Growing A Story


We sometimes take fully-formed stories to tell, from a book maybe, and mainly we learn them, memorize them, and that’s that, although they’re never quite the same when we tell them as the way they’re written down. But mainly we work on a story, sometimes shrinking it to a workable length but usually “growing” it bigger and make it our own. We fill them out with descriptions, invented incidents even, and whole set-pieces, a bit like the way the often slender story of an opera is swelled into a three hour long drama.

At the same time we can find stories all around us, not-quite stories which need to be grown into something which will satisfy us and our audiences. It might be a news item or headline, an incident in the street, an unusual object, and we think, “That would make a good story”. And sometimes we’re commissioned to find a story out of an exhibition, and have to look for the seed of a potential story in images or objects.

What these have in common is that they are not enough as they stand, – they lack the essential qualities which satisfy as “story”, which are,-

Narrative coherence



Imaginative depth (or “meaning”) and poetry

Without these things an audience is unlikely to feel satisfied by the telling,

So we grow our stories.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

The fragment we have here is unsatisfactory. It may be the beginning or the ending of something, but it is just a situation. It doesn’t have any context, that is it doesn’t explain enough about how the situation came about. It contains unresolved tensions. It doesn’t relate fully to a world, so it is almost meaningless.

This is a way of dealing with such a fragment,-

1) Rumination

First of all we just dwell upon what we have, and for a while if we want. No judgements, no rush to repair or fill it out. What is it possibly about? What interested you in it in the first place? What is the key thing which makes it want to be a story through you? What other thoughts does it set off in you? What questions does it raise about itself? Taking time over these questions allows us to explore its potential and prepare ourselves for some practical work on the fragment which will grow into a story.

2) Resolution.

There are number of unresolved aspects of the situation (underlined).

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

Some will be more important to you than others. Choosing the ones which matter to you enables you to shape a resolution to the story, The things that are important to you need to go through a transition to be resolved. How would you like the food, or the dwelling, or the ‘not knowing what to do’ to be resolved? Other things can stay the same – they are the “givens” in your story. The idea of living in a shoe may not matter to you, or the lack of bread.  What has to undergo change in your story before it feels complete and coherent?

So we jump to the end and conceive of how that will be. We can almost say the last few sentences already. And not all conclusions are happy ones, of course.

3) The World Of The Story

You want now to hurry up and join the beginning situation to its ending with lots of incident and description, but pause a moment to consider the world which is suggested by the fragment. Every story creates its own world, some very different and separate from the everyday world we live in. If this fragment was all we knew of the world, what would that world contain? What kinds of people? What kinds of living? What kinds of incident? And what kind of a world is it? Happy? Conventional? Limited? Disturbing?

Now there is the question of whether, and what, you might want to bring into that world to resolve its tensions. Is it a big enough, adequate enough world so that you can use what’s in there already to produce your ending/resolution? Or do you need to bring in more people, more places, magic, the supernatural, a helpful advisor, an unusual event? Will the resulting story be more magical or more material? More realistic or more fantastic? How near is it to what we call reality? What makes it different?

4) The Journey

Or we could say, The Transition(s). Now you can start on the process of getting from the opening situation to its conclusion. You will already have ideas, and it is entirely up to you how you fill all that out, but there are, in the great world of stories, many kinds of transitions which have been used and it’s quite likely that yours will be like one of them. There is,-

The Labours – a set of difficult tasks which must be accomplished before all can conclude.

The Pact (or deal) – an agreement which makes the conclusion possible, but at a price which has to be paid before it can happen. This often takes the story into deeper emotional waters than were apparent at its beginning.

The Test – some personal challenge which an individual must pass before they can bring about the situation which resolves everything.

The Revelation – something which is not suspected but which makes things possible through new knowledge or awareness.

There are other classic transitions, but whichever you use it will help you to notice the structure which underlies it.

So you go ahead and take the journey of making the narrative of the journey.


How you tell a story depends on your character as a storyteller. How you tell this story will be influenced by this character, although it might develop, extend or stretch your range in the process. Here are some questions which may help you to pitch your storytelling to match style and content.

Are you a Gossip or a Bard?

A gossip shares the story in a knowing and relatively intimate way, based on the idea that it is something personal to them and new to the audience.

A bard declaims the story to a wide audience, sometimes wider than the people in the room, with an implicit understanding that the story belongs to history and is already at least partly known by the audience.

Obviously most people are somewhere between Gossip and Bard but their storytelling is affected by where they fall on the range between.

Are you a Bearer, a Sharer or a Medium?

A Bearer delivers the story which they have received from tradition or established accounts.

A Sharer offers their story or version of a story as though from their own experience and recreation of it

A Medium presents the story (or seems to) as though intuited from the ether in the moment of telling.

Again most people are, or can be, a mixture of two or all three, but their telling will reflect this, and parts of a storytelling can draw on any of these.

First Person or Third Person?

You may tell your story as though you are involved in it or as something reported by others. Many things beyond the words, including tone of voice and descriptive colour, will be affected by this

Detail or Parable?

You may be story-teller who relishes detailed descriptions including sensual evocations, or you may feel more attuned to events and incidents.  A story which depends on incidents and events is often what we call a parable. All stories contain the possibility of both. How far you emphasize one or the other will depend on your storytelling style and the content of the story. (A shiver or a taste may be important to what happens).

ROGER HILL – March 2015

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I write a lot in many media on many subjects

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