Learning from “The Zebra Storyteller”

“The Zebra Storyteller” by Spencer Hoist is an outstanding narrative. Here it is:

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.

That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.

Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.

“Hello there!” says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic. “It certainly is a pleasant day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing. Isn’t the world a lovely place to live today!”

The zebra is so astonished at hearing a Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why—he’s just fit to be tied.

So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.

The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.

He began to boast to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact that he hunted zebras.

The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.

One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and through his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, “That’s it! I’ll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That’ll make ‘em laugh!”

Just then, the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, “Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn’t it!”

The zebra storyteller wasn’t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language because he’d been thinking about that very thing.

He took a good look at the cat, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about his looks he didn’t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.

That is the function of the storyteller.

There is so much to learn from this as writers. Here are few thoughts:

  1. The first four words of the first sentence let readers know the genre and that in turn creates expectations for them. The rest of the first sentence presents the premise of the story. That premise implies a question.
  2. The last sentence of the story, as it provides a moral, meets the expectations created by the first four words. The last sentence in the story also reminds readers of the title. Reminders or echoes can help bring closure. 
  3. The second sentence of the story gives readers a setting and interesting language.
  4. The first two words of the third sentence create immediacy. The rest of that sentence characterizes a zebra. 
  5. The paragraph after that is a tiny scene in which the Siamese cat and the zebra interact. The story takes a phrase literally in the next paragraph because the zebra is fit to be tied. (I believe it was in The Artful Edit that I first heard the phrase “surprise is the drug of editors.”) 
  6. Janet Burroway, among others, describes powershifts as part of plotting, and by the sixth paragraph the little cat has the power in the story. 
  7. The next two paragraphs characterize the cat and the paragraph after that characterizes the zebras. It also suggests the implications of how the characters’ world has changed because of the cat’s actions. Language stays interesting, even suggesting a larger history/world building.
  8. The next paragraph introduces a change or difference in the story because this zebra is the storyteller of the zebras, reminding readers of the beginning of the story and the first scene in which the Siamese cat appears. The cat’s language in this paragraph echoes that used with the first zebra that died at his hands. Knowing the zebra storyteller is in danger, tension increases for readers.
  9. Powershifts back, however, because the zebra storyteller is not alarmed by the cat. In the second to last paragraph of the story, power has shifted irrevocably providing a climactic moment.

Consider trying one or many of these techniques in a way that pays homage to Hoist.

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