As a creative writing teacher, students constantly write sentences similar to the one above.
It’s a perfectly good English sentence, everything is in its proper place, including the punctuation.
Despite its grammatically perfect structure, the sentence violates the first--the very first rule of telling tales--IT’S BORING.
The sentence contains absolutely no emotional, moral, psychological, spiritual, or ethical connection to the reader.
In the words of Truman Capote: “That’s not writing. That’s typing.”
When I get a sentence from a student like the one above, I have the student sit in front of me, and I begin asking questions like Joe Friday interrogating a hoodlum on the old Dragnet radio and television show.
Who is Mr. McGregore?
Why is he mean?
Did Mr. McGregore do something to you?
Do you have a problem with Mr. Gregore?
Did you TP Mr. McGregore’s home?
Why do you care that Mr. McGregore is mean?
Why do I care that Mr. McGregore is mean?
Maybe Mr. McGregore isn’t a mean old man. Maybe Mr. McGregore is just a lonely old man who’s tired of teenage punks like you running around the neighborhood ringing doorbells and putting cherry bombs in mailboxes.
The last question I ask is
Can you give me three--only three--elements in this sentence as to why Mr. McGregore is a mean old man and why the Hell I should even care?
When I cook I try to add at least three of my favorite ingredients to each recipe. I try to combine spices, herbs, vegetables, meats, and liquids that don’t necessarily go together, like rosemary, curry, and salmon.
I also like combining my favorite foods for tastes that are familiar and enjoyable.
Strawberries are my favorite fruit and vanilla pudding is my favorite pudding. I’m also quite fond of kiwi and vanilla wafers.
And, I prefer to eat pie rather than cake any day.
Larry Mike’s Strawberry Kiwi Vanilla Pudding Pie
Use your favorite pie crust recipe or frozen pie crust
The following makes for two pies
4 cups strawberries, sliced and quartered
2 kiwi, peeled, sliced, and halved
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
3 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
1 box instant vanilla pudding
crush one cup strawberries and place in pan
add 3/4 cup water and bring to a boil
simmer for three minutes
strain juice from cooked strawberries into measuring cup and add water to make a full cup
combine remaining strawberries, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in the same pan
(you can also add the pulp from the boiled crushed strawberries or use the pulp later to mix a smooth)
slowly add juice, stirring until it boils and thickens
coat pie crust with powdered sugar
pour mixture into uncooked pie crust
cook in preheated oven to 375 F until crust is golden brown
mix instant vanilla pudding and stir until thick
pour vanilla pudding over strawberry mixture
place kiwi slices on top of vanilla pudding
for an extra kick, crumble enough vanilla wafers to cover the top of the pie
place pie in refrigerator and chill before serving
The first time I made this, I used frozen strawberries; however, the mixture was too watery and wouldn’t hold form. Using fresh strawberries is best to ensure the mixture thickens properly.
So, how does the writer fix the sentence, “Mr. McGregore was a mean old man.”?
By adding just three elements to the sentence, the writer can hook the reader and draw the reader to the second sentence, then the third sentence et cetera.
“Mr. McGregore opened his front door on the cold wet day to find a rain-soaked puppy looking up at him with its large pleading eyes, and the old man kicked the puppy across the street.”
The three elements added are
- setting: cold wet day
- emotional: rain-soaked puppy looking up at him with its large pleading eyes
- action: kicked the puppy across the street
The intelligent reader can evaluate for himself just how mean Mr. Gregore is rather than the writer merely making a statement of fact.
What’s interesting is that when I use this example in my class, I get two distinct reactions:
The girls say, “Oh, that’s so mean.”
The boys laugh and say, “That’s cool.”
I don’t know why the girls and boys react differently, but they do. I could figure it out if I really wanted to, but the point isn’t how the students reacted.
The point is that the students REACTED to the revised sentence whereas their collective reaction to the first version was dull eyes rolling back into their skulls.
Whether a strawberry pie or a sentence, I strive to achieve a reaction from either the eater or the reader.
When I write, I check each sentence to ensure it has at least three ingredients to which my reader can react. The worst reaction I've ever heard is, "Eh, it's okay."
For eating and reading, just like cooking and writing, are metaphors for each other.
In their own unique ways and purposes, a well made pie and a well told story provide expectation, flavor, nourishment, pleasure, and satisfaction.