A while back, a friend told me a harrowing story. Let me give you two versions:
1) She had recently discovered that a raccoon had been entering her apartment every night to feed. She’d been leaving her apartment window — which opened onto a fire escape — ajar at night so that her cat could come and go as he pleased. One morning, she awoke to a mess: cat food scattered on the floor, kitchen drawers rifled. This kept happening, until she finally figured out what was going on.
2) The first thing she saw was the open kitchen cupboards. Then she heard a crunch underfoot: cat kibble strewn all over the mustard-tiled floor. The kitchen drawers were rifled, containers of cereal overturned; the coffee cake she’d bought (but pretended to make) for her mother’s visit that day had a bite taken right out of the middle. She looked up and saw the window — which opened onto a fire escape — ajar, her dish towel blowing slightly in the breeze. And she knew, with a shiver, that she had a problem.
There are countless ways to open a story; here, I’ve modeled two quite different approaches. The first leads with the headline — “Omigod, so this raccoon’s been coming into my apartment…” — and then goes back to fill in the details of how this discovery was made. The second walks us through the incident moment by moment, just as it happened, withholding the reveal of the intruder’s identity.
Moving moment to moment, you bring us up close, inside the experience. You let us see it as you saw it at that time.
When I’m working with college-app writers, I often find that their inclination is to tell a story the first way, while my goal is to reach for the second. To see why that is, it’s worth thinking about how the reader experiences these two versions differently.
The first way presents the story, right off the bat, as something that happened in the past and is already known, already understood: there’s no mystery about what happened. Whatever details we get serve only to fill out the basic situation, which has already been summed up. The reader experiences the story as an event that is closed before it even begins.
The second way, alternatively, tells the story as if it’s still happening, still open: it’s not over and done, it’s unfolding. Like the first version, it’s told in the past tense, but by allowing the discoveries to build in real time, you allow the reader to experience the events as they occurred, as if we’re actually there. The details engage us because each one gives us a new clue to interpret. We don’t yet know what it all means, and to find out, we have to keep reading.
It’s fairly obvious that the second way is more suspenseful because you’ve held back the solution to the mystery. But the point I want to make here goes beyond mere suspense — and is equally applicable to stories that don’t have a big “reveal.” You can always tell about an encounter you’ve had without beginning with exposition or explanation, sharing only the details of what happened, in an open-ended way. Moving moment to moment, you bring us up close, inside the experience. You let us see it as you saw it at that time.
Writing this way is powerful — not only for the reader, but also for the writer. That’s because it forces you, as you write, to go back into the memory of the event and relive it: to rediscover all of the details of how you originally experienced the encounter. Nobody has these specifics already at their fingertips; you draw them out by letting yourself inhabit again, with patience and curiosity, the moments that you’re writing about.
For the college-app writers who are reading this, then, my suggestion is to leave the story open (though perhaps, when it comes to the kitchen window, leave that closed). Don’t rush to fix an interpretation on the events and thereby take us out of what’s happening. Let us just be there, as you were in the moment, to observe and feel. We do want the story to be interpreted for us eventually, of course, but not right away. Because before we stand back to reflect on what happened, we need to be invited inside.
Lech is a Hillside coach.