A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
A Visit with “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost”
I’m going to begin this month’s column by giving you a homework assignment. I’d like to invite you to read a story—a most compelling story—and then, when you return to this column, we’ll use that tale as an example (perchance, a lesson) of what good writing is all about.
Please read this story before continuing with the column below: https://parhelionliterary.com/laura-parnum
The question lingering over all our literary efforts is, “What really makes up a good children’s story?” Below you will discover selected elements that clearly distinguish good stories from those that are run-of-the-mill. We’ll use “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost” as an example of how those elements are seamlessly, wondrously, and magnificently included in a well wrought tale.
A Powerful Lead/Hook
A good book starts off with a strong “hook.” The “hook” grabs the reader’s attention—an introduction that is so amazingly interesting, incredibly mysterious, or delightfully thought provoking that readers just have to keep reading. These first sentences are an inducement to learn more or discover what comes next in the narrative. Here’s how the author of “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost” hooked us:
“Mrs. Alexander Bennington Claiborne ran her delicate fingers over the cushion of the parlor settee.”
Notice how the author used the full and formal name of the main character, the precise description of her fingers, a specific piece of furniture, along with its exact location. In one sentence the author offers four clearly defined facts that thoughtfully pull us into another time, a signature place, and a most unique character. This is a lead expressly designed to seize our attention and gently lure us into the story.
The right words, in the right place, at the right time. This is what all writers strive for—a constant linguistic challenge that propels a manuscript, any manuscript, through multiple drafts and multiple decisions. Too many writers are prone to telling about an action or a character when showing would give readers an opportunity to become part of the story. Look at these examples from “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost”:
- “Mrs. Claiborne sighed a great heavy sigh that, had her father still been alive, would have sent him searching the four corners of the globe . . . .”
- “Upon turning the corner, the handsome Ravenfield house had come into view with its gables and turrets and dormered windows.”
Precise vocabulary is invitational. It summons the reader to make a mental investment in the story . . . a visual image. In so doing, the reader’s engagement is both ensured and respected. This can only be accomplished when the words selected are as exacting as they can be.
The Rhythm of Language
Good writing has a melody. It has a cadence and a pacing that is rich and warm. It is musical and it is lyrical—an arrangement of words and sentences that compel, engage, and excite. It is something to be read aloud to a group of eager youngsters because its power is in the rhythm of the language. It is like a classical melody (Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight”) or a guitar riff (B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone”) that sounds wonderful the first time you hear it . . . and every time after that. It is a story to be savored like a song that must be played. It is music! Witness these examples:
- “Her silky hair was the color of butterscotch and was tied back with light blue ribbons. Her dress was the purest white, and her expression had just a hint of sadness.”
- “The scent of bergamot immediately filled her nostrils, and her hands, which she realized had been clenched, relaxed and reached for the cup.”
We learn about the personality of story characters, not by how they are described, but rather by what they say. Just like that person you met for the first time at the last social event. (You know, the guy who just couldn’t stop talking about himself.) You were able to assess his persona simply by listening to his words. In short, speech reveals character. You want to unveil your story characters in the same way. You don’t have to attach a plethora of adjectives to them, just let them talk and offer your readers an opportunity to deduce character from what each individual says. For example,
- “Mr. Claiborne chuckled. ‘Now they’re publishing ghost sightings on the society page. Ridiculous! I’m sure they just have drafty windows and an old servant who’s suffering from dementia.’”
- “‘I’m Mrs. Alexander Bennington Claiborne. Surely you’ve heard of my husband?’”
Good writers sprinkle unexpected literary delights throughout their manuscript. These aren’t necessarily required for the character, setting, or plot, but they add just a little more spice, making the reading just a little special. They are an added bonus—a treat for both the eyes and the ears. These are the surprises that differentiate a good story from a great story. They make a story richer by their inclusion and our experience of that story a little more memorable. Remember these examples:
- “The next thing Mrs. Claiborne knew, the girl had wrenched herself from her grip with a strength quite surprising for one supposedly so sick.”
- “But this woman was nothing if not ordinary. The only noteworthy thing about her appearance was a large collar of lace draped over her otherwise plain gray frock.”
These five elements are essential—no, critical—to a story well told. Consider them as vital components in your own writing as much as they were intrinsic to Mrs. Claiborne’s tale.
|NOTE: Many readers will recognize the author of “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost.” Laura Parnum is the Co-Regional Advisor for Eastern PA SCBWI and the Editor of EasternPennPoints. She is a celebrated author in her own right, and I’m honored to have her as my mentor on “Write Angles.” She introduced me to “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost” last October, and as soon as I read it, I knew it would be an exemplary model for a future column. There is much to savor here . . . and much to learn! Thank you, Laura.|
Tony is the author of more than 50 children’s books. In addition, he has written the celebrated Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know from Story Creation to Getting Published (https://amzn.to/3ey0CsG). [“. . . a must have for all authors writing fiction and non-fiction books. This is one of the best books I’ve seen on the market . . . from beginning to end.” —Amazon 5-star review].