My old friend Gladys wrote some pretty good stories. She, like most writers, used real life as a starting point, and she had a lifetime’s experiences to draw on. She could weave stories out of the flimsiest material, the tiniest hint, the most tantalising of thoughts. Gladys could ask “what if…?” about anything.
One day she became involved in a real-life drama. The bare bones were that she unlocked her front door, walked into the living room, and found a rough looking young man cowering behind the sofa. She was of course startled. The young man was even more startled, and the pair gazed at each other for a long, tense moment. Gladys collected her wits, spoke softly, offered tea and a biscuit, and bustled around wondering what the dickens to do. She finally managed to persuade the fellow that she should call the police, because no good could possibly come of the situation. They arrived, took him away, with Gladys promising to follow up with visits and support, a promise she kept.
What a rich source of material for a story! Gladys made the most of it. In fact she wrote it several times, and each time she entered it in one competition or another, without success. Those of us who read it – and there were many – complained that there was something missing. It was a “cat sat on the mat” story. Gladys defended herself: it was true!
That was the trouble. It was true, the elements were potentially dramatic but there was no story. Gladys was stuck with material that could have been exciting and meaningful but she found herself unable to invent anything that would make it so, simply because she couldn’t leave the truth out of the picture. And the truth was that nothing meaningful happened except a bit of a fright, tea and a biscuit, and the low key arrival of the police.
And the cat on the mat? John Le Carré said that “the cat sat on the mat” was not a story. However, “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” was the beginning of a story. Gladys didn’t make sure that the cat was sitting on the dog’s mat and that the dog had noticed.