Challenge 544 Response
“What Grandma Done”:
a Structural Solution to a Punctuation Problem
by Don Webb
Tim Simmons’ “What Grandma Done” appears in issues 543-544.
Challenge 544: Grandpa has to tell Hannah what is essentially a story within the story. Can it be done in any other way than by embedded narration and dialogue?
To review the context: Hannah goes to visit her grandparents’ farm one day. She finds Grandpa but what has become of Grandma?
Hannah’s grandfather takes her out to the barn and shows her Grandma’s grave. He swears Hannah to secrecy and tells her a lurid story: Grandma fell under an evil influence and became a serial killer of young girls, whose hearts she collected and bottled for her own nefarious purposes. Grandpa concludes by telling Hannah how he had to kill Grandma in self-defense.
The problem is that Grandpa’s account is rather long. It’s not hard to understand, but it does contain a number of embedded quotes. The elaborate punctuation is unavoidable, but it tends to call attention to itself. Is there a simpler way to tell the story?
First, we have to ascertain who the story is about: Hannah, Grandpa or Grandma. As the title says, the story is really about Grandma. And, in fact, she is the primary character even though she is technically absent; only Grandpa survives, and Hannah says and does relatively little.
The traditional structure of the frame story is a story within a story, where the embedded story affects in some way or at least explains the action in the opening and closing scenes. It can solve a lot of problems and provide some opportunities. For example:
Hannah goes to visit Grandpa, who tells her that Grandma has run off with Cletis.
Grandpa asks Hannah to stay after sundown, for apple pie. Hannah has to go home by sundown but promises to come back the next night and keep Grandpa company.
Grandpa goes out to the barn and puts finishing touches on Grandma’s grave, thus raising a question: Why did he lie to Hannah about Grandma and Cletis? Grandpa recalls his initial suspicions of Grandma’s forays into the barn at night.
Those first three scenes form the opening frame.
An embedded story begins. It can describe Grandma’s adventures from the point of view of an omniscient narrator rather than as Grandpa’s recollection. Grandma discovers an old book of spells and proceeds to slay victims and collect hearts. Her story can end where Grandpa confronts her with his discovery in the barn, and she infects him before he kills her.
Thus, the readers can see Grandma in action — complete with dialogue in direct quotes — rather than hear Grandpa tell the story to an polite and patient Hannah.
In the closing frame, Hannah returns the next evening. While she's eating pie, Grandpa's knuckle-bone necklace begins to glow, and we know what's really for dessert. Or Hannah can show up with the entire cast of Criminal Minds, complete with a SWAT team; they proceed to ask Grandpa some very pointed questions. Take your pick of endings.
A frame story would also resolve other problems. For example: Grandpa need not swear Hannah to secrecy, a promise that neither he nor the readers can reasonably expect her to keep.
Also, when does Grandpa tell the truth: in daytime, when the spell has no effect, or at night, when his evil talisman becomes active? In the frame story, there is no ambiguity: he is always under Grandma’s spell.
As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. An embedded story told by a character has certain advantages; a frame story has others of its own.
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