’d left behind.

For a second—a glorious second—the car would go silent, but the silence was an illusion, a prelude to crises yet to come. Inquisitive urges not quelled so much as turned aside, as unsatisfied attention-seeking demanded to be slaked.

“Mo-o-om!” came the high-pitched cry.

“I’m not doing anything,” its wounded echo, pre-emptorially defending actions yet unchallenged.

“Enough,” I charged, confronting the miniature offenders with turned head.

The light was green, or at least that’s what the report said, as though the colour protected me from my guilt any better than it protected my car from the panel van approaching from the left; as though an absence of fault even approximates an absence of self-loathing anguish.

The car was a write-off, and after six months of my husband’s words telling me it wasn’t my fault while his eyes told another story, so was my marriage.

And now, sitting here in my wheelchair, all I can think of is “Are we there, yet?”

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Trench – A short story (Part One)

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Ass over tea kettle, Francis plunged into the trench, its existence in the darkness signalled by nothing but a lack of anything, his fall broken by ice-crusted water and gelatinous mud.

Spewing the filthy frigid water from his mouth, Francis tried to regain his footing, his body too cold, his mind too much in shock, to tell if anything was broken. Every movement, however, was a mired mess as the cloying mud that perpetually threatened to steal his boots worked in concert with the glass-sharp ice to hold him down.

Francis wasn’t a weak or timid lad by any estimation having learned some hard truths about life while fighting to survive in a Welsh orphanage before finally relocating to a rural town outside of Ottawa in Canada. He knew what it was to toil in the fields, to be completely responsible for your own welfare, to stay alive. But  this, this was stupid.

How could a month of running around a farmer’s field in full pack have prepared him for this? Better to have him run up the Ottawa River in full flood that teach him to worry about gopher holes and broken ankles.

This wasn’t the France he had read about. The France of Dumas and Monet. This was some sort of crazed underworld that only the cold and wet prevented him from calling Hell. Perhaps this was Canadian Hell, he thought as he tossed his gun to the side of the trench.

Using his knife to clutch the dirt, he slowly achingly pulled himself from the muck. His hand struck a fragment of barbed wire that used to sit atop the trench wall. A barb pierced his skin but he actually found the pain refreshing as this was the first thing that had broken through the numbing cold. The wire also gave him a bit more leverage.

Francis scooped a seat out of the mud wall and rested. He was uncomfortable. He was miserable. But he was out of the water and out of the line of fire.

The night was overcast—he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the sun—and was illuminated sporadically by the distant blast of artillery. A thunderstorm that perpetually threatened but never actually rained.

As he chewed on a piece of meat that he had found in an abandoned farmhouse—it could be cow tongue or boot tongue for all the flavour it had—he smiled at how blasé he’d become about artillery bombardment in six short months.

The noise used to terrify him as he’d watch the ambulance corps bring the still-breathing remnants of soldiers from the front. He remembered several times feeling the sudden warmth of his own urine as he moved from trench to trench in his first days in battle. He quickly learned it was possible to be proud and experience wrenching fear at the same time.

Now, he was completely fatalistic about his chances. His hope was that should he come under bombardment, it be swift. This was not to say he was suicidal, however. Francis very much wanted to live.

More a feeling than anything concrete, Francis turned rapidly toward a sound in the darkness, knowing there was only a 50-50 chance his rifle would fire if called upon.

It was a low noise, the sound of something being tugged in the darkness. Short bursts of sound followed by silence. The sound neither receded nor approached, however. Whatever was being moved and by whom, the going was hard. That and they hadn’t noticed him.

Keeping as still as he could, Francis craned his sight into the shadows, focusing as hard as he could when the distant flashes gave him a moment of light. The noise continued its ebb and flow, unphased by the chaos around it.

Just as he thought his eyes would leave his head for the strain, he caught a furtive movement. On the next distant explosion, it was clear he was watching a rat. For its size, it could easily have been a raccoon, but its scraggly state and focused snout clearly suggested a rat.

With rabies running rampant throughout the front, Francis would normally have steered clear of the animal or tried to shoo it off. These were anything but normal times.

Slowly moving from his perch, Francis slid down the trench wall to the mud’s edge, creeping slowly toward the rat, rifle barrel firmly in hand. A couple times, the rat froze as though ready to run, but then resumed its activity as the artillery covered Francis’s approach.

In a fluid motion, the rat’s skull crunched under the butt of Francis’s rifle. Death swooped in so quickly, the rat never flinched or made a sound.

Grabbing its tail, Francis flicked the rat into a puddle, immersing it to drown any fleas, knowing in his heart that he was more likely to give fleas to the rat than the other way around. He then raised his prize into the air, letting the muddy water drip for a moment, as he pulled his knife back out.

Life on the farm paid off handsomely, as within minutes, he had successfully gutted the rat, throwing the offal as far as he could to avoid unwelcome family members. He had also peeled back the skin to reveal what he knew to be pink protein-laden meat.

Between the wet and the lack of fuel, a fire was out of the question, but Francis had his lighter, which he used to char segments of the rat before he bit into the flesh. The flashes of warmth and juicy flesh revived his spirit somewhat.

As he roasted his fifth piece, however, his eyes focused beyond the burning flesh and fire to take in what the rat had been tugging at.

Through the muck and mire, Francis stared at the toothy grin of a German soldier, drowned in a muddy avalanche of a collapsing trench wall. The soldier’s bottom lip was flayed while the left top lip was completely missing. No wonder the rat had struggled to bring its find home.

Francis stared at the death mask for a moment, before shifting his gaze to the rat remnants in his hand. As though scalded, he threw the rat down the trench and doubled forward, fisting the mud at his feet.

His back arched violently several times as he convulsed a wretching wail, but his starving body refused to release its cannibalistic gains. Instead, from deep within came a mournful cry that rose in volume and violence until it seemed he might turn inside-out.

Part Two in the next post.

(Image is property of the owner and is used here without permission, but a lot of respect.)

The Shoe – a short story

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The shoe just sat there in the middle of the platform, taunting Joanne. A slight wearing of the laces through the eyelets and a long black scuff mark to the left of the toe, the only signs that it didn’t just arrive there by some act of God. Whoever had owned the shoe hadn’t owned it for very long.

Joanne wondered if he or she was limping down a road somewhere or if the shoe’s partner was lying somewhere nearby, alone or perhaps still connected to a dormant leg.

Inserting a pencil into the shoe like she’d seen done on TV a thousand times, Joanne held the shoe in the light to get a closer look.

A sneaker. ASICs. White with blue stripes. Size 9½. The wear pattern uneven, more pronounced to the outer edge. The owner pronated. Or was it supernated? Joanne would look it up later.

“What do you think?”

William always asked the obvious questions.

Joanne did her best to replace the shoe exactly as she’d found it, before turning to face William.

At four foot two, William wasn’t very imposing, and the green baseball cap didn’t help, skewed slightly to the left on his head.

What William lacked as a brother, he more than made up for as an investigative assistant. Today was no exception as his pen sat poised above a tiny flip pad.

Joanne was the brains of the operation, while William provided the…penmanship. Brawn was still a few years into the future.

William wasn’t stupid. He played dumb way too well to be considered stupid. But he was frugal with his intelligence, saving it for answers shouted full volume at Alex Trebek. He had yet to get an answer right, but you had to admire his tenacity.

Joanne scrutinized William as she formulated her response.

“We’re looking for a man wearing one shoe,” she said slowly, giving William time to write. “A white ASICs with a blue stripe. New. If he’s not dead, he’ll walk with a limp.”

“How do you know it’s a man?” William asked, as he finished his notes.

“Because the shoe is too big for a boy,” Joanne responded with an unspoken “gawd”.

William wrote this down too. You never knew what would be important later.

“I meant, what if it—“

“I know what you meant,” Joanne snapped.

That was good enough for William.

“The shoe points East,” she added. It did. “Meaning he was waiting for a Westbound train.”

But whether he was travelling west or awaiting the arrival of someone from the east, she could not tell.

“He may also have owned a dog, because I detect the faintest odor of dog poo,” Joanne noted, wrinkling her nose even as she took another deep whiff.

“That’s probably me,” William offered, lifting his right foot forward to expose rivers of brown slurry coursing through the grooves of the shoe tread.

It was all too much for Joanne.

“You’re contaminating my crime scene,” she bleated. “Mo-o-om, William is contaminating my crime scene.”

“Get over here, both of you,” Mom replied. “The train is coming. And leave that shoe.”

She was right. The train was indeed pulling into the station. It would mean playing the odds, but Joanne was going to bet the man with one shoe was travelling west.

As the train stopped, Mom herded first William and then Joanne onto the train.

“Why do I smell dog dirt?” she asked, sniffing the air.

This must be where William learned that annoying habit.

Joanne ignored the question, immediately scanning the car for anything suspicious.

Typical commuters. Some talking quietly. Others immersed in a book. Still others faking sleep but clearly listening to music through ear buds. And all wearing two shoes, except…

There, at the other end of the car, was a man with only one shoe. A white ASICs with a blue stripe. Joanne couldn’t be sure from her vantage point, but everything screamed it was size 9½.

On the man’s other foot was…nothing.

Not even a foot. Or shin. The man only had one leg. Ingenious.

Joanne swatted at William to get his attention, but caught nothing but air. Mom had apparently taken him to the second level of the train car. Joanne was on her own.

Slowly, she slid into the first available seat that gave her an uninterrupted view of the man with one leg.

How he’d gotten off the earlier train and onto Joanne’s was something she still had to figure out, but clearly this was a cagey customer. She would have to watch him closely.

At least until Port Credit, when she, William and her Mom would get off the train to visit her grandmother.

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(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, but please don’t tell Joanne.)

Final Exam

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The lecture hall drained of students as though a giant plug had been pulled, chattering bodies sluicing through a doorway meant for half as many people. The dwindling echoes of students bounced off walls of silence as the doors hissed shut.

“Is there something you need, Miss Pepper?” Professor Kawai asked as he wiped the blue and red notes from a board that had long ago ceased to be white.

Jess stared intently at the open chemistry book before her, willing the sticks and letters to form the words she sought.

Kawai cradled the eraser onto the ledge and packed his belongings into an ancient valise. Stopping another moment to examine the lone tableau figure before him, he snapped his bag shut, the click reverberating off the walls.

As his hand depressed the door handle, he felt more than heard the words directed at him.

“You said something, Miss Pepper.”

Without moving, the words fell out of Jess’s mouth and into her book. “I studied.”

“Apparently, the wrong chapters,” Kawai responded without emotion, as though reciting a number from a phone directory.

The indifference drew Jess to face Kawai, her eyes registering something between shock and incomprehension.

“Perhaps you’ll do better on the final,” Kawai added, as if by rote.

“I won’t be writing the final,” Jess responded, slowly pulling her bag to the next seat and closing her text.

Kawai sighed and turned back to the door. “Then maybe next—“

Kawai was unable to finish his though, his focus drawn by the loud noise and the searing pain as two ribs shattered from his back to his chest, splattering the door with blood.

Kawai’s cheek slammed against the door, his knees buckling below him and he slid down the slick door.

As Kawai’s body flopped sideways and his head struck the floor, the lecture chamber filled with another explosion.

Other than the odd drop of blood, Jess’s mid-term exam paper remained largely unscathed, the purple “84%” clearly emblazoned in the upper right-hand corner.

Jess’s parents had sacrificed so much for her to succeed at school. Her failure in chemistry would be unacceptable.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission.)

Based on my true story

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As I wrote yesterday in “Write what you…No!”, I wanted to talk about a variant of writing on a topic in which you have expertise: the true story.

Now let me start off by saying that I have never written anything directly lifted from a true story—at least never attempted to fictionalize one—but I have spent the better part of two years listening to people try to do same, and it seems to me the effort is fraught with pitfalls.

(Ironically, however, I am about to start a project with someone that will be based on his true story, so let’s see if my attitudes change once I’m on the inside.)

The biggest challenge I have seen is that many novice writers forget that they need to tell a story. On the surface, that may sound ridiculous. It is a story. I know. I was there. The problem it seems is that a lot of writers try to chronicle the actual events that occurred rather than try to tell a story. That is a history, not a story.

It’s like sharing a joke with someone and having a third party enter asking what’s so funny. When you think about it, you realize the joke itself is not the funny part and you respond “You had to be there.”

The same holds true for the true story. With rare exceptions, while experiencing the actual events, you experienced emotions and actions that are just too difficult to translate into a narrative. And without your context, the audience loses something.

Likewise, you may be leaving out critical facts that are obvious or second-nature to you but elude us. When this happens, characters do not feel fully developed or plot points don’t seem connected, because we don’t instinctively see the link.

And ironically, despite what I just said, novice writers working on such stories tend to want to stick to the facts as they know it to the detriment of any sense of story…they refuse to fictionalize their story beyond changing names, settings and the odd plot point because to do more would be to remove the truth of their experiences.

Let me give an example.

A friend of mine was trying to develop a screenplay about a family coping with young adult son with a psychological disability, and the young man’s attempts to find his personal space. It was very well written, but at least in its initial stages, it felt like there were plot and motivational holes throughout the manuscript. As we discussed it in class, we learned that this was effectively a fictionalization of the writer’s family.

In her manuscript, the protagonist—the young man—was largely shut down from his family and even they largely repressed their feelings with each other as a coping mechanism. As an audience member, this made it difficult to get into the characters and rather than feel empathy or any form of connection with the protagonist, he just pissed many of us off. We hadn’t lived the experience the writer had, so we couldn’t see her story the way she did.

Try as we would to get the writer to see our dilemma, she was equally adamant that to make the protagonist any other way would make him unrealistic given his condition; a defensible position within limits. She couldn’t let go of enough of the truth to develop a story.

The story must come first if you ever hope to engage an audience. Even fact-laden documentaries and news items focus on a story or narrative. Without that, you are reading a dictionary or encyclopedia entry.

The truth or reality of your personal experiences are vitally important, but only in so much as they are used to bolster or support the story you are trying to tell. It is almost impossible to successfully do it the other way around.

(Image used without permission, and that’s my true story.)

The word was “lemon”

A short piece written at a local Flash Fiction show.

That old beater my dad kept in the barn hadn’t run in all the years that I could remember, but it made a hell of a playground for the kids in the neighbourhood.

One day, it was the Batmobile, screaming out of the Batcave as the Caped Crusader and his gender-neutral sidekick were off to feel all funny down there at the sight of a leather-clad Catwoman.

Other times, it was Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, plying the English Channel looking for Spanish galleons or sliding on the breeze through the Caribbean, searching for buccaneer plunder.

But most of the time, it was just my dad’s old beater, sitting there year after year, slowly filling up with mouse droppings or owl scat.

I remember one summer—I was about six—when my dad and grandfather tried to get the old car running. I learned a whole new language that summer, although it was about four years later before I found out that motherfuckingsonofabitchdickwadcrankbitch wasn’t one word.

That was the summer that we found out that cats like to crawl under the hood of a car and nap on the motor. You wouldn’t think it would be hard to get cat fur out of a fan belt, but you’d be wrong. Mom never really liked Mr. Wiggles anyway.

That was also the summer that dad went away. Whenever I would ask my mom about it, she would just cry, and my grandmother would try to distract me with cookies. So now, not only do I not know what happened to my father, but I am also a 300-pound diabetic.

Maybe that’s why I kept the car, as a reminder of the man I never got to know. Mom just shakes her head and my wife wonders why I don’t get rid of that old lemon. I dunno. Maybe they’re right.

All I know is that sometimes I’ll go out late at night to sit in the car and if I’m really still, I can still hear the sounds of the wind rippling in the sails and the sailors pulling on the rigging. You know, I never noticed how much my dad looks like Sir Francis Drake.

Drake protects the shores of Toronto from marauding pirates

Drake protects the shores of Toronto from marauding pirates