Storytelling – The Owl, The Cat, and The Hornet Nest

My stepdad is a storyteller. At least he thinks he is. He’ll tell a tale that goes something like this:

So, out on the property, there’s this owl, see. Biggest owl I ever saw. Keeps the rabbits out of the strawberry patch real good. Damn rabbits and voles were eating all my berries. So when my friend Roger comes to visit, he brings his orange cat. The cat’s a-scared to go outside, but he’s a real good mouser. After a few days, he goes outside hunting. But when Roger packs to leave, the cat’s nowhere to be found. We go looking for the cat all over. I spot this strange shape down in the woods, and I go to investigate. Turns out it’s a hornet nest big as my head! I nearly stepped on it afore I realized. You know I’m allergic to stings. We found the cat under the trailer, and Roger got to leave in time, which is good ‘cause he had to catch a flight.

The end.

Really? Are you satisfied? Didn’t think so.

My stepdad’s tale began fine. The owl hunts rabbits, so we assume a cat might also be on the menu. And the cat is a pet we can easily root for. Listeners are drawn in and ready to find out what happens. But after that, nothing is related to the implied story question; did the owl attack the cat and what happened?

Many manuscripts I critique also start well, ramble along, then the author wraps things up by getting the hero and heroine together. The problem is that “getting there” isn’t satisfying. Sometimes the journey is downright frustrating. For instance, consider the hornet’s nest; the scene had nothing to do with the owl or the cat. Every element in my stepdad’s story should ratchet up the tension about finding the cat before the owl does. If he’d spotted the cat on the other side of the hornet clearing, near the owl’s roost as night was falling, but he had to turn back because of the hornet nest, then the scene might work. But the hornets are unrelated event. The middle of a story is like the filling in a sandwich – if I get a slice of bologna with a slather of peanut butter, I’m not going to be happy. To encourage readers to take more than one bite, make sure the sandwich makings belong together.

Now consider the ending of my stepdad’s story. He found the cat, so he wrapped it up, right? Not really. The owl – the threat which drew us into the story in the first place – never appeared again. Listeners expected the cat and the owl to face off. Maybe the cat is attacked and narrowly escapes with its life. Maybe the cat takes out the owl. Maybe they fall in love and make lovely owl-kittens. But we feel dissatisfied because we never find out. A happily ever after isn’t enough.

Have you encountered a story that left you unsatisfied? Can you pinpoint why?

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