Intriguing Stories

The other day in my introductory fiction-writing workshop we talked about the intrigant, a term coined by Jerome Stern in his book Making Shapely Fiction. An intrigant is anything in a story that makes the reader want to keep reading.

As an exercise I had each student write one sentence that they thought would work as an intrigant. Then each student passed their paper to the person on their right, and each got to read someone else’s intrigrant and then add another “intriguing” sentence to follow from the first. Then the papers were passed again, and another sentence written, and so on. After seven passes, the eighth person’s challenge was to come up with a satisfying concluding sentence. The end result being a collection of micro-stories of eight sentences each, each one written collectively by eight different people.

Here are three of the stories:

“Why is there a box sitting right there James?”
            James glanced around wildly but could not find the source of the voice. Outside of the small pool of light in which he and the box stood, he could see nothing. The question echoed in his mind, pushing him to open that box and find an answer, lest he suffer some horrible punishment for not knowing.
            Yet the voice waited just outside of recognition, and the hair on his arms stood as he contemplated his choice.
            “The box, James,” the voice pushed, “why is it there?”
            “Am I dead?” asked James, his voice almost failing him.
            “The box, James,” repeated the voice, “is your life. If you are not inside, then you are--”
            “Dead,” James finished, the word turning sour in his mouth.

“You aren’t crazy if the shadows start calling your name,” my father told me, “but the next time you go for a walk, take a flashlight.”
            I only wish he had told me not to call back.
            Nothing good ever came of calling back.
            Next time I went I was glad to have the flashlight because it was good for more than finding my footing. It was probably what saved my life, that little piece of manmade light. Or rather, was it the manic elf who lived on my shoulder (though it seemed no one else could see him)? He usually had my back, I found, but my father wouldn’t let me talk about him, saying only crazy folk had shoulder-elves, and his daughter was certainly not crazy.
            The elf agreed.

After buttoning her burberry trench coat and tying on her Hermes scarf, Brenda swung the Chanel bag containing the severed hand onto her shoulder and called to her husband, “I’m ready.”
            He was already at the door, frowning back in consternation as he tucked his worries into the back of his mind; they were already an hour late and their clients weren’t known for being forgiving. On the contrary, they were known for being singularly unforgiving. They didn’t want to repeat what had happened the last time. So this time, Brenda had taken several precautions – hence the severed hand she had so carelessly tossed over her shoulder.
            Just as they were about to close the door behind them, he stopped. “Brenda!” he called in anxiety, “I don’t know where I put the eyeballs!”
            “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I have them too.”
            Planning Halloween parties was a very stressful job.

The vampire plague

They’re everywhere. There are so many of them infesting Story these days that sometimes it seems there are more undead in books and on glowing screens big and small than there are regular people. And rather than being creatures of pure evil, these bloodsuckers have hopes and dreams and relationship problems just like the rest of us. In fact some are so unlike whatever was supposed to scare us about them in the first place that it seems “vampire” has simply become a trendy way of saying that a character in a story is “cool” or “different,” or even “rich.”

It seems to happen every few years, this virulent cycle: we find ourselves craving genus Nosferatus in our stories. We just can’t get enough of them, we binge on them, and then get heartily sick of them, as every tired toothy cliché gets overworked and exhausted, and all the same old “twists” get passed off as new. The blood of Story grows clotted and unnourishing. The night people no longer have the same scare factor or hipness quotient and we go looking for something else. Vampires quietly fade into the night. Then a new generation comes along looking for thrilling stories, and the Undead crawl forth once more, reviving on the scent of fresh victims.

But we’re not really the victims. We do this to ourselves. We’re the creatures of unholy appetites. We the readers and viewers and browsers hungry for our next quick fix. We the editors and publishers and storymongers seeing the trend beginning again and flooding the screens and shelves with more vampires. Entire aisles at the bookstore of dark covers featuring haunted-looking young women beneath titles that drip blood (though this time around there will probably be a lurching zombie  somewhere in the background). And the poor ghosts and witches and werewolves who always seem to play second fiddle, hanging around the edges of the feeding frenzy wondering if this time it’s really their turn. If this time they’re the big new thing.

Or maybe this time it’ll be minotaurs.

We force the Undead to rise too soon and too often from their well-earned sleep. We yank them up out of their coffins and charnel pits and make them dance for us. We dress them up to make them fresh and relevant but we still insist they act out the same threadbare plots over and over again.

Poor vampires.

Summer's Lease

 Summer arrived late this year.  I mean really late. I found her setting up camp by the lumber yard just outside of town, in a clearing  in the middle of a patch of scrubby old trees somebody had forgotten to cut down. The leaves on these dusty trees are already turning yellow, and now she shows up? 

Every time she comes this way she surprises me, that’s a given.

She’d set up her musty old canvas tent and was stringing paper lanterns through the trees when I found her. She had a snappy little fire going. It was actually a bit cool in the shade of those trees. She never worries about whether she's trespassing. They can shout and curse and point to their fences and signs, but in the end it has to be admitted she's got a perpetual lease wherever she chooses to settle.

I didn’t bother asking her why she was so late. I knew all too well she never answers questions like that. Summer doesn’t really inhabit time like the rest of us. It’s more like she makes time. When she’s around you can feel time kind of slowly percolating out of things, or into things.

I kept quiet about the lateness but I did ask her why she insisted on living like a bum. She laughed at that, and put water on to boil for jasmine tea.

She has this ridiculous whistly laugh like a blackbird warbling, and when she laughs her gold tooth shines in the sun. Sometimes I think I come to see her just for that laugh, and that tooth.

“Are you sure I’m not a hobo or a tramp?” she asked me. “Maybe you’re using the wrong word.”

“Hobos work,” I said. “And tramps work when they’re forced to. These words have specific meanings. Bums are the ones who don’t work.”

“You think I don’t work?” she asked, giving me a look with that hot deadly eye of hers. “I work like a son of a gun.”

She sounded angry but neither of us was serious. She works, I know it, and she knows I know it. It’s just that she works like nobody I else I’ve ever met. She gets things done without seeming to lift a finger. Everything that needs doing gets done, and then it's like nothing's been done at all. How does that happen?

“How long are you staying?” I asked as we drank the tea and shared some coconut macaroons she had in a paper bag. It was another question about time, but I couldn't help myself. I like hanging out with the old girl and I'd missed her.

I found a bit of twig in the bottom of my teacup. Summer started telling one of her rambling stories, about some of the folks she hitched rides with when she was on her way here from the coast, the kind of story that drifts along like a silty stream, and you know you don’t have to listen to every single word, the story is just there and somehow you’re part of it, too, as it unfolds. After a while I was aware of a needling buzz that I thought was mosquitoes, then I remembered the mosquitoes were already done for the year and it had to be the sound of the saws at the lumber yard. I pictured the clearing silent with snow, titanium white. I shivered.

“Not long,” she said, and it took me a moment to realize she had actually answered my question. “Though they’re not in any hurry to see me again over the way. Think I overstayed my welcome last time.”

“Well,” I said casually, “if that’s the case, why not stay with us a little longer?”

She nodded, the kind of nod that you know isn’t an answer to your question but simply an acknowledgement that the question is there and has its place in the scheme of things. Then she poured us both another cup of tea.