I had so much fun at the Vancouver Story Slam in May that I decided to do it again.
I decided I would be bold and write a sequel to the first story. I could recap the entire plot of the first part, and then develop it with an appropriate arc into a second story, all in under 1000 words.
I wrote a draft, without a satisfying ending. Interrupted by an impromptu visit to New Mexico — Mom was in the hospital — I had just three days to finish the story when I got back. I panicked and wrote a whole other story, about a grumpy man in Switzerland who was obsessed with his backyard monkey puzzle tree. But it was terrible, so I abandoned it and somehow managed to finish the sequel. I repeated the story in my head as I ran through the forest on the morning of the Slam. It had a few good lines. The plot had thickened. Maybe it would work…
At the Story Slam, I drew the third spot. The good lines worked. I’d brought a whole slew of friends with me, and they were smiling as I came off the stage. (They’re my friends, after all.)
But I knew right away that it hadn’t clicked with the audience. it didn’t have the story magic my first effort had. I felt like I’d let my friends down. A bit embarrassed. At least Marc had bought the beer!
I learned a really valuable lesson that night.
For a story to work, to resonate with the audience, it has to be simple. There has to be something at stake, and you have to get your audience to care about it. Humor is key. A tragic, sad, or disturbing story might be compelling, but unless you can lighten it up a bit, people won’t love it. And that kind of story told as autobiography will tank because it just makes people feel uncomfortable and guilty.
Bottom line, there’s a reason that ghost stories and fairy tales have persisted as human entertainment over the centuries. They’re not personal, they’re universal. There is a simple moral, or a good outcome, the unthinkable alternative nearly averted. The story captures the listeners, draws them in, away from everything else.
My story failed because it was too complicated and didn’t have a compelling tension and release to it. You can judge for yourself (if after all this you still want to read it). Here it is:
Found and Lost – a sequel to Lost and Found
“Hang on,” I said, interrupting Lucy mid-sentence. “Let me get this straight. You screw up a perfectly decent date with Ryan — who is solvent, sane and somewhat good-looking — by pretending to be married. And now you’ve hooked up with Grieving Gary — who just happens to have a five-year old in tow? Are you insane?”
Lucy was telling me an incredible tale involving a ring she’d found in a restaurant washroom while on a date I’d set up with a friend of a friend. I’d advised her to sell the ring, but no, instead she’d gone back to the restaurant and handed it over to a little girl who was attached to a guy with gorgeous green eyes.
“I did not hook up with him,” said Lucy. “And for your information his name is Greg. And also for your information Ryan was a terrible date. Total drone. Fin-tech. Robotic banking.”
“Grieving Greg,” I said. “That’s even better.”
“Things happen for a reason,” said Lucy. “It feels like I was meant to meet Greg and Alex.”
“No,” I said. “No you weren’t. You just did a good deed. You should have sold the damn thing like I told you to.”
“I tried! But I couldn’t get it off my finger!” said Lucy. “At least not until I was back in that restaurant, walking over to their table. This is gonna sound crazy, but I think it even made me pretend to be married on that date with Ryan.”
Lucy may be my best friend in the entire world, but she’s a writer. Terribly dramatic. Magical rings are right up her alley. Best to let the fairy tale play out.
“Right,” I said, the epitome of patience.
“So then they invited me to sit with them,” she said. “It turns out, a week ago the mom, Isabel, just vanished, leaving everything behind – including that ring, which she put smack in the middle of Alex’s pillow. And get this – it’s her talisman. She’s never ever taken it off. It was definitely a sign.”
“Did they call the police?” I asked.
“Of course,” said Lucy. “But they were all, ‘marriage, motherhood, depression … don’t worry, she’ll turn up soon.’ Seriously? She could be dead in a ditch somewhere!”
“So she was mentally ill?” I said.
“No! She loves Alex! She loves Greg! She was fine! She has a good job! My god, if every woman took off when she felt stressed by marriage and motherhood, half the world would be a missing person.”
“Lucy,” I said, gathering myself. “You don’t know these people. Maybe this woman is a bonafide psycho. Maybe Gary —“
“— maybe Greg’s a wife beater. Could be she took off for a very good reason.”
“No way! He was devastated. You had to see it. Plus, abandon a kid like Alex? No way.”
“Well,” I said. “They must at least be happy to have her ring back.”
“That’s just it!” Lucy’s eyes were shining and she buzzed with a kind of maniacal energy.
“The ring. Alex was wearing it around her neck on a chain, and it fell off in that washroom. This is gonna sound crazy, but I really believe it found me and led me to them. They believe it, too. Which is why I still have it! We have to help them!”
Time for my schoolteacher tone. “That’s the second time you’ve said ‘this is gonna sound crazy’. News flash, sweet pea. It is crazy! Number one, rings are not magical. The kid lost it, you found it, end of story. Number two, I hate to break it to you, but writing is not the skill set you need to hunt down a missing person. Number three, I’m not getting involved in this particular fairy tale, no matter how cute the kid or how hot the husband. Repeat after me: Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
Lucy shook her head. “That’s where you’re wrong! Guess where she works?”
“How would I know? Starbucks?”
“AHA!” she yelled. I jumped in my chair. “She’s a reporter! With the Sun! I bet Paul knows her!”
My boyfriend Paul is an investigative reporter with the Vancouver Sun. Or was, until the budget cuts. Now he just writes fluff.
Lucy beamed. “Oh, Marie! This is the most interesting thing that’s happened to me in absolute ages! I’ve just been going through the motions! I’ve hardly even been alive.”
After she said that, I could hardly pop her bubble by stating the obvious, which is that being an investigative reporter and being a detective are two very different things. So I didn’t. I promised to mention it to Paul.
Later that night, I remembered.
“The strangest thing happened to Lucy,” I told him. “She met a man whose wife has gone missing. She’s at the Sun. Isabel somebody. Do you know her?”
“Isabel?” Paul repeated. “Doesn’t ring a bell. What department?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
So that was that.
Until Wednesday, when Paul called me from work.
“That woman Lucy was telling you about?” he asked. “Isabel, was it?”
“Yes,” I said. “Why?”
“The paper got a strange letter today,” he said. “Turns out she’s doing a story on refugees and human trafficking. They just assumed she’d been away hunting down sources, working on the piece. But then we get this weird letter.”
“What does it say?” I asked.
“It’s kind of cryptic,” he said. “Something about a ring. Probably referring to gang activity, like a human smuggling ring. I’m supposed to look into it.”
A ring? Shit. Maybe this isn’t a fairy tale after all