Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Catching the Cat's Tale

By Karen Eck
2004, Karen Eck


Underfoot, my cat, was so focused on her tail that she noticed nothing but the twitch and sway of it. Enticing. Distant. Out of reach. No matter how hard she tried, she could not capture it. Tumbling across the floor, she bit and pawed, but the tail remained uncaught. With a sudden moment of inspiration, she flung herself over backwards. Still, the tail taunted her. She curled on the floor and watched as it twitched before her, searching for the answer to her dilemma. As I watched her, I wondered what she would do if she caught it.

How often do you find yourself chasing your tale? You know the beginning, the middle is in sight but the end is just out of reach. So, you chase it. And the circles begin. Sometimes we spend so much time circling the events that we never really hunt down the story in them.

Maggie slapped George. Here you have an event wrapped in possibility. Show the heart of the matter. Are women allowed to slap men? Has she always been a loving wife? Does he even know her? What does this slap mean? Why would she do it? As we answer these questions we draw the mind in to the premise. No longer is it just an event, it is a story.

Does your tale taunt you? As you write, do you find your efforts fruitless, resulting only in frustration? Where is the source of a tale well told? Ask yourself why the tale twitches and you will find yourself nearing the answer.

Maggie is in love. She has vowed never to touch a man, for any reason, because her mother and sister were victimized when she was a child. Her resolve has softened with George, but how can she break her vow? Tearing down the defense she has erected around her heart is shattering her confidence and as she walks toward him, she realizes she doesn't know how to tell him what is going on.

We have now added a depth to the motive for the slap, but why does she do it? With this question in mind, I wrote the scene below.

Maggie hesitated for a moment behind a column watching the soldiers and easily picking out George. He would leave at dawn. She could do nothing about it.  And when he was gone... oh, she would more than pay for this love with regret; of this she had no doubt. Around him, other soldiers joked and wrestled. Another battle finished; the grateful townsfolk freed. The soldiers held no regrets of death this night, and all because of her assistance.

Contrast and urgency are both a draw to the reader. The relaxed attitude of the soldiers stands in direct contrast to the turmoil of our heroine as she contemplates losing something of value.

George was walking toward her. Should she tell him she had changed her mind about marrying him?

Compare the last two sentences with the following paragraph. Which one draws you in?

Sighing, she watched George shrug off a casual arm and turn away from the merry-making. He seemed solemn and distant, so changed from the confident leader who had planned the attack.

"My fault."

She started at the sound of her voice in the shadows, but could not deny the truth of her words. Why had she rejected his offer of marriage? Why had her hope fallen on this one, of all men? No retreat. No denial. She would have to choose happiness or live with regret for the rest of her life. But how could she so suddenly change?

Spectators unconsciously add feeling and emotion into a scene in real life. Have you ever seen someone at a party and just known they were unhappy? As we write, we want the reader to experience the same reaction, and feel part of the story by pinching the nerves that bring the right response.

She drew in a breath and pushed out of the shadows, dodging her way through the crowd of men. He saw her, and froze. What should she do? His eyes gleamed with a terrifying light that threatened to tear her heart from her body and bind it forever to his own. He moved, a slight motion of his hand toward her. As it dropped in obvious acceptance of her rejection the night before, she felt the loneliness well up to cut her off from the world.

"No!" She flung herself forward and her hand rose of its own accord, striking his face just below the eye. The sting of her palm sang with the beat of her heart as his arms tightened convulsively around her. She kissed him then, where the mark of her broken vow promised a future she had never dared imagine.

It's okay to leave the reader saying, "What? Why did she slap him?" I don't think Maggie knows why, but her confusion and her rejection of the idea that she had lost him drove the story to this point. A little mystery in your characters will leave them less predictable and, in consequence, more real. Use that mystery and make sure you, at least, have a good grasp of the reasons events happen.

As far as illustrations go, this one is exaggerated to show the point I hope to make. A single slap becomes a story when it is endowed with purpose, history, meaning and feeling.

No, I haven't forgotten Underfoot's plight. She made one last grab for the tail and bit down, hard. With a yowl, she fled the premises. She had made a discovery. I hope we have as well. Tails, when bitten, hurt. For your tale to capture its audience, you need to punch the nerves.

Novels are made up of stories woven together into a larger frame. Maintaining this height of emotional response for an entire novel would be overkill. As in all things, moderation is the key.

So what does a story need? I'll tell you what I always search for when writing: Life, Action, Emotion, Change, Depth and Perception. A story without these is empty; it holds little for the reader even if the overall concept is astonishing and unexplored in the history of writing.

Some writers can become so immersed in the 'what' of their plots, that the 'why' and 'who' fade into meaningless forms as they try to hold together the brilliant plot. Avoid that trap by finding the nerve center and writing from it. Remember, each scene is a story all its own.