Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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I must tell you about the time when...

A friend's recent posts about the writing process have got me thinking about how people tell stories. To most people, telling stories is second nature -- and I do specifically mean telling not writing.

People tell stories to one another all the time: what they did at the weekend; the time they had to get somewhere urgently and they broke down in the middle of nowhere and it started to snow; what happened at their brother's wedding when Uncle Bill got plastered and tried to get off with the chief bridesmaid.

So when you ask them to write fiction, they already have the pattern of stories and anecdotes deeply embedded in their subconscious. Even though they've previously been telling stories about what "really happened", people shape the events to make the story flow better or to reach a kind of punchline, even if it's only, "And I was so glad that I always keep a spare mobile phone in the glove compartment," or "And that's why no one ever asks Uncle Bill to weddings any more!"

It starts when kids are very young. My granddaughter is 4½ and at Easter I joined daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter on a visit to Chester Zoo. The next day they went to see my dad. I wasn't actually there, but having taken part in many similar conversations over the years, I can imagine that it went something like this...

Imagine my elderly dad sitting and listening with an interested expression on his face.

Daughter: Where did we go yesterday, Erin?

Erin: We went to the zoo!

Daughter: And what did we do there?

Erin: We saw the animals!

Daughter: Did you like the animals?

Erin: Yes. I liked the rhinoceros.

Daughter: And what was the rhinoceros doing?

Erin: He was lying down.

Daughter: Who else went to the zoo?

Erin: Uncle Mike and Auntie Shelle and Baby Will!

etc. etc.

When you look at those conversations adults have with small children, they're not only encouraging a child to communicate with another adult, perhaps one they don't know so well, they instilling the basics of story. Who was involved? Where did they go? What did they do? What did they see?

Gradually, as kids get older they start to tell more of the story on their own initiative without prompting. They're starting to learn how stories should go. They learn other forms of story telling such as retelling the story of the TV programme they saw last night. They start to tell stories to other kids. If they're the imaginative type, the kind that love stories, they start to make up their own stories by incorporating characters from books and TV and totally made up characters into a plot of their own devising.

So if anyone wants to know how I learned to write fiction, I must have started at the age of about 3 with my parents coaxing me to tell Granny what we did in the park yesterday. As I got older, I continued making up stories via playing cowboys and Indians with friends, playing with the Britains plastic farm and zoo animals with my brother, pretending my scooter was a horse and pretending that the nail hammered into the tree near the newsagents where we bought sweets was a fairy's doorbell. I acted out stories with the hand-puppets I was given and made stages out of cardboard boxes for them. Older still, I taught myself to daydream through boring sermons, train and bus journeys and while walking to and from school. Eventually, I started to write these stories down.[*]

Everyone who writes will probably have done something similar and all the time you were learning how to tell stories, you had feedback, first from parents prompting you to include the things that you hadn't mentioned about the trip to the zoo and later you were prompted by the friend who wanted more detail about how many horns the ferocious monster that lived in the tangled trees in the park looked like and how big its teeth were. If you didn't create a coherent story, the bemused looks meant that you tried to tell it again in a different way until you found what worked.

Some people take the telling of anecdotes to a high level and actually get paid as TV and radio panellists or after dinner speakers. Others never do, but most people feel that they can tell a story and when they sign up for a writing course, they just want to know how to make the story on the page better. They want more feedback. The underlying skill of story telling is just taken for granted.

And to tell a good story, that foundation needs to be solid. If the basic logical flow of the story just isn't there, then no amount of fancy writing will help.

[*] The reason I tend not to tell people to use this method for story creation is that 1) vivid visualisation only works for visual and kinaesthetic thinkers, 2) If it's a method that will work for you, you have probably already discovered it yourself because that will be how you read fiction and you will most likely have worked out how to reverse engineer the process to use it for writing, 3) If you can't already do it, it takes a long time to get good at it and there are quicker ways to achieve the same result, 4) It can lead to frustration because if you over-polish the mental movie, the words on the page are unsatisfying because they can't match the full senssuround experience in your head. I therefore don't use the method half so much these days, though it certainly has its uses.

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