One of the symptoms of feeling engaged by a story is a sense of curiosity.George Saunders
As a writer, building a sense of curiosity in the reader is your goal. If the reader is not curious about what happens next, how engaged are they going to be in your story? As a reader, if I’m not clear about what I’m supposed to be curious about then the story will likely not keep me engaged. This theme of curiosity was embedded in our discussion about the short story, ‘The Stone Boy’, by Gina Berriault. The story is found in a collection of short stories called, Women in their Beds.
To allow a short story like this to fully permeate your brain, you need to read it a few times. The first read-through is purely for enjoyment. Read the story like a reader. See how the story unfolds and how curious you are about what happens next. The second reading is a little more analytical. See how the characters develop or don’t, how the plot unfolds, and what questions are in your head while reading the story. Makes notes as you go, underline, and highlight. The second time around you’re seeing words and meaning that you missed the first time around.
Now, the third time around is where you really understand how different readers experience stories in different ways. I highly recommend that before you read through the story a third time, you take the time to read the comments left in the blog post on The Story Club. In these comments, you’ll find readers and writers from all over the world giving their views on what the story meant to them. I was fascinated at how, my version of curious, was quite different in scope and colored by my own unique view of the world.
Insights readers comments
A sentence from the first comment deserves to be called out on its own.
In the emotionally negligent home, there is no overt abuse, so the child is always left to wonder “what is wrong with me?Thom Vokes
The phrase ’emotionally negligent home’ is particularly striking and speaks to the core theme of the story. Was Arnold, the stone boy, a product of a home where his emotional growth was deliberately stunted, or was it that his Mum and Dad just weren’t capable of providing this type of support having never received it themselves. Reading this story you’re naturally curious about the stunted reactions of the main characters as the tragedy is playing out.
As a reader, you’re curious about why the reactions are not the reactions you’d expect. If a family member was accidentally shot you’d expect a totally different reaction. You’d expect the Mum and Dad to be giving comfort to the young boy. You’d expect hysterics from the Mum especially I suspect, she’s just lost her eldest son. You may expect an initially stoic response from the Dad, more to protect the rest of the family than anything else.
What’s particularly intriguing about the story from a writing pov is how Berriault exposes the psychology of a nine-year boy. If that boy was being raised in a home where emotions are kept beneath the surface, what happens when something big happens? When the emotional landscape needs to shift massively as if an earthquake had just struck, but doesn’t, what happens in the mind of a nine-year-old?
The seeds of the outcome of the tragedy were laid years before. The family had a certain way of operating, a one-dimensional way of living that was not built to cope with earthquakes. The adults in the story seem to comprehend that a different reaction is required from the boy, but they themselves don’t react as we think they should, at least we don’t see this in the story.
Saunders calls out that the ultimate tragedy of the story is timing. The timing of the three main characters realizing their grief. Each one goes into shock but comes out of it at different times. Arnold, the nine-year, is first to come out of it, then the Dad, and lastly the Mum. Each transition means that each is not there for the other when they need it.
What is to learn from this short story as a writer?
What about character arcs? Arnold’s arc, the Mum and Dads arc. The community’s arc, or lack of it.
What do the scene transitions look like? There are only a few scene transitions in this short story:
- The boys in the morning
- The scene in the kitchen when Arnold comes back
- The Sheriff’s office
- Evening dinner and the community gathering
- Breakfast the next morning
Each scene moves the story along efficiently. The first scene transition is stark moving from the pain in his stiff legs and the dragging the tub half full of peas up the slope to the kitchen that was warm and full of family bustle. The opening scene in the kitchen leads the reader to think that this is a warm and loving environment. That picture of family wholesomeness is soon shattered.
The next scene transition is also stark. Arnold moves from hiding out in the barn like a fugitive to sitting in the front seat of the Ford between his Dad and his Uncle. The journey is in silence. We know the journey was nine miles so the journey lasted a maximum of about twenty minutes. Silence for that long is difficult to maintain and illustrates Arnold’s further isolation. This ‘cold, turbulent silence against him’ was being carried on from when Arnold told them what had happened.
Show don’t tell
Just a quick recap on what this is. Show don’t tell is the way you describe the experience you or your character went through.
When Arnold is hiding out in the loft and ‘lay still as a fugitive’ we get an insight of what’s going on in his mind. He’s clearly in shock and feels a deep hurt about what happened. He feels shame and worthless. We don’t explicitly know this but are shown it by how he feels,
If his parents never called him, he thought, he would stay up in the loft forever, out of the way. In the night he would sneak down for a drink of water from the faucet over the trough and for whatever food they left for him by the barn.The Stone Boy
Another example of this literary technique is when they are in the Sheriff’s office.
The sheriff asks ‘Why did you go and pick peas for an hour?’
Arnold looks for support from his father, but, ‘his father’s eyes, larger and even lighter blue than usual, were fixed upon him curiously.’
The narrator’s voice here is the nine-year-old boy. We are seeing the world through his eyes. Perception at such a young age is filtered through a child’s lens. It’s possibly not correct to say that the narrator is unreliable, but when compared to an adult’s pov, it is going to be very different to the point of being untrue.
Overall a great short story to read, a great piece of storytelling, filled with questions that remain forever unanswered. The story builds and maintains a curiosity in the reader. The ultimate question left unanswered is, ‘Is the boy, Arnold, made of stone?’. The general consensus of the group was no, he was just in shock and it took some time for him to come out of it. His parent’s reaction though, or lack of, has perhaps ensured that Arnold will forever carry the burden, unfairly.