Show It Once, Show It Again

26 Feb

“The Book of Harold” by Owen Egerton is out in paperback from Soft Skull Press. You can read the first chapter here.

Maybe you’ve heard this one: A doctor, a corpse, and a rabbit walk into a bar. The doctor says, “Give me a stiff one.” The corpse says…

Or this one: Three little pigs each built a house. A big, bad wolf knocked on the first pig’s door and said…

Or possibly this one: A man named Ocean gets 11 thieves to break into a casino. First, they plan the heist, then they practice it, and then they do it for real, except…

These three stories share one of the world’s oldest storytelling strategies: put characters in a situation that will be repeated, but each repetition is slightly different—different enough to keep the reader’s attention but also essentially the same. The storyteller allows the reader to develop an expectation for how a situation will play out. But of course, there is a twist in the final repetition; the sequence goes awry. The success of a story is often determined by how well its sequence goes off the tracks.

A great example of this strategy can be found in Owen Egerton’s novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God. The paperback edition of the book was published by Soft Skull Press, and you can read the first chapter, “Nativity,” on Amazon here.

How the Chapter Works

Count how many times Egerton shows us the Christmas pageant:

  1. We’re told that the pageant “was a Christmas tradition for our church.”
  2. Next, we’re shown the casting and introduced to the doll that will play Baby Jesus.
  3. Then, we’re shown the children practicing the pageant, running through the entire show.
  4. Next, we’re given a quick description of the first two nights of the pageant.
  5. Finally, the last performance is upon us. We know the drill by heart, and so do the characters. Notice how they begin to alter the routine: the donkey drop “balls of dung every other step,” a Wise Man slips on the dung, and chaos ensues.

Because the story repeats the pageant five times, the reader develops an expectation for what will occur—and also that something will go wrong. Notice how each telling involves a bit of irregularity: the introduction of the drummer boy, the casting of the narrator as Joseph, the drummer boy mis-delivering his line, angels crying, and finally donkeys pooping. Yet, even though the reader expects an unexpected turn of events, there is no way to foresee what actually happens. The thrill, for the reader, is in waiting for the predicted, yet unpredictable, twist.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Choose a scene that will repeat itself. The scene could be one that involves planning and practice (a wedding, shouting “Surprise!” at a birthday party). Or it could center around someone involved in a routine activity (door-to-door salesman).
  2. People the scene with characters (wedding/party guests, salesman/homeowners).
  3. Tell the reader how the scene will play out, and then show the scene once or twice.
  4. Finally, show the scene a final time, adding unexpected challenges.

It helps if you give the main character a sense that something might go wrong—or if you generally introduce the idea that all might not go according to plan. You can introduce the idea subtly or in an obvious way. The point is to show the sequence of events while hinting at a twist in the sequence.

Be inventive with this exercise. Remember, you want to surprise an expectant reader.

Happy writing.

2 Responses to “Show It Once, Show It Again”


  1. Interview with Owen Egerton | Owen Egerton - February 28, 2013

    […] Here’s an interview on craft I gave to Michael Noll of Reading to Write. This site is an excellent source of short stories and writing exercises run by the insightful and talented Mr. Noll. You can read my story Nativity (the opening chapter of my novel The Book of Harold) and sample the exercise Michael developed around it here. […]

  2. Narrating a Crime Scene Investigation | Read to Write - April 23, 2013

    […] on Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” Owen Egerton’s chapter “Nativity,” and Stacey Swann’s story […]

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