Claire King

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Claire King Edited Choices (10 of 10)

Posts Tagged ‘Storytelling’

How Stories are Made

Posted on: September 25th, 2013 by Claire - 31 Comments

I was surprised to discover this week that my eight year-old daughter is learning ‘Five-part Story Structure’ as part of her school curriculum. It’s not something I ever learned at school, and in fact was only exposed to for the first time quite recently, long after I’d started writing seriously myself.

One thing that makes it particularly surprising is that my younger daughter, who is nearly six, has just started in the class where French children are taught to read, and some of the children in her class literally don’t know how a book ‘works’. (Not all of them. And you can make your own guess as to whether my own children love to read and engage with stories). Yet two years later they are already moving on to learning the constituent parts of a story.

If you don’t know the five parts, typically they are:

  • Exposition: Setting the scene. “Once upon a time…”
  • Rising Action: Building the tension. “But then…”
  • Climax: The really exciting bit. Sometimes known in our house as ‘the Bad Part’*
  • Falling Action. “And so”
  • Dénouement or resolution: Ending the story. “Happily ever after.”

*I’ve been telling my daughters about ‘the bad part’ of stories for a while, because if they stop reading (or listening, or watching) a story when it all seems too scary to bear, they never get to see the hero pull through, and you are left without a satisfying and cheerful resolution.

Little Red Riding Hood

So in the exercise they are completing, they are comparing Charles Perrault’s original version of Little Red Riding Hood with the later Brothers Grimm version of the story and seeing how they differ at each of the steps. For example, unlike the milder Grimm telling (where Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother are rescued by the woodcutter, who slices open the Wolf’s stomach and sets them free, relatively undigested), in the dénoument of the original story, Little Red Riding Hood is lured into bed, and then promptly eaten by the wolf. The End.

Anyway, having thought on the matter, firstly I’m not sure that this is the right time to give children such a functional view of story telling. Isn’t this a time when stories should be something that they delight in, or in which they see echoes of their own struggles and realise they are not alone? As GK Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Secondly, the five part story structure seems to me a very oversimplified explanation of how stories are built. Unless the writer is being very formulaic, the journey between the opening and closing of a story can differ wildly from one story to another. Could this be a case of teaching a basic ‘rule’ first, and then going on to cover the exceptions? But are the exceptions not in the majority?

Here is a link to an illuminating and funny Kurt Vonnegut talk where he plots out the structure of some well known stories.

My final exception to the teaching of story structure to children is that if we are going to teach anything about storytelling we should start with the magic. We should explain to them why we tell stories, the profound effects that stories can have on human beings in terms of emotional responses, learning and social skills. We should explain that telling stories makes us human, and that we can all do it, and in fact we do all do it every day. That when my daughter walks in from school and says “Guess what happened to me today!” the magic is already starting.

Just like a movie

Posted on: November 3rd, 2012 by Claire - 4 Comments

Something that struck me this week, watching the response to the disastrous weather in the USA, was how the phrase “Just like a movie” was used again and again.

It’s the same reaction we heard from witnesses of 9-11. “It was like something out of a disaster film”. I understand how that feels – I watched those events unfold on a TV on another continent, but I also felt it hard to grasp that this was news footage and not fantasy.

There is human suffering – natural and man-made –  happening all over the world, right now. There is genocide in Sri Lanka and Syria, there are devastating floods in Thailand and Pakistan, there are earthquakes and famines and civil wars. But these terrible events are not set in landscapes that we have seen in Hollywood films. So they don’t look like the movies. And I wonder if we find them harder to understand, in some way, because of that? Because it’s a story we haven’t heard?

Pakistan floods: Families stilll lack shelter, three months on

Storytelling is so important to human beings. We tell each other scenarios – real or imagined – and show characters who suffer, but who overcome adversity in the end. And our brains absorb these stories almost as though we have lived the experience itself. We learn, without having had to suffer.

Stories are told in many ways, in written fiction, in art and on film. We project our fears and hopes into these stories. And although, thinking of the disasters I mentioned above, Hollywood hasn’t always got it covered, you don’t have to look far to find written stories about these kinds of events. The best selling book in the world chronicles them all.

Do we feel comfort that something we experience is so terrible that it is just like in a movie or in a book? Perhaps. Because the day we are confronted with something that we have not yet been able to imagine will be a terrible day indeed.

Layers not Lines

Posted on: March 15th, 2011 by Claire - 20 Comments

I’ve been trying to explain how I write – without formalising a plot (I think this makes me what is called a Pantser) – to writers who are more used to devising their plot before they start (Plotters). So here goes.

Bedtime Stories are a good example:

If you sat down with your child – or somebody else’s child – tonight and they asked you to make up a bedtime story, how would you do it? At our house when we do this, there is no plotting, you just make it up as you’re telling it.

For example, “Once upon a time there was…” What? Quickly! A dragon who was afraid to fly? A cat with no friends? A little girl who couldn’t get to sleep? A boy made of jelly?

Once you have come up with that original character-based premise, the rest of your story can quickly take shape on the hoof – the action, the setbacks, the antagonists and the ally and of course the Happily Ever After.

Starting with a premise:

When I’m writing, I work in the same way. I start with a premise. So The Night Rainbow premise was essentially ” Once upon a time there was a little girl who had no-one to take care of her.” And then I started creating the world around her. Where does she live? What would she do when she wakes up in the morning? What does she want? What danger could she be in? How would she spend her days? Why is her mother not looking after her? And so on.

The answers to these questions did not come to me in a logical manner. They bloomed, one by one, and each time they did, they came with their own questions. I wrote it all down.

Writing in Layers:

Of course a novel is much more complex than a bedtime story, but the process of starting at page one and ending at the end is still counter intuitive to me. So when I started writing these things down, I didn’t worry about starting at the beginning, I just captured it all and developed it as fully as I could at that time. It fit everywhere and nowhere in the logical construct of a novel. For example I wrote the bones of the ending quite early on. Once I knew where the girl lived I drew a map, and it became more elaborate as her adventures progressed. I had to go back into the manuscript regularly to weave in the geography.

Throughout the whole process new ideas would come to me that strengthened earlier or later sections of the book and each of those had a knock-on effect on the rest of the novel.

The ‘first draft’ was finished when I seemed to have answered all of my questions – within the narrative or within the notes alongside it. And then I asked myself…

So what would be the best way to tell this story?

The implications of this question are huge – moving whole chunks of the book from one place to another, deleting scenes, adding new scenes, making the character development consistent, ensuring foreshadowing in the right places and so on and so on.

Thank goodness for word processing and thank goodness for Scrivener which helped me stay organised.

This process took a long time and resulted in the second draft, by which time I would say the plot was clear to anyone now reading the manuscript.

Another art metaphor – writing in layers compared to painting in layers:

Another way of explaining this is by comparing the emerging story to a picture.

Rather than the narrative emerging as though from a printer – one line of pixels at a time – for me it works more like an oil painting, one layer created at a time:

In oil painting most artists paint in layers.

The artist often starts by sketching out the composition onto the canvas.

They might then proceed by painting in different colour layers working from darkest to lightest.

Entire layers can be removed if the artist isn’t happy with them.

The borders of the colors are blended together when the “mosaic” is completed.

Details are applied at the end.

 

And finally

This is just how I work and everyone works differently. So here are some interesting links:

A discussion here about Plotters versus Pantsers

The snowflake method by Randy Ingermanson

10 Things Children Don’t Say to Writers

Posted on: March 4th, 2011 by Claire - 39 Comments

This is us watching you write. We can only see the back of your head.

I was just reading Alison Wells’ post about self-confidence/self-doubt where she makes the point that her children accepted the fact she’s a writer without question. I believe this is because (at least with small children) they have not yet forgotten that Mummy is a super hero.

If I told my daughters that I’ve decided to be a spaceman, they’d probably say, “Good idea, that sounds exciting!

The kind of things my children do say about my writing are:

It’s good you are writing books. Books are important because they tell us about things that happened when we weren’t there.

and

Will you write a story for me? With a zebra in it?

On the other hand, the kind of things my children don’t say include:

1. Have you written anything I might have read?

2. Have you got an agent yet?

3. Just short stories? So you’re not actually an AUTHOR or anything.

4. It’s all going digital anyway.

5. Have you had anything published? So you write for, like, a hobby?

6. Literary Fiction? What exactly does that mean?

7. Can you get me a free copy of your book?

8. Have you made, like, millions?

9. I don’t read much.

10. I’m going to write a book too, when I’m not so busy. (If children want to write a book they just go and get on with it).

These are the kind of things that only grown-ups would say. Because grown-ups have forgotten that we can be whatever we want to be. Because grown-ups may have become just a teensy bit cynical. Now, this is just my hypothesis, so I look forward to your comments!

Jackanory

Posted on: June 7th, 2010 by Claire - 4 Comments

I’ll tell you a story
About Jack a Nory;
And now my story’s begun…

As a girl I loved Jackanory* The storytellers held me enthralled. These days my children are just as entranced. Storytellers, and the tales they tell, draw us out of our world and into another. I have always wanted to be a storyteller.

So, now I ask you to please excuse my virtual backflips today. The shortlist for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2010 has been announced and one of my stories, ‘Wine At Breakfast’, is on it! Before I go off at a over-excited tangent, I want to re-iterate congratulations to the other longlisted writers. Getting to the top 40 out of almost 1500 entries is bloody brilliant. That longlist was my first major competition recognition and, as my Gran would say, I was chuffed to little mint balls.

All of that chuffedness made me wonder: what is it about telling stories, stories that people respond to, that rings my bell…and the bells of the thousands, millions of other of writers out there, pitching and rolling in the sea of prose?

Their need to write was so great they scratched at rocks with needles.

We humans are crazy-thirsty for storytelling. Storytellers are passionate and creative – we tell our stories out loud, we sing them, write them down, paint them, act them out, whatever it takes to capture an audience and call up their emotions. Entire industries are built around storytelling in one form or another. But behind that armies of amateurs (from the French ‘to love’) persist in writing, painting, acting, singing, for little or no financial payback. What makes us do it?

For me it’s the tiny shift I can effect in others – as a girl I loved having my stories published in the school magazine. I would hang around watching faces – any reaction was a payoff – feasting on readers’ emotions. It is thrilling that you can make people angry, sad, disgusted, joyous, amused, through well chosen words.

But storytelling is not just about getting people to feel something. Human culture has been rooted in its practical uses since the very origin of language. Through entertainment, stories have taught moral codes and problem solving, taught us our history and hinted at our possible futures. Stories tell us, ‘You are not alone. You are not the first and you will not be the last’. We still tell these stories to our children, at dinner parties, at seminars, in bars. Business or personal, fact or fiction, stories endure after the cold facts are long forgotten.

My love is writing, which holds a special place in storytelling; the advent of writing marks the (official) start of history. Since then, our stories have been passed down over millennia, via the first stone tablets, paper and ink and now digital media. As technology advances, the way we tell our story and the stories themselves morph and grow together. These days we can tell a story to those who live on the other side of the planet, who sleep while we are awake. We publish e-books, update our statuses, we twitter little bits of flash out into the ether. Are our stories becoming more sophisticated, more diverse or more diluted? One thing is for sure, stories are dynamic – they grow and evolve. Over time, they are interpreted in new ways, elaborated and changed to stay relevant. Stories are born of influences we may or may not be able to pin down, but then, just like children, we launch them into the world and they live their own lives. Scary, but rewarding.

That’s the other reason I’m so excited by the BSSP shortlisting – there is a possibility that next year my story could be chosen by a Bristol school for adaptation by pupils, along with other stories published in BSSP anthologies. Please cross your fingers for me, my chuffedness would be great. Also for fellow Twitterers Jonathan PinnockValerie O’Riordan and Clare Wallace.

How about you? Are you a storyteller? What rings your bell?

*******

*Jackanory – a BBC children’s TV series

 

Post Script: It’s not just me. My four year-old daughter recently self-published her own e-book: you can read it exclusively, here – it’s free.

 

Amélie (author). It is a book about a cat.

 

Once upon a time, in spring, there was a cat.

 

(Illustration - author's own)

 

De De Der (sound effect) The cat was in the fire.

 

The end: Vets.

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