How to Tell a Story

by | Apr 15, 2022 | Fiction, Fiction Spring 22

Make it about a wolf. That will leave no gray areas. Wolves are explicit. The dark is pitch black; the light is incandescent. Anything you do to a wolf is justified. By your fear. By his wolfiness. Even when you feel that it would have been more credible if it were a dog—you’ve been terrified of them ever since that German Shepperd bit you—stay the course. Squint and squeeze that memory until you see the wolf, until it’s a wolf who breathes close to your face, opens its mouth to you.

It’s the details that make the story believable. Little things may trip you up. When they say to themselves, that can’t be true, you have lost them. Don’t tell the facts straight, dress up the truth with the perfect accessories nobody dares question. Paint your old maroon hoody in a different shade, transform it into a cape and then a bonnet, or some 17th century shit. Everybody enjoys a good costume drama. Forget about the sleeves being too long and rimmed with dirt because that hoodie was the only thing you would wear back then. Add some apples to make the scene pop with red as accent colour. You can still be the pale of neglect, but some of that red will rub off on your cheeks. Watch how some sparkle turns your tedious run to grandma’s house into something remarkable.

The age is important, so choose it wisely. Make yourself younger if necessary. There is nothing to complicate a smooth storyline like an odious tween girl already heavy with angst and acne. Not too young, like a toddler. Nobody wants to know toddlers think and remember. And besides, a toddler in the woods would make the mother into a villain. And rogue mothers rub most people the wrong way.

Be just old enough to walk to your grandma’s house alone, and young enough to believe what your mother tells you. There is nothing like ignorance and innocence together. You can’t be blamed for the things you didn’t know. It’s the knowing that makes your back slouch, your feet heavy. Telling your tale this way works as a spell. You’ll never recall it again the way it truly was.

Remove all carelessness and filth from the rooms. The furniture can be old, but not smelly; dark, but not mouldy.  Your mother’s kitchen should smell of fresh bread. Hide the pile of dirty dishes under fresh tea towels and the cigarette butts under a flowerpot.

Your grandmother’s place should be deep in the woods, with trees and flowers obscuring the cracks in the wall and the stove where only half the burners work. Being poor becomes romantic in the right light. Carry a basket, not the loud plastic bag from the corner store. You don’t need to disclose what you’re bringing. Even an empty basket seems full of good things.

Silence is golden. Don’t make your characters speak unless they must.

Make the mother warn you of wolves, even if it’s only mid-afternoon and everyone knows wolves hunt at night. If you’ve told your story well, no one will balk at that this far in. Leave out what your real mother yelled to get you out before the boyfriend you hate arrives. Make her wave at you until you’re down the street and well on the way to grandma’s house. Make her just worried enough to watch you as you leave and yet trust you to go there.

Set the story in spring and let yourself be drawn off course by butterflies. Pick some flowers to postpone the knock on the door and the discovery of who is really there. Let the trees be tall and the meadow wide so you cannot see the car parked on the lawn of your grandma’s house. The brown Pontiac with a grille like an evil smile. If you see it before, you will lose your crowd. You should have known better. You did know better, you stupid girl. You can’t trust anything brandishing teeth like that.

When you finally approach the door, it’s dusk and the flowers are already wilting, but that detail does nothing for the story, so edit it out. And when you open the door and see the wolf is there, pretend you don’t know. If you don’t show that you know, maybe he won’t touch you.

When you see your grandmother’s face behind him, be relieved he hasn’t devoured her yet. But when she leaves you with him to put the groceries in the pantry, you know there’s a twist. You don’t need to tell what is said. A wolf is a wolf even if he can tell a joke. Even if you laugh. Sit on the edge of the chair, pretend you don’t know those long fingers are claws that yearn to dig into your soft parts.

We all know that stories don’t end but replay in our heads slightly altered again and again. But the story you tell needs a finale. The first possible exit is this: A stranger comes to your rescue. A policeman or hunter suddenly appears at the door. They notice that something is wrong and rescue the girl and her grandma who were under the spell of a cunning creature. The good, unlikely outsider does all the work. And everyone goes back to being who they were before.

The longer path out goes something like this: The red hoodie is great both for hiding your body and other things. This time around the girl isn’t stupid. She brought a knife. Just a small one from the kitchen. She holds onto it inside her pocket while he tells jokes, hoping she won’t need to use it. Grandma could come back with tea anytime. But then the phone rings and the wolf see his chance and starts to unzip as his words turn into a vortex. And she knows she will have to save herself in this version.

About The Author

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Hege A. Jakobsen Lepri is a Norwegian-Canadian translator and writer, currently dividing her time between Toronto, Oslo and Prato, Italy.

She writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry (especially haiku–lots and lots of haiku).

She’s the winner of the inaugural Frances Thomas Memorial Flash Fiction Award. Her most recent work is featured or forthcoming in Held Magazine, Washington Square Review, North Dakota Quarterly, This Magazine, Room Magazine, Grist.