A follow-up to the workshop on characters and the creation of worlds of story was requested and so I offered it. Many people had been at the previous workshop but some had not. I wanted to move quite quickly to the process of inventing and developing so that we might reach an actual “telling” in the time available to us. To begin with though I ran a physical exercise which had a bearing on the idea of characters acquiring other complementary “others” in the service of creating story-dynamics. It is not particularly important to describe the exercise in detail here but I was introduced to it by Philip Hedley the Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East as an acting exercise for developing the use of a stage space. It involves using a rectangular space on the floor as a “balancing” plate and deploying individuals on it to create living (and balancing) tableaux which emphasize contrasts of character, posture and expression. I used it to demonstrate how clear contrasts, oppositions and complementary relations generate dramas and stories.
I had simplified the proposal of the previous workshop to,-
A strongly-developed world/sense of place
a strong focus on character
good inspirations and rich stories.
We therefore indulged ourselves with a whole morning of “making things up” in groups (even though for the purposes of working as a storyteller we would be most likely to do this on our own) – a shared process is usually a pleasurable one.
Before we started creating characters I added to my list from the last session a few instances of writers who had created fictional worlds, most notably Barry Gifford whose Sailor and Lula short novels were adapted as the basis of David Lynch’s film “Wild At Heart”. My copy of R K Narayan’s “Malgudi Days” contained a map of the fictional Malgudi, and I had brought some other books of maps to show the group. Although we didn’t have the time to create maps of our ideas I do recommend it when you are creating fictional worlds. It is very likely to generate even more useful ideas for your telling.
The process we followed in the workshop was like the previous one. We invented simple characters, found their “others”, and so on, and extrapolated their world which became the context for a number of possible stories, one of which each group in the end gave as a work in progress.
The most important feature of the process was what I called “ZigZags”, a way of keeping several processes connected and working in parallel. It is best shown in this diagram where we move from one focus to another as the story forms itself,-
The creation of (say) two characters by using balance and opposition
What are the physical/topographic features of the world these characters inhabit?
|And a fourth character……..||The creation of a third character who belongs with these people in this world
|What is this peopled world all about – what are its distinctive aspects? ->||What kinds of incidents happen in this world?|
|Choose a story and work on it.||What stories are suggested by these incidents? (Choose some titles – “The one where……”)
As we zigzag through this process, letting one aspect stimulate thoughts of another aspect, the story grows. In the end we had two tellings from the two groups at work. Given the time left I suggested that a telling-in-progress needed to convey a full plot, but concentrate on giving a detailed version of just the beginning and the end. It should attempt to evoke some sense of place and sketch in some connections as well as key moments.
One group had taken the “mix” of a blind tightrope-walker, an optimistic life-coach, an impoverished agent and a “ringleader” and set it all in Depression-era America with a travelling circus fallen on hard times, badly in need of a sensational act to attract the crowds. This, of course, could be a one-off story, but it could also be one episode in a continuing saga of circus life with a developing cast of key characters.
The other group had been unable to settle on just one story-world which suited them and so combined a lonesome philosopher/shallow socialite/incapacitated slug (!)/impatient taxi-driver with a controlling breadmaker/dopey apprentice/vicious environmental health inspector/concerned customer, all in neighbouring premises in a city suburb, to initiate what was destined to be a series of stories about the unfortunate demises of various baking apprentices. (I thought of “Sweeney Todd” and also the drummers in the film ”Spinal Tap”).
I was not sure that in all of our imaginings we had really let ourselves go in the creation of our worlds, but the idea of the workshop was already shaping up to require a weekend residential for its complete fulfilment (or even a week). What was remarkable was the nature of the tellings which were shared between the members of the group. We have not experimented much with joint tellings but I was very impressed by the ingenuity with which narrative, dramatic monologue and descriptive scene-setting from separate tellers were combined to create something maybe half-way towards being a play or a film.
I don’t know if any of our created worlds will generate the successes of a Malgudi, or Hogwarts, or Moominland, but I know that we had a lot of fun experimenting with this approach to story. Now, I thought at the end, it’s maybe time to turn our attention from the What? of storytelling to the How?