ONCE, AT A HORSE SHOW, I watched a pair of judges assess the relative merits of a ring full of huge, glossy Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and other warm-blood hunter-types in a conformation class. Unlike most skill-based horse-show events, conformation ribbons are awarded to those animals who best meet the standards of excellence for the physical characteristics of their breed. (More like the Westminster Dog Show than a canine agility event, in other words.)
On that afternoon, almost hidden in the forest of sixteen- and seventeen-hand-high bay- and chestnut-colored hunters, a tiny, black-and-white Shetland pony arched its short, chunky pony neck. “How cute,” the spectator closest to me murmured, “but how disappointed its little owner will be. There’s no chance for her to get even a look-in with that sort of competition.”
And yet, twenty minutes later, it was exactly that “little owner,” a six-year old girl dressed in black and white to match her pony, who paraded her Shetland around the perimeter of the ring, blue ribbon oh-so-proudly affixed to its bridle.
No sentimental decision, the judges had weighed the equine contestants’ attributes fairly. The Shetland pony, small and unassuming as it seemed amidst the tall, regal company, was in fact a perfect specimen of its type and well-deserving of the win.
So … what about writing?
Recently, I judged a short story contest. In four days, I read fifty-one stories that spanned a myriad of genres. Not Thoroughbreds and Shetlands, but fantasy, suspense, sci-fi, romance, and contemporary/realistic—as well as a single picture-book entry.
As a whole, the stories were competently constructed and smooth-surfaced. No doubt, these were writers who had studied their craft.
Yet, as I read through the three-thousand-words-or-less stories, I noticed some failed to engage my interest because they lacked a distinctive voice. Some delivered a strong voice, but the stories were so predictable I could tell where they were headed before they’d even left the barn. And those that did find a fresh approach did not, for the most part, make it all the way around the course to create a satisfying narrative arc.
But the picture book?!
In a quick, bright voice, the PB writer created an engaging pair of characters—a grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter—who found themselves in an exciting and unexpected muddle over the destruction of the grandmother’s Sunday-best real-human-hair wig. Together, the characters struggled, they lost, they struggled some more—and then they triumphed!
In less than five hundred words, the lone PB writer managed to incorporate three elements vital for the success of even the shortest of narrative forms: a distinctive voice, a fresh, unexpected story element, and a complete narrative arc.
While the other competitors’ stories—like those big, beautiful Thoroughbreds I admired so many years ago—might have had size on their side, might have boasted weightier topics or more sophisticated story structures than the unassuming little picture book, not one of them made it to the finish line with all of three of those important elements in place.
If this were a horse show, make no mistake, Grandma’s real-hair wig would be sporting a brand-new, bright blue, First Place ribbon the next time she hoisted it atop her head and tottered up the aisle to her favorite pew.
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This post was first published on a former blog, THOSE DARNED RUBY SLIPPERS, in which I wrote about the magic I saw around me—and about writing, a magical craft of its own.