Tuesday, 25 March 2014

It is not so, it was not so, and God forbid it should be so... - Susan Price




          The link - it does take a little time to load, sorry - will take you to my retelling of 'Mr. Fox' - the 'bloodthirstiest folk-tale in the English tradition.' It is not for the highly imaginative of nervous disposition.
          I coded up this e-book, in part, because I was asked, by the RSA Academy in Tipton, to hold a workshop teaching 'how to write a scary story.'
          I think folk-lore in general is a great teacher of how to create suspense and readability. Look at Billy Goats Gruff - a master-class in creating tension. You may not want to write about billy goats and trolls, but I'll forgive you for that. The principles of demonstrating the threat, making the audience wait, increasing the threat, and making the audience wait again, can be transposed to any kind of story.
Dr David Rose


          In the workshop I gave I drew on the work of Dr David Rose and his 'Reading to Learn' reading strategy.
          I was fascinated by the way Dr Rose breaks down every sort of writing into a blue-print. He writes that a practiced, 'natural' story-teller knows 'instinctively' how to tell a story. They don't need a blue-print.
          But, actually, they're following one without knowing it.   'A natural story-teller,' if you look closer, will be someone who has, from infancy, been told stories, had stories read to them, has watched stories acted out, has read hundreds of stories. They've had these 'story forms' modelled for them thousands of times, and they've absorbed them until they've become 'instinctive.'
          It's exactly the same way you learn to drive a car. You start by bunny-hopping, gear-clashing, hard-breaking and having to think about what you're doing every single moment - and usually getting it wrong. But, after long practice, you can drive smoothly, changing gear and operating the pedals without thinking about them, freeing your conscious mind to observe and anticipate. - You're now driving 'instinctively' but there is no inborn human 'instinct' for driving. It's the result of long practice and repetition.
          Someone with this long practice in stories needs only a hint - 'you need to get to your story faster - you need your main character to be more active' - and they know at once what the hint means, and what to do to improve.
          Someone without this background is as lost as I would be if asked to sail a boat across to Holland. What? I could not even begin. - But Julia Jones and Jan Needle of this blog would be up and doing at once, because they've been sailing since childhood and most of the problems that I could not even foresee would be 'instinctive' to them. And they could tell you stories while they were at it, because they've been writers since childhood too.
          Someone with a background, from childhood, in using words and hearing stories, has an 'instinctive' understanding of how to build an essay, how to build an argument, to persuade.
          David Rose's mission in life is to help those who don't have this background to accelerate their learning until it's on a level with those who do, to close 'the achievement gap.' He's shown, over and over again, that it can be done - and one way is to pick apart these forms, to break them down into steps. In other words, to make the instinctive explicit. You show students, 'This is how it's done.' You teach them the steps of the dance, if you like, and they practice it until it becomes instinctive.
          Of course, this is done in the earliest classes in schools - but very quickly it's assumed that the students already know the simple steps, or - if they don't - that they're not really capable of learning them. As an Royal Literary Fund Fellow, in a University, I met many intelligent students who didn't know how to construct an essay, or build an argument, who didn't know what 'passive voice' was, or why it should be of interest to them. One reason I was so impressed with David Rose's 'blue-prints' for texts is that I knew I could have used them every day as an RLF. I would have had them set up on my computer, I would have helped students 'fill in the steps' and I would have sent students away with a printed off essay plan.
          These 'basic' lessons need repeating. Not everyone - not even bright everyones - learn at the same speed.
           It doesn't matter if 'the blue-print' is rather mechanical and formulaic. The greatest pianist started by playing scales.
          At worst, those students who aren't really interested, will learn a few tricks to make their stories and essays better. The more those tricks are reinforced with better marks and praise, the happier they'll be about trying them, and the achievement gap will close a little.
Hubert Cole illustration: Wikimedia
          Those students with more interest, or more motivation, may find themselves going beyond using the mechanical formula.  They may become so practiced in it that it becomes instinctive, and then they'll find themselves wanting to play with it, and challenge it. Then they're on their way to becoming writers.

          In my workshop, 'How To Build a Scary Story in Simple Steps,' I used Mr. Fox as a model. I asked the students to look at the way 'scariness' was created in Mr. Fox - and then to invent something for their story that followed the same model. Their story didn't have to be set in the past. It didn't have to be about a vulpine serial killer - it could be about anything they found scary. But the parts of their story had to do the same job of work as the parts in 'Mr. Fox.'

          This blog has gone on long enough, I think. It would be twice as long if I went into more detail. Perhaps next time? - Enough to say that Rose breaks down all 'Narratives' into three sections: Orientation, Complication and Resolution.
          Each section has a different job to do within the narrative, and each section breaks down into smaller steps. It may sound confusing, but during the workshop I saw how quickly students latched on to the notion of transposing the pattern of 'Mr. Fox' to their own quite different story and inventing an equivalent scene.
          My biggest regret is that I didn't use the principle of 'tell them without telling them' more during the workshop. Instead of expounding, I could have used the plasma screen and my laptop to simply show them how it's done - with their input. We could have come up with a story together.
          But I'm hoping someone will give me the chance to run a new! improved! version of this workshop where I'll get a chance to do that.

Susan Price's website and contact details can be found here.

The 'flippable' e-book at the top of this blog can be found here, at Stories For Learning, together with other books.

Dr. David Rose is here, being interviewed (in English) on Danish TV.
     
The picture at the head of this blog is a 16th Century painting, artist unknown, of ’A Young Lady, aged 21.’ It is possibly a portrait of the Swedish born Helena Von Snakenborg, maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Helena later became Marchioness of Northampton.  The image is taken from Wikimedia Commons.


5 comments:

Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said...

Good post, but I wonder if what you say about learned vs. natural storytelling is quite so straightforward. Obviously we all learn patterns and blueprints from an early age, the earliest, but there may be certain underlying - hardwired, I suppose, though the term may be a bit outmoded by now - genetic components, though of course evidence is mounting that gene expression is modifed by the environment, and that learned patterns may even be laid down in the genes. (Someone who has a better understanding of this, please comment!) The basic thesis/antithesis/synthesis pattern (Roses's Orientation, Complication and Resolution. which Yorke does a good job of elaborating in his Into the Woods), for example, seems universal for human beings everywhere, no matter the forms of storytelling in their specific cultures.

That said, it's always useful to pick apart how something works. The danger, of course, as you rightly imply, is that, once mastered, the skill can become a cage - or box we don't think beyond.

(And if these 'instinctive' patterns were really just learned, theoretically other patterns could supplant them, right?)

Lydia Bennet said...

Wow Sue you are getting into some deep academic stuff, very thought-provoking post - I've never heard of Rose. I wonder how much is natural talent, if that exists as a discrete entity, and how much learning - perhaps we do have instincts which are really instinctive. Difficult to tease out what's what but in the end it's the stories and characters that matter.

Nick Green said...

A fascinating post. I've always been very put off by technical writing terms, and have found the only way to get better is simply to "do it, and do it, and never stop doing it." (Sportacus, "Lazy Town").

I was also really slow at learning to drive. Nothing my instructors ever told me made any kind of sense. My only way to get competent was to practise in my own slow, eccentric way. And now I have the maximum no-claims bonus.

julia jones said...

I wish I did feel 'instinctive'about setting off to Holland! It's arguable that the more you know the more you see that could go wrong - so in fact I plan like the blazes. Of course being on the boat since childhood does implant some instincts and unconscious behaviours but they are at a very much lower level. A trip usually involves responsibility for others as well as for the boat. When I found myself in charge of Peter Duck I discovered that 'instinctive' understanding wasn't hugely helpful as I couldn't communicate it to others who were new to sailing. So I went on a course to learn to intellectualise my understanding and thus become more able to explain what I wanted. All this is rather a long way of saying "Jolly interesting. I agree"!