I’d like to move on from my two definitions of a story, but do keep your marked up story-start because we’ll be going back to it.
I have tried very hard to find another way to talk about this next bit that avoids the phrase ‘Story-Time’.
It has associations – not bad associations – of the nursery and of the story mat at school. Come on, children, settle down – it’s Story-Time.
I don’t want you to dismiss what I’m going to say as infantile. It’s far from it.
Instead, I’d like to take those childish associations of Story-Time and make them into an obvious virtue.
What did you feel, back when you were a child, and someone announced they were going to tell you a story?
I don’t know about you, but I remember feeling excited – excited that I was about to hear something that wouldn’t be boring and that might very well be scary or funny or unusual. At the very least, it wouldn’t be a telling off.
I might already know the story that was about to be told, and – because I was sure what was going to happen – I could take comfort in it. The reading or telling would be a ritual. This is why, for most children who want stories retold, they want them retold exactly. Any failure of repetition is a step away from comfort.
Aside: As a writer, you are writing not just for the first reading of your story but for every subsequent reading. For me, it is the very definition of a great story, that it demands to be re-read, and that each time it is re-read, it shows itself capable of being read again without its pleasures being exhausted.
Literary aside: There are some writers, though they are very rare, who seem to write for more than one rereading. The best example I know of a book written this way is Emma by Jane Austen. Without spoiling it, if you haven’t read it, the first reading contains a basic mystery – who made the gift of a piano? Although the reader may guess who sent the piano, and their motives for sending it, it’s only on a second reading that the reader is able to view everything that happens in the novel through certain knowledge of the identity of the piano-sender. This, for me, made the second reading even more pleasurable than the first.
I would ask you to compare Jane Austen’s Emma to an Agatha Christie novel – say, Murder on the Orient Express. Again, without giving away the twist, I can say that the moment you finish this whodunit, you’re unlikely to want to read the story again. Because now you know. The experience with Agatha Christie books tends to be, Ah, I enjoyed that one, now I’ll pick up another. Addicted readers of Agatha Christie (I’m one) go back to novels they read years ago, perhaps without remembering that they did, and get fifty pages in before thinking, Oh, it’s this one again – I already know who did it. Then they probably stop reading.
In writing a story, you are attempting to create the excitement of the first reading rather than the comfort of the tenth.
But you should – at the same time – be aware that the more you put in, on a conscious and unconscious level, the more there will be for readers to get out on readings after the first.
If you think you understand your story completely, you know what it’s really about, that may be a sign that you’re not leaving enough for more than one reading.
THE EPIC FLIPCHART OF NARRATIVE DEMONSTRATION
This bit is one where, when I’m teaching, I make use of the flipchart.
Often, when students come up to me afterwards – months afterwards – they say this is what they most remember.
We can’t be in a room together, with me standing next to a flipchart, so I am going to have to describe what you’d see and hear were you there.
By this point, I’ve been speaking for a while. I’ve introduced the idea of things out of place and things going wrong. I’ve suggested they avoid describing routines. And now I want to get even more basic.
Why do we like stories? I ask. What is it about stories that holds our attention?
Then I say, This flipchart has been standing here for a while, beside me, and you’ve seen it but you haven’t paid particular attention to it.
(I will have made sure I haven’t written anything on the flipchart for a few minutes, and unobtrusively will have turned the large page to a blank sheet.)
Now, I say, as I approach the flipchart, you are paying attention to it. While I’m talking about it, the flipchart is becoming more interesting to you.
Why are we interested in stories? What is it in stories that draws our attention?
I take hold of the back of the flipchart so that it is no longer standing on three legs – two about fifty centimetres apart at the front and one that is attached at the top and swings inward, at the back.
I hold the flipchart so it is vertical, rather than slightly inclined backwards.
My answer is, I say, that – as human beings, as animals – we are fascinated by anything that is out of balance. Our eyes are drawn to things that are moving, yes – but if they move in a regular way, if they turn in perpetual circles or always go up and down, up and down, they soon lose our attention. What is more fascinating to us, as alert and potentially threatened creatures, are things that move in an unpredictable way. We will spend longer looking at an object that moves randomly than one that moves in a way we can quickly work out is predictable (round and round, up and down). But as soon as we have figured out that an object is moving randomly, within fixed limits, and that those limits mean it won’t come dangerously close to us, we will look away from it. What will hold our attention even more powerfully is a thing that is out of balance and that could go one way or the other.
At this point, I let go of the flipchart so that it balances for a moment on two legs.
I have tried to balance the flipchart as evenly as I can, so that I myself don’t know which way gravity will take it.
It could fall forwards, all the way forwards, and slam loudly down on the carpet, or it could tip backwards, the rear leg extending, and it could land on that leg and restabilize, or the leg might not extend fast enough, and the flipchart could crash loudly on the carpet that way.
Just as the flipchart has made clear it’s going forwards or backwards, I grab hold of it again.
You are relieved – it’s stable. It’s not going to make a very loud noise and possibly break. And get me into trouble with the organizers.
I say, You were interested in the flipchart, weren’t you? You were very focussed on it – to the exclusion of the rest of the room, including me. What was going to happen? Which way was it going to fall? Because it was out of balance, and because it could go one way or the other, you – as an alert creature – couldn’t help looking at it.
FROM FLIPCHART TO TRAIN
Imagine you are on a platform at a country station, waiting for a train. The train before yours has just got in, and you see a mother with two young children running across the railway bridge from the opposite platform, hoping to catch that train. The doors are still open, and the mother and children are getting closer, but then one of the children drops its cuddly toy.
The mother tries to pull the child on, but it resists – it wants to go back for the cuddly toy.
The mother relents, runs back, grabs the toy herself, and resumes the dash towards the train – the doors of which have now begun to beep.
Not just you, everyone on the platform is likely to be caught up in this fascinating binary drama. Will they make it or won’t they?
Perhaps someone intervenes, to hold the doors open. Perhaps the mother makes it through, and the first child, but then the doors close and the second child is left on the platform as the train pulls away.
Have you noticed that someone was in the wrong place? (The mother and children not already on the right platform.) And then something was in the wrong place? (The cuddly toy no longer in the child’s grasp.) And that something went wrong, and then more wrong? (The toy being dropped causing the slight delay that meant the second child was left behind.) But because I’m not that cruel, at least not in a masterclass, I say, But it’s alright – this time the mother and her children make it onto the train. It was the toy that fell down again, onto the track, and was left behind.
Now, I say, back to the flipchart. I rest it back on its swingy rear leg and walk away from it. How interesting is it to you now?
Not very, you say.
Interesting at all? I say.
Not really, you say.
Okay, I say, and I return to the flipchart and put it back to vertical, rear leg swinging free.
How interesting is it now? I say.
Quite, you say. Or you say, Very.
I tip the flipchart further forwards, so it’s clear that this is the direction in which it would fall – there is no swingy rear leg to stop it. It would go down with a loud slam, and might break.
Is it more or less interesting now? I say.
More, you say.
I tip it further forwards.
More or less interesting?
Maybe you say more and maybe you say less.
I say, What’s more interesting to you now, the flipchart or me?
You, you say.
I tip the flipchart all the way forward and rest it on the carpet.
Is the flipchart interesting now? I say.
Hmm, not really, you say.
Why not? I ask.
And you say, Because it’s not doing anything or Because it’s stable or I know it’s not going to slam down.
WILL HE, WON’T HE?
Good, I say. Then I go back and pick the flipchart up and hold it so it’s tipping forwards, out of balance, definitely going to fall that way.
I say, What’s more interesting now, the flipchart or me?
Both, you say.
And this is the bit the students remember, because now I let go of the flipchart and it falls forwards – pages fluttering up – and SLAM it hits the carpet and wafts air out over everyone in front of it. And there is some shock, because I may – in my attempt to explain and demonstrate Story-Time – have broken someone else’s property.
Then I pick the flipchart up again, put it back onto its rear leg and with my handy marker pen write upon it –
WE ARE FASCINATED BY THINGS THAT ARE OUT OF BALANCE
This is what’s beneath my two definitions of story, because it explains how our eyes move, and what – in our visual field – they are drawn towards.
Movies, because they are stories, are about things and people in the wrong place, and about things going wrong and more wrong. But also, visually, they depend on objects that are in one way or another out of balance.
Where we’ve got now is ready to bring home the discussion of Story-Time.
Story-Time must take us into a situation that is in, in some way, out of balance.
A basic sign that we’re in Story-Time is that we ask ourselves, Is it going to smash?
Or, to make it even clearer:
If the situation is not out of balance, Story-Time isn’t happening.
Think about your story-start. What within it is out of balance? Everything or anything or nothing?
Think about one small change you could make, in order to turning it into an epic flipchart.
And now breathe.