The Colouring Book

At our last Story Workshop session we re-joined the idea of colour in story-telling. I started the session by asking the people present to draw a cartoon of a snail on a Post-it Note. I chose a snail because the night before I had found a small doodle of a snail which I must have picked up after a meeting I’d been at. I didn’t know who had drawn it, and actually a snail was only one of a number of subjects I could have chosen for drawing. We shared our cartoons and, of course, there was a lovely variety of treatments. My “found” snail was cute and speedy but others were cheerful and full-fed, stylish and shy. We spent a while characterizing each of them. My point was that these simple outlines suggested a world of character and what we were doing was colouring them in (In fact we didn’t do any actual colouring, but our descriptions were – and this is the point – a kind of imaginative filling-out of what the lines suggested.) as our minds colour in the things we refer to in our stories.

We used a lot of Post-it’s that morning. I asked people to write words on three of them each to identify,-

– with a single word a thing which might appear in a story – we had words like “nut”, “key”, “boat”, “pencil”

– in two words a something which is made more characterful by the addition of a describing word – we had, for example, “open window”, “closed window”, “happy shoe”, “angry diary”, “iron shoes”

– in a short phrase something that sounded unique, a thing which was a world of its own,- we had, again for example, “The Land Beyond The Sea”, “The Book Of Druid Magic”, “The Last Sunset Of The World”, “The Princess’s Cat”, “The World Champion”

We stuck these notes on the wall and gave them a lot of consideration. There were a number of conclusions to be made,-

– even a simple single word can suggest an emotional colouration,  (we had “Spirit” in our first set of notes) and the simplest of things (like the snail) will let us give them character. The question will be how much character do we need to give them for the purposes of the story in which we have included them?

– when we add character to a something we define more clearly where and how they fit into a story, or what kind of story will grow around them. Take the difference between “open window” and “closed window”, for example, or consider how the idea of an “enchanted castle” limits and deepens what will happen there.

– when we create with our formulations something which is unique, that something then becomes a threshold to a further world with its own special character. So “The Last Sunset Of The World” will have a very powerful atmosphere and sense of occasion about it. (The use of the definite article – “the” – gives an immediate impact and power to a something to which we apply it) And that further world will contain many things which share the same emotional colouration. Moreover that world will be a model of the bigger world and express values. We, and our listeners, will be advised, maybe subliminally,by this “deep” portrayal what kind of world and what kind of values are possible.

– some colouration emerges from the thing named and some is what we give to it. How much effort we need to make in each case – that is for us to decide.

The key question is how much colouration, – through description but conjuring up feeling – is appropriate for any given tale? Should we go to town and lavish lots of descriptive wordage on a pencil? Can the word “egg” be enough to carry a story without further description?

One answer is that it depends how we say the words. We had already, in a previous workshop, looked at voice colouration, and this workshop didn’t stretch to trying out the many things we can suggest about, for example, “nut” by the way we speak it. The further wonders of intonation and vocal nuance will be the subject of a future workshop, I’m sure. Sound colouration is certainly one of skills involved in storytelling and something that sets it apart from Story-writing because it happens in the moment of telling which is a present moment.

Another answer to the question about how much colouration is a practical one (which also offers a different angle on story from written/read stories) – only as much as is strictly necessary. No description for its own sake. Only words and qualities which contribute to the world and dynamic of the telling. Less is more – but more can often be good.

There was much here to be applied to the stories we have in our repertoire, our story-bag, and to how we might develop and enrich our telling of them, but in this workshop I finally introduced a particular story, the text of an African story I’d found in a collection. Like the snail it seemed to be a simple outline, but it yet invited colouration,-

“Mulungu And The Beasts

In the beginning man was not, only Mulungu and his people, the beasts. They lived happily on earth.

One day a chameleon found a human pair in his fish trap. He had never seen such creatures before and he was surprised. The Chameleon reported his discovery to Mulungu. Mulungu said, “Let us wait and see what the creatures will do.”

The men started making fires., They set fire to the bush so that the beasts fled into the forest. Then the men set traps and killed Mulungu’s people. At last Mulungu was compelled to leave the earth. Since he could not climb a tree he called for the spider.

The spider spun a thread up to the sky and down again. When he returned he said, “I have gone on high nicely, now you Mulungu go on high.” And Mulungu ascended to the sky on the spider’s thread to escape from the wickedness of men”

There was much to discuss and reflect on with this story and we will no doubt return to it in future workshops, but my question on this occasion was, what would you colour in/ describe in more detail/add words to/emotionally enhance in this story to draw out its meaning? I think there was no option but to work on the story as it raised so many questions and suggested so many values and qualities, but how would we do that? People worked in pairs and came up with a lot of ideas. They speculated on the spider’s role in all this. They wondered why Mulungu couldn’t climb a tree. They offered various descriptions of the spider’s thread. They queried what order of being was Mulungu.

The answers to these speculations will determine how we tell this story, and the answers will be expressed in colouration, – description, intonation, qualifying words, and so on. “Mulungu And The Beasts” could be told as an epic, extended and episodic, or turned into an opera with extended numbers where music does the colouring-in. On the other hand it could be a short parable for discussion, or a medium-length nature-myth. You can be sure that the African tellers from whom it originated would have given their own colouration to their telling, but what does it mean to us, and how can we build that meaning into our telling?

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I write a lot in many media on many subjects

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