This week’s workshop was a very elaborately-worked-out session with a clear starting point and outcome. I wanted to furnish the group with material which they could draw upon to create stories out of a particular fictional world. Not everybody, I knew, would be interested in this kind of story-making but I calculated that the workshop would still be of general interest for the light it cast upon how particular kinds of story work in relation to setting and character.
My principal starting-point was a recently published essay by Phillip Pullman where he addresses story through the image of “the path through the wood”. Put far too simply maybe Pullman sees the narrative of the story as a path and the wood is the world which is sketched in to make the narrative belong somewhere in place and time. What he is insistent upon is that only so much wood is needed to make sense of the path and that there is a temptation particularly amongst story-writers to lay on more description that is necessary for the forward motion of the narrative. All this in the cause of parsimony. My starting point was otherwise. I liked the idea of the wood so much that I was interested in what else was out there in it and how far it might allow for other paths to cross it.
We started with a circle-of-sharing which would be useful later as a building-block for the full workshop. I asked people to review their acquaintance with literature, film and other cultural evidence for “duos”,- partnered characters with a specific defining duality. Mine were Hammy Hamster and Roddy Rat from the old childrens’ TV series, “Tales Of The Riverbank”, and Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady whose “beat” travels round America formed the basis of Kerouac’s book “On The Road”. Even as I celebrated these duos I realized that they were both about a shy or inexperienced individual being chauffeured about by a dynamic and capable “other”.
Everybody had a “duo” to share – “bubble and squeak”, Laurel and Hardy, two pets called Desmond and Derek, Poo and Piglet, the philosopher and Sophie from “Sophie’s World”, The Likely Lads, Steptoe and Son, Vic and Bob, Silly Sisters. Once we had shared these we “parked” them for future reference.
I started the workshop proper with the idea that existing stories could be deconstructed and reconstructed from a new angle. I cited Tom Stoppard’s “take” on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, the play “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern are Dead”. There was also Jean Rhys’s “The Wide Sargasso sea” which is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”.
We got down to business by taking the technique to the story of the Pied Piper Of Hamelin. We looked at the world of the story, the town, the countryside, the houses and homes, the river, and then what began as speculation about the many viewpoints from which the narrative could be told – the Mayor, the Piper, a child, a rat, a visitor, the mountain even – became a freestyle assault on the apparent integrity of the original narrative. We had sequels and prequels, many of each, and time-shifts and narratives which just stopped off at Hamelin on their way somewhere else entirely. We had the Piper in cahoots with the rats, and children returning in due time to find other children installed in their old homes. We also, in the cause of deconstruction, looked at different angles on The Crucifixion and the Nativity. The point was made, I hope – if you have a wood, a reality, a Hamelin, you can make many paths through it. It can be a rich resource for stories, and therefore, I suppose, create many meanings. Later in the workshop I pointed out that some literary authors had created whole worlds which they explored in several books, writers like Trollope (The Barsetshire Novels), Galsworthy, and R K Narayan the Indian writer with his “Malgudi” stories.
We then “parked” that set of ideas and moved back to character. I asked people to tell us about an individual “other” who is always seen as a real contrast with ourselves, even though we may actually have much in common. I chose my brother, and several others in the group identified siblings and family as opposite others, although someone chose a pet dog, and partners were mentioned as well. Each time in describing our “other” and our relationship with them we were identifying a particular duality. This is where, as I pointed out, the “duos” we had named at the beginning of the session came into the reckoning. Dualities are what stories are made from. I was also at pains to point out that however opposite we think our duality is there will always be some common ground with our “other”, – our shared world (or wood) or origins.
Then we made up some dualities, taking a category of person (or animal) and adding a qualifying descriptor to them. The individuals thus created were,-
A newsreader who read “fake” news
A binman who is clumsy with big feet
A friendly mermaid
A lazy (“Witchita”) line-man
A nurse who is a loner
An unreliable wizard
A bad-tempered toddler
We then looked for complementary “others” for these characters, and came up with the following,-
A newsreader who read “fake” news – an obsessively truthful researcher
A binman who is clumsy with big feet – a very organized boss
A friendly mermaid – a reclusive dragon
A lazy (“Witchita”) line-man – an industrious and diplomatic office secretary
A nurse who was a loner – a chatty witchdoctor
An unreliable wizard – a troll who was O.C.D.
A bad-tempered toddler – a patient Labrador (dog)
And then I pressed the group, who were now working in smaller groups, to come up with another “other” who complemented the two existing characters in each cluster. So the mermaid and the dragon acquired a penguin cook who was a sharer, and the lineman and secretary a complaining customer, and the toddler and the Labrador a wise cat, and so on. Now we were beginning to have the clusters which would give us the basis for a whole host of stories.
After our break I invited the various groups to choose one cluster and look at the world (“wood”) which these characters inhabited (seashore, news office, great American outdoors) and find a fourth character to add to the cluster (which was also becoming quite family-like). I then admitted that the other hidden inspiration for the workshop was my recent discovery of the Moomin stories of Tove Janssen with their central family Moominmamma, Moominpappa, Moomintroll and Little My, a cluster which provides a focus for a Moominland full of narratives. The actual book I waved at the group was “Tale From Moominvalley” which is (in my opinion) a psychologically acute set of studies of human character disguised as a set of children’s stories.
The Moomin territory actually contains many other individuals and groups often quite unlike the central family. I suggested that we complete the workshop by considering the quartet we had created/chosen and think of a number of story-outlines which could emerge from and present this world we had created. I allowed that it was now possible to have cameo appearances in this “world” by other individuals, and other local sets or clusters of types who might figure in particular stories. I suggested for now just thinking up titles for episodes – or descriptions as in the TV series “Friends”, “the one where……” “the Lineman’s ex-wife turns up” (as one group suggested). So the individual groups set about that task until they had a few stories and shared them at the end of the session.
I summed up what we had done and suggested that if anyone were inclined to set about writing a set of childrens’ story-books or pitching to a screen production company an idea for a series then they had the makings of that in the creations we’d come up with, or maybe the technique for beginning that process. Otherwise I hoped that there had been some use in looking at the ways stories work.
The main comment was that this had really been the beginning of a full-day workshop cut short by time, and that we should follow up the work in another workshop. I took that on board and we probably will. All comers welcome, of course.