I’m going to tell you two stories.
In Story One, there is a wide, open field, with a tall, proud tree standing in the middle. You leave, only to return one day and find the tree has been cut down. Now, only a stump remains, a stark reminder of what once was.
In Story Two, there is a wide, open field, with a tall, proud tree standing in the middle. You remember this tree from your childhood, some of your happiest memories are here. You leave, only to return one day and find the tree has been cut down. Now, only a stump remains, a stark reminder of what once was.
Tell me, which story is better? If you said Story One, you’re wrong, or are secretly a tree. If you said Story Two, congratulations, you have a heart and are human.
Story Two works better. But why?
We would argue: Context.
Both stories deal with the theme of loss, but in Story One this theme is presented through the vague notion of treeness. The paradigm is too vague to work.
Humans, for the most part, do not identify as trees. We might like them. We might see their benefit. We might plant a few or even feel sorry for a tree which is needlessly cut down, but no one can truly empathise with this tree. And it is this empathy that you are trying to instil in a reader.
In Story Two we are presented with Context for the theme of loss and our emotional mechanisms are channelled into the child, not the tree.
We can imagine the innocence of childhood, the trauma of growing up, the irrevocable splintering of time and memory. We remember our own childhood summers, battles, dreams. The tree is no longer the subject of the story, and through the eyes of the child it takes on new meaning. It is no longer just a fallen tree, but it is something taken from us.
Now, we are moved. Now, we can empathise.
In Story One, the tree is gone, and that is that. But in Story Two, we demand to know more. What was special about this tree? Why did the character take such a long time to revisit it? What happens next?
With stanzas, the best work we publish provides us with Context. Poor writing is about stuff happening, but the best writing makes you feel like you’re right there in the happening of it.
So next time, when you put pen to paper, or, mouse to word document, think about what’s happening, and take a moment to ask why.
Answer that, and you’ll be barking up the right tree.
written by shane vaughan
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