Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nothing comes from nothing


Marilyn by Pants

Is a day ever wasted if a new line is drawn or an original sentence formed?

The morning dissolved in a flurry of emails. Answers mostly to questions posed. These are good because they help me to work out what it is I think, more or less. I said to one correspondent, 'I move forward, albeit with the haste of an inchworm'. There is probably nothing wrong with that. It only feels wrong if one listens to politicians who insist one must contribute to productivity. When they work out what that is exactly, perhaps they'll let me know.

Meanwhile, I advance with what I like to call Project Pants. Productivity is not a major component of Project Pants. Products do occasionally result. The afternoon was passed in devising illustrations for Niece Pants's 'book'. This is a class project for which she had to write a story. The 'book' element I suspect is the part I'm supposed to provide. I don't know what exactly they are teaching kids about storytelling in schools but I suspect it's everything but how to actually do it.

Niece Pants submitted to me a beautifully realised set-up and a superb ending but the middle was more of a sketch in which nothing actually happened. It was like a sales pitch for a Jim Jarmusch film. The notes I wrote her in reply were twice as long as the story itself, which to be fair to me, wasn't much longer than a very long text message.

Now, below is the gist of what I wrote back to her. I've removed most references to the actual story.

I don't know how much you have learned about storytelling in class so far but here is my version. An easy way to think of it is that there are '5 Ws' and these are WHO, WHEN, WHERE, WHAT and WHY.

The first three happen in 'the set-up'.

This is where you tell your reader who the main characters are and when and where the story takes place. You did all of this brilliantly. Well done. In a few sentences you establish that Bridget and her mother have a lovely, happy relationship and that their home is safe and comfortable.

The WHAT part of the story is the most important. If you have any spare time between now and when you have to hand the story in, I would suggest you put in some more work on this section. The WHAT part of the story is when you look very closely at the WHO, WHERE and WHEN and you think 'what can I do with this?' And you follow and explore WHAT might happen to these people.

I want to introduce you now to the idea of 'conventions' in storytelling. You will know this already, even if you aren't familiar with that word. You will have seen so many films and heard so many stories before where conventions are used. So I'm going to say this to you - if someone tells me that a story takes place on Halloween, I will immediately think 'this is a story where something scary is going to happen'. That is a convention.

So, you have created the perfect set-up. You have a happy little girl with everything to look forward to having a birthday on Halloween and her best friend shows up in a costume with ? on it. This is a brilliant set-up.

Now, I'm going to suggest a very simple way of improving this story. You take the WHAT to a scary place. In storytelling this is called 'a crisis'. All you need is two or three paragraphs where something bad happens. You've given yourself plenty of options. Perhaps one of the 41 presents Bridget gets could do a horrible thing? Maybe the costume that Juliana is wearing is a clue.

The last part of any good story is the WHY. It means WHY is the story being told and what can we learn from it? This is called 'the conclusion'. You have a wonderful ending to this story. Bridget and her mother share a beautiful moment. I like it that you referenced Toy Story by the way - well done!

I have a tip for you for making those middle paragraphs better - Use the WHY to take you back to the WHAT. Sometimes when you write stories, the beginning and the end are very clear but the middle takes longer to work itself out. The middle is the most important bit. I hope you'll work on it a bit more. It will be worth it.


Niece Pants is thirteen but has written the story from the POV of an eight-year-old and she has replicated the voice very well. Even from the small amount she has written to meet the assignment requirements, I can see that she has done some insightful things. The eight-year-old voice she's invented for this story is partly her own and partly drawn from observation of one of her half-sisters, who happens to be eight.

My favourite line in the story is,

Bridget looked up at the clock even though she could not read the time very well.

The eight-year-old Niece Pants had a mental block about telling time. She knows how to do it now but it has made little difference to her time management skills. To her doting Auntie Pants, what is most endearing is that the writer in Niece Pants is able to project something of her real self into the character that she's created.

It occurred to me that the really quite glaring absence of 'a pivotal event' in Niece Pants's story speaks of a reluctance in modern education to connect cause with effect, on any terms.

I finished the four illustrations I promised to do for the story and I'll post them off tomorrow. I hope Niece Pants fills in the part of her story that comprises the actual story and, most importantly, understands why she's doing it.