Sometimes an entire idea pivots on a single word. A part of me has always known this theoretically, but I got an object lesson in it yesterday, when speaking to a class of third graders in New York. We were talking about what makes a story, and had gotten started with the idea that you need a character that has some kind of problem. I once heard this called, brilliantly, “something to worry us” by my good friend and wonderful teacher Judith Hillman Paterson. Trying to illustrate for them the difference between the beginning of a story and a simple statement of fact, I offered them two sentences:
The tree stood in the woods.
The tree stood, alone, in the woods.
Alone. Wow did that word get a response. Suddenly, they saw the tree as a character, something they could relate to, and feel for. Alone is something to worry us. For them, that single word – alone – turned the second sentence into the beginning of a story. I wasn’t exactly expecting that. The words just came out. But it’s certainly given me food for thought.