Can you become a rich and famous writer if you’re not much good at writing?
Yes, of course you can – it happens all the time! There are always highly successful popular novelists around who can’t write to save their lives. But they can use plot dynamics.
The dynamics of plotting are the four primary emotional states writers & storytellers of all kinds try to induce. Within these, a whole universe of emotions can be aroused. But first, the writer must be able to induce these four dynamic states:
Expectation means engagement, curiosity, and uncertainty, the driving forces of all narrative. Wanting to know. In a state of expectation we cannot help ourselves from making predictions and hypotheses – imagining the future. What’s going to happen? Why did what just happened happen? Even in a less plot-driven narrative, we have doubts and questions about why the author is telling us this at all. Why is this significant? Why is it interesting?
If we seek to define the term ‘story’, we have to say that it is not just a sequence of events. There has to be something about the sequence of events that makes it worthy of narration. It can’t be ‘The alarm clock woke me up, so I got up and came to work. I worked all day and then I went home, ate, watched TV and went to bed.’ That’s a sequence of events, but it’s not a story. (It’s not even a life!)
To earn the title of ‘story’, a sequence of events must be worth telling, and to be worth telling it must involve a change of state. So if you got fired at work, OK, that’s a story. Or fell in love, even. Or murdered your boss, whatever. But first and foremost the storyteller must commit to the storyworthiness of the story. Its narrativity, to use the jargon.
Even if the story starts in the most mundane possible way, there is a contract that the author must fulfill, an expectation that if I stick with this, I will… be made to laugh / cry / understand / be amazed / amused / horrified.
However, these expectations must not be met too quickly. All linear art – music, narrative – works by arousing and satisfying expectations. Such works exist in time. They have to take time to unfold, and during that time the audience must be in suspense, the experience of an as yet unfulfilled expectation.
The storyteller delays. A storyteller slows down, just when you’re desperate to know. A teacher must be prepared to wait.
A teacher waits… have you ever done that, without telling them what you want, just wait to see what the students will give you? Wait to see how long it takes them to realize that what you want is questions.
Which you should quite probably refuse to answer.
On the eve of publication of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald removed more than thirty pages from the novel. This was at the ‘galley’ stage, when the author is sent proofs to check for errors before printing proceeds.
The pages Fitzgerald struck out consisted mainly of Gatsby talking to Nick about himself. By taking them out, the novelist created a gap in his narrative, posed the question implied in the title, and preserved the mystery surrounding his central character. It is this gap which has driven the fame of his masterpiece in the 88 years since its publication.
As in narrative, so in inquiry – it is the gaps which drive engagement. The gaps are where the imagination plays. Reading is a creative activity; narrating a collaboration between storyteller and listener.
But you can’t have a gap by itself, of course. It has to be a gap in something. Through the outsider Nick Carraway, we observe Gatsby staring at the green light across the bay. We hear his party guests swapping wild rumours about him, we learn of their fascination with this gentleman thug, we wonder why he doesn’t attend his own parties…. a little later we hear his fantastical life-story from his own lips and don’t believe a word of it.
At the last moment, Fitzgerald decided to leave it like that. And so Jay Gatsby remained a living, breathing contradiction, and became immortal.
To create the space for inquiry, you need to plot your curriculum. The word ‘plot’, by the way, is not synonymous with ‘story’. It means the way the story is told – its narrative structure – what we learn in what order, and how – and when (if ever). A storyteller never tells the whole story. As a storyteller it’s good to leave out the boring bits – but leaving out the most interesting bits is sometimes a stroke of genius.
By Paul Dunbar, IB Literature and Theory of Knowledge Teacher
Time and space are the dimensions we live in.
As a literature teacher, my field is narrative, and I point out to my students that all stories must take place in time and space, just as our lives do. A story is not a photograph, but a movie. Narrative is a linear form: it takes time to tell a story, and time within the story must also elapse, though not at the same rate that it passes outside of the story. Likewise, a story must occur in space – it is very difficult to imagine a story that does not have a setting of some kind, that does not take place somewhere. Place is the performance space the characters will occupy.
All of that is rather obvious, of course, but it points us to the most fundamental questions the storyteller has to engage with. How will I handle time in telling this story? And how will I create space?
In formulating these two questions, I’m not sure I have the verbs right. The idea of ‘handling’ time for instance – is it possible to touch time with your hands? Isn’t that a bit like putting your hands in water and saying that you’re ‘handling’ the water? To handle implies being able to encompass and direct something with your hands – money, for instance, or food. Is it a bit arrogant to speak of ‘handling’ time? And ‘creating’ space?
But the storyteller – the novelist, the film-maker, the poet, the graphic novelist – must do exactly that: create worlds, populate them, fold and unfold sequences of events within them. If your narrative fails to create an imagined space – a storyworld – which the reader can enter, it will be just words on a page.
And if that space is not filled with the invisible, dynamic flows of time, your audience will not be engaged.
So is teaching a kind of storytelling?
Yes! And I mean that not metaphorically but quite literally. Teaching isn’t like storytelling – it is storytelling.
If your students look forward to your class, they do so for the same reasons that they look forward to the next installment of a story. (Something might happen in the class which will carry the plot forward. Or not!)
The idea of a course as a narrative and the teacher as a narrator is not just a fancy metaphor. The parallel can have a profound, empowering and literal truth for a teacher, and I’d like to take the idea forward in future posts. If as a teacher you accept that you are a storyteller, not a social engineer, a programmer or a bureaucrat, suddenly there is a great deal you can learn from the art of narrative.
I suppose the first thing to learn is that what you are doing is as full of creative possibilities and challenges as telling a story, whether in the form of a novel, a film, a comic-book, or any of the myriad other forms of narrative. And the first of these possibilities and challenges are:
How will I handle time?
How will I create space?