We have been continuing to explore what kind of story-telling is suitable for children. I had introduced the group to Mary Medlicott’s book (“Stories For Young Children and how to tell them”) in which she places great emphasis on preparatory games and rhyme, on physicalizing the telling and on post-telling activities like drawing pictures. It struck us that her stories are often very basic. In their simplicity they deal with things like a meeting or a scare or a discovery without much in the way of narrative tension, climax, or resolution. Maybe we have been too long in the world of stories for adults (young and old) but we wanted something a bit more momentous for our young audiences.
I currently run a book-reading course for parents and their babies aged 3 months to 1 year old. This has given me a lot of experience and insight into stories which appeal to children. The audiences we shall soon be encountering will be aged from 2 years to 5 years, and that age-spread is a big leap in time and development in the lives of growing children. Is there in a story something which can appeal across that spectrum of age and interest? I advised the group that it is best to use as a basis a story appropriate for a 2 year-old and then develop and elaborate it for older listeners. The up-down, in-out, 1-2-3-Four! story-structures of a typical baby-book story need to be kept clear and to the point.
I decided that this week’s workshop would concentrate on the strong ideas and images which characterize fantasy fiction. But what was “fantasy”? – where did it separate from fairy-tales, for example, or legends? The fantasy I felt we should be exploring had magic in it, but also epic, big landscapes and grand actions. I am always interested in the images which make up stories, but here I was maybe indulging my need for a kind of purity and clarity in story.
My starting point was a list I made some time ago of what I called “Powerful Thing-Names”.
This was the list,
Even now I find it a bit hard to say exactly what distinguishes these “things” from other entities. If they have a certain power, there are certainly other “things” with a similar power which could join the list. Power, strength, character, integrity – I suppose it’s about building a story out of something which concentrates and lifts the imagination. An Arrow does, but a Spoon? not really so much, perhaps, in fantasy-terms. What I had reflected about these things is that their power increases when they are combined, as in NightAngel, or RainBell, or FireWing. In that way, I suppose the spoon becomes powerful in combination as IceSpoon for example. Of course, some don’t work so well together, like RainFall (conventional and obvious), or ArrowWarrior (hard to say, and so not really so powerful), but most combinations suggest a very interesting and poetic idea.
We tried a few combInations and discovered that what was produced was either a character with agency, or a living but inanimate part of the natural world or a thing. What kind of story would gather around these (composite) things would therefore depend on which they were. I had speculated about what could happen to Wonder-Things. They could be Lost, Endangered, Used, Stolen, Sought. If they were a character they could Help, Threaten, Search, Rescue, Recover, and much else.
It’s as if a story crystallizes around an idea, a Thing – which is of course how crystals form, – so it is important to dwell upon the particular power or Wonder of each thing, because the very details of that will affect what it generates. So a NightAngel – we need to discover or simply decide what is its character. Is it an Angel which only appears at Night and what does it appear for? Is that a problem for it or for others? What is its source of power? Is it the only NightAngel, or one among many? Does the Night belong to the Angel or the Angel to the Night? – there is so much to choose and speculate on.
In story terms we can now move on to elaboration, creating word-clusters for the presence of the angel or its influence, clusters like shadow/light/dawn/stars/appear or protect/kindness/safety/quiet/harmony, and use them to diffuse the Wonder through the narrative. In many ways we are just doing what any story-teller does, any storyteller who is not bound by the words on a page but beholden to the imagination and the telling-moment.
Once we are clear about exactly what our Wonderthing is exactly (and being what it is, a poetic image, there will be more dimensions of magic to discover as time goes on) then the story can grow around and out of it. One group member had chosen an Ice-Warrior. She said, “I saw him coming down from a mountain through a storm. Whether he came as champion or destroyer I hadn’t decided”. We had a good discussion about the “story” of the Ice Warrior (and this discussion of the narrative-potential of these elemental images is in itself a good exercise for developing our sense of Story) and had a number of different ideas about whether the Ice Warrior was a hero, or a threat, a protagonist or a deus ex machina to save someone from danger, male or female. One thing was certain – nothing ordinary would happen when the Ice Warrior was around.
We moved on to the Bell Flower and speculated on what kind of magic and wonder might crystallize round it. There are bell-flowers in meadows all over the world, but the moment we put it one (or several) into a story a kind of spell, like a scent, is released, and narrative enchantment is ready to take over, through the wonder inherent in the words used in the name.
And if all this wonder and fantasy had begun to feel a bit too good to be true, I discussed with the group the idea that other element in stories relished by children, – the mess. It’s what in previous posts I have referred to as “gubbins”, the dirty remains, the squelchy detritus, the – yes, shitty state of things after a spillage or an accident. From babyhood onwards children understand these things, the snot, the dribble, and they have far fewer inhibitions about them than we adults (unless we enforce the inhibitions on them). Our high-soaring winged horses and trenchant ice-warriors will often need to encounter that difficult kind of chaos and disorder, – not just to satisfy children, but us too. In most cases magic is the bridge between the two, active magic.
Stories are there to feed the imagination. We all experience story-hunger. We want to consume something which both elevates and grounds our experience of the world. At different points in our lives and in history what we want or need may be different. For a four year-old (and we need to consider these things) it may be a need to cope with the inevitable disillusionment with the parents and the world, the “immense shock of the loss of omnipotence”, and to sustain an appetite for life and internal and external realities (I take several of my terms from leading child psychologists). Storytelling to answer those needs will not always produce realistic stories or clean stories or conventionally moral stories. There’s something here which values both fantasy and “gubbins” and the relationship between them.
It may seem that we are originating here, and indeed a lot of relatively new stories can emerge from this process (I say “relatively new” because they will relate to existing stories in their structure or narrative components), but if we are instead telling a familiar story it is still possible (probably necessary) to imbue the telling with wonder, with powerful images, using something like the ideas in the list. Take “Jason And The Argonauts” and the heroes’ passage between the Clashing Rocks, or the Golden Fleece itself. Don’t these need wonder-power to achieve their importance in the story? Their names are just the starting point for RockCry and SunSongs and FeatherShadows and any number of combinations of words not on my short and relatively meagre list.
There’s more to be said about all this. I have posted previously on this Blog (“The World Of Wonder”) about Wonder, Elaboration and Soaring Stories, so this must be a preoccupation of mine. For now we need to get back to our current priority, producing some compelling stories for our audience of 2-5 year-olds. Watch this space – and wonder. .