One of my 2019 goals is to read and analyze 300 short stories to help me be better at short form writing. I’m sharing them in batches of three over on my Patreon, but wanted to highlight this particular story and the lessons I learned from the exercise with you.
Olivia’s Table by Alyssa Wong from the anthology, A Thousand Beginnings & Endings
This story begins with a strong grounding in atmosphere, economical use of far, middle, near as well as tone set with weather, setting, and travel.
“Olivia blew into town with the storm and headed straight for the Grand Silver Hotel. Pots and containers of sauces and marinades clattered in the trunk of her Toyota, packed in with the rest of the groceries she’d brought from Phoenix. The evening sky hung heavy with dark clouds, but the shrinking Arizona sun still burned her arms…”
This is ultimately a riddle adventure with grief as the underlying emotional context.
The first hook is paragraph 5 with the ghosts. The second is paragraph 8 with the talismans and memory of the MC’s mother. The third is paragraph 17 with a mystery to resolve. There are more threads that this; the story is layered and complex like a well-seasoned dish. Each strand is clearly defined, but seamlessly woven into the story. The multiple needs and actions pull you along and always remain sharp-edged.
Wong’s choice of where to place the camera guides the reader’s attention masterfully and also lends to an addictive read. Wong keeps all the story threads moving and taut by giving a taste of the mystery followed by large-movement action with small, deliberate details leading to impending syntax (word choices, smaller sentences, emotional layer), and then folding that right back into more of the mystery.
The end here made me sigh with appreciation. You see, the MC isn’t only solving the immediate problem presented by the ghosts in the hotel. She’s also grappling with putting her own ghosts to rest. The resolution here is painful, beautiful, and subtle.
Olivia’s Table taught me how to layer a story with low-threat stakes to be charming, engrossing, and keep the reader turning each page with attachment and anticipation.