Gatekeepers & Story Seeds

Gatekeepers & Story Seeds ~ Session 1 (2010) Followup

Watercolor of peapod by Christine Walker

In the Read to Write Books course in fiction craft, “Gatekeepers” is my term for the role that first and last sentences play. “Story Seeds” are the tangible or ineffable things without which a book would have a different essential reason for being or not exist at all.

Employ a Masterful Gatekeeper 

Mastery is knowing when and how to bring a reader into the story. At the reader’s point of entrance—the first sentence—the author can swing the gate wide—“Come on in!” —or tap it slightly to invite the reader to step in, then push the gate wider, step, push wider. Some books have layered gatekeepers—one narrator  kicks open the gate and eventually leads the reader to another narrator. Life of Pi and Heart of Darkness, which we’ll cover in Session 2, are examples of layered narrative.

Mastery is also knowing when and how to end the story, whether to close the back gate, leave it ajar, or swing it out to extend the story beyond the book.

Lesson: Choose a noun to do the work of several adjectives

Isak Dinesen’s first sentence from Out of Africa, examined in depth in an earlier post, contains the remarkable phrase “at the foot” (“of the Ngong Hills.”) It’s an instructive example of the heavy lifting a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word can do for a writer. “Foot” opened up vistas of discussion in the workshop sessions. It animates Dinesen’s landscape and lends a human quality. It evokes elevations. It’s a body part, but not a particularly lovely one. It’s serviceable. It connects us to the earth, as Dinesen felt connected herself and wanted her readers to feel connected. It grounds us, implies reverence and a glance up to the Ngong Hills, which echo throughout the story.

Close the gate firmly

In the last sentence, the glance is a long look back from her departing train—the hills are “levelled out by the hand of distance.” The back gatekeeper closes her story for us softly, yet firmly, on a time and place (her farm, colonial Kenya, Africa) that will never be the same again for her, or for us, other than in her memoir.

Lesson: Choose language and punctuation to entice readers

J.M. Coetzee’s first sentence from Disgrace doesn’t draw us in with its beauty. In fact, it does just the opposite. The first half threatens to shut the reader out: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has…” The commas constrain, the information doesn’t tantalize. We already may know more than we care to about this guy. Then Coetzee kicks open the gate: “,to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” To his mind? We snap to attention. Is the narrator giving us insight to more than this man knows about himself? Does the man just think he’s solved the problem of sex, and the narrator is telling us he hasn’t. Or is this smug commentary coming from our protagonist? It’s suddenly compelling. And in what way is sex a “problem”? And only “a” problem? With “problems” of sex, might we lend our sympathy? And why the equivocation in “rather” well?

Coetzee infuses his intimate and difficult human dramas with encompassing concerns of the human condition. In Disgrace, sexual power, domination, vulnerability, and disgrace, as experienced by the characters whether male/female, black/white, stand for political and cultural power and control in post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa. The story contains the larger themes, but its intimacy isn’t diminished by them. There is no polemic in sight.

The first sentence sets the pace and the constraints the man faces. By the sixth word, he’s boxed in by his age and gender; his life is faltering just as the series of commas sets a faltering pace. Due to having sex with a student, protagonist David is cut off from his university career, diminished by his choices to play by the rules or not, partitioned off from his daughter during and after her brutal rape by a trio of men. The rape leaves her determined to stay on her farm in spite of mounting racial tension and hatred directed toward her, a vulnerable white woman.

Leave the gate open

In the end, Coetzee lets us out the back gate and leaves it gaping. David speaks the last sentence: “Yes, I am giving him up.” He’s referring to the lame dog he’s brought to the kennel to euthanize, but he is also referring to his wounded self and to his damaged country. The gate opens onto hope that damaged people, damaged countries, with histories of despair and violence, can heal their souls.

Story Seeds

I call them “story seeds.” Alice Munro calls them “essentials.” Marsha Arnold, a participant in the Sebastopol 2010 course, uses the term “story seeds” differently in her teaching, so she suggested “heart of” for our discussion. That works. Story seeds may have a tangible or ineffable quality but, in my definition, they aren’t “ideas.”

To me, a story seed is sensory. It may come from an image, memory, gesture, overheard conversation—any number of sources. I may have an idea when I start a project, but it’s the story seed nudging something in my heart and mind that provides the guiding essence. I may not have an idea, and yet that seed planted whenever begins to grow into words and images. If I can’t disengage, if I trust the writing process, I eventually have a book—hopefully a good one!

Touching the Seed

In the Introduction to Alice Munro’s Selected Stories (Vintage Contemporaries, 1997), she reveals several “essentials.” She says, “I don’t talk about these beginnings or essentials very much, because they are hard to explain and tend to fade anyway after the story has been put out in the world and become a stranger to me…But I can tell you that in Walker Brothers Cowboy, it’s the father speaking to the tramp.” 

In the story, a little girl, on an outing with her father, is frightened of the tramp. She doesn’t understand what he says to her father and can only witness her father’s response and gesture:
“I’ll roll you a cigarette if it’s any use to you,” he says, and he shakes tobacco out carefully on one of the thin butterfly papers, flicks it with his tongue, seals it and hands it to the tramp, who takes it and walks away.”

Within this short scene, the essence of the story is established. There is dialogue—adult to adult—that we can’t overhear or understand because we are within the girl’s point-of-view. The offhand camaraderie between the father and the tramp excludes the girl; it shows her, and us, that there is a world in which her father moves where he is not fully known to her. 

Growing the Story 

The gesture foreshadows the pivotal scene in which the father, a traveling salesman, is feeling frustration and failure at his demeaning job. Accompanied by his daughter and son, he stops (outside his sales territory) to visit a former girlfriend, whom the daughter doesn’t know. The woman clearly has had a relationship of some kind with the father. Again, we see the scene through the girl’s consciousness; she intuits the sexual tension between the woman and her father. The girl is in the bud of her own sexuality, not fully aware, yet cognizant that the drinking and dancing and other things she witnesses are not to be mentioned to her mother. She does understand that the woman “digs with the wrong foot,” meaning the woman is Catholic, and thus different, not acceptable to the girl’s mother. Yet her father had befriended the woman, as he had the tramp. 

(Side note: Here’s “foot” again with another entirely different meaning. What a hard-working word!)

On the car ride home, the girl’s world has changed, opened, darkened—“like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” She has glimpsed past her own tight childhood boundaries into an adult world—secret, forbidden, mysterious—and though she returns to her safe haven of home, we know this day has been a defining one, begun with that simple intimate gesture of her father rolling a cigarette for a homeless man.

A Masterful Lesson

How Munro went from the rolling of the cigarette to this powerfully imagined and deep story is her mastery. Kelly Shaw in the Petaluma Workshop commented on the craft involved in rolling a cigarette and the charity in the gesture. The father makes light of his gift —”if it’s any use to you” —creating an atmosphere of intimacy that infuses Munro’s writing.

Lesson: Mimic the Gesture

Try rolling the cigarette paper, thumbs sliding back and forth over fingertips, the tip of the tongue on the paper, the lightness of the cigarette between your fingertips as you hand it to the tramp. This sensation of touch and offering is something “kindly, ordinary and familiar” from which grows the extraordinary story—”something you will never know” but will keep trying to understand and imagine.  

See “More Story Seeds” from Munro.


Out of Africa: A Love Story

Out of Africa, a memoir by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) is a love story. Reading her descriptive passages, I too fall head over heels with the Africa that exists in her memory. The first sentence is a simple declaration that sets up her longing: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

13 words with comma

I could go on an on about this sentence and what we can learn from it for our own writing. It has stayed in my mind since first reading it years ago—the gentle, sure voice, solid grounding, and ring “Ngong” that echos throughout the book. The sentence gives just enough information and makes us want to read on. It’s a master teacher, whether for writing memoir or fiction, so perfectly crafted that seeing the 13 words with comma again, years after finishing the book, catapults me into Dinesen’s feelings for the landscape, animals, people—even the air—as if I’d glimpsed the face of my own long-ago lover.

Let’s examine it:


Simple. Standing alone. Tells us we will hear the story from the person who experienced it.


Establishes the distance where we  join her in remembering and from where she will draw us into her love affair with her beautiful and haunting Africa. If she’d written “owned a farm,” the sentence would not have resonated with such personal loss.

a farm

Pages later, we learn that she “had six thousand acres of land, and had thus got much spare land besides the coffee-plantation [600 acres]. We learn it’s not the dairy farm she’d thought her husband was buying. It’s a lot of work. But as an opener, “a farm” sets a warm, intimate tone. We all have seen farms and know something about them. Her story is exotic in its depiction of place and people, but she begins with the familiar. It’s comforting.

in Africa

She drops a hint at the vast and exotic scope of her story. Africa is huge. Here’s her little farm, and now it’s overwhelmed by Africa. She takes us from the intimate to the vast and then with the comma, next, places us.


The sentence would work grammatically without this punctuation, but she needs it for her sake and for ours. The comma acts as a fence would, marking her territory.

at the foot

Elevations play an important part in the story—the altitudes of weather and social hierachy. Her farm may be at “the foot,” but still it’s at 6000 feet. The mountain above her is at 8000. The town of Nairobi is at 5000. “The geographical position, and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere.” This contrasts to the privileged European life she’d known. In Africa, she lives at high elevation but doesn’t flaunt her privilege.

of the Ngong Hills.

This literal “gong” sounds the exotic vocabulary and culture of her spiritual home. We can nestle here, inside the reverberation, and then roam over the hills to the next sentence—”The Equator runs across these highlands…” feeling again the vastness.

Declarative to descriptive detail

For the first 14 pages, she begins her paragraphs with simple declaratives about geography, landscape, and the farm, and then layers detail upon detail, each prose section depicted in words that want reading aloud.

Declarative: “The geographical position…” Detail: “and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtle…”

Declarative:  “The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air.” Detail: “In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.”

Declarative: “From the Ngong Hills you have a unique view…” Detail: “The brown desert is irregularly dotted with the little marks of the thornbushes, the winding riverbeds are drawn up with crooked dark-green trails; those are the woods of the mighty wide-branching Mimosa-trees, with thorns like spikes; the cactus grows here, and here is the home of the giraffe and the Rhino.”

Declarative: “Coffee-growing is a long job.” Detail: “the black-jack, which has long scabrous seed-vessels that hang on to your clothes and stockings.”

Declarative: “There are times of great beauty on a coffee-farm.” Detail: “with many hurricane lamps in the huge dark room of the factory, that was hung everywhere with cobwebs and coffee-husks, and with eager glowing dark faces, in the light of the lamps, round the dryer; the factory, you felt, hung in the great African night like a bright jewel in an Ethiope’s ear.”

Declarative: “Whenever you walk amidst the Kikuyu shambas…” (as if this was the most natural thing in the world that we all do!) Detail: “I used to shoot spurfowl in the sweet-potato fields round the squatters’ houses in the blue late afternoons, and the stock-pigeons cooed out a loud song in the high-stemmed, fringy trees, which were left over, here and there in the shambas, from the forest that had once covered all the farm.” (Whoa! Read that last sentence aloud a few times, take a spurfowl and two fringy trees, and call me in the morning. Whatever ails your writing will be much better.)

Lessons for writers

Love is in the details

How could we not love Dinesen’s Africa? Her Ngong Hills? And how could we not feel bereft in leaving, as she does at the end, and as we do when we close the book? The lesson here for writing our love stories is in the details and in her delivery of them. She gives them to us slowly—sensation by sensation. We see, hear, touch, taste, smell, using our whole bodies, becoming intimate with the ultimately incomparable, immeasurable love of our life.

There is also a romance in the memoir. You may be familiar with the characters played in the film by Meryl Streep (Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke) and Robert Redford (Denys Finch Hatton). I’m a fan, especially of Streep, but the movie is a different animal than the book. I don’t think an actor can say “fringy trees” and get away with it. But a writer can. And that’s one of the reasons we write and read—to walk amidst the shambas in our minds.

Have fun with language

And how about this one: Declarative: “Out on the Safaris…” Detail: “I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers advancing.”

Break the rules

Dinesen breaks “rules” you read about in writing craft books regarding using too many adjectives. It’s a caution to abide in most cases and to consider in all, but in her abundant stringing together of words, she brings to life her lover—the marvelous, incongruent, often absurd, demanding and memorable Africa, which I’ve never known but feel that I have through her writing.