More Than One Way to Tell a Story

“All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”

Jean-Luc Godard

Queneau's iconic Exercises in Style

Very few people would dispute that there are some literary texts which are universally recognised as ‘classics’, some of the works of Shakespeare being obvious examples. What educated person could regard their education as complete without some experience of the works of the greatest writer in the history of the English language, whose lines have entertained, enlightened and moved us to tears for over four hundred years? Yet no other writer in history has had their texts re-worked in so many ways, from stage to film, musical to rap, ballet to opera, film to graphic novel. In 2010, members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in association with Mudlark, an internet and TV production company, presented a version of the play Romeo and Juliet entitled Such Tweet Sorrow as an improvised real-time series of tweets on the micro-blogging site Twitter, during which the performers engaged with the audience as well as each other, using YouTube to communicate images and video text.

What endures through all of these re-workings are two things: the beauty of the language and engagement with the narrative. But while the poetry and the flowing prose is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s, the story almost always isn’t. Versions of the tale of ‘star-crossed lovers’ for example had been entertaining readers and audiences for centuries before Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ it from Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem – itself translated from the original Italian – and embellished it for the Elizabethan stage to mixed reviews (the diarist Samuel Pepys called it ‘a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life”).

The attraction of the narrative of course isn’t simply that we find it entertaining or ‘dramatic’, but that we are able to recognise in it some universal truths about the world and about ourselves, whether that truth is about age, death, love, lust, family obligations, gender roles, loyalty, or any of the narrative’s numerous other themes. To put it simply, it has many lessons to teach us about the meaning of life.

The narrative of Romeo and Juliet itself dates back at least as far as Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe in the first century AD, a story of forbidden love which contains parallels to Shakespeare’s story: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the 3rd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep, but the earliest known version of the Romeo and Juliet tale which we might recognise from the events of  Shakespeare’s play is the story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, in the 33rd novel of his Il Novellino published in 1476. As Christopher Brooker would have it, Romeo and Juliet ‘unfolds precisely through the five stages of the tragic cycle’ and thereby fulfils the criteria for one of the seven basic plots.

As the example of Romeo and Juliet amply demonstrates, there is more than one way to tell a story, but how many are there exactly? In 1947 the French poet, novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau made a humorous attempt to answer the question in Exercises in Style, a collection of short narratives in which the author retells an apparently unremarkable story in 99 different ways. Standing on a crowded bus at midday, somewhere in Paris, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him. When a seat becomes vacant, the first man takes it. Later, the same man is observed in another part of the city with a friend who is advising him on the style of his overcoat.

A page from Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story

Using a variety of styles ranging from the sonnet form through Cockney rhyming slang to mathematical formulae, Queneau’s work is both comical and experimental, a tour of literary forms and a demonstration of playful invention. The text became a cult classic and was the inspiration behind a similar experiment more than half a century later, when the graphic novelist and comic illustrator Matt Madden, in homage to Queneau, set out to explore the same idea using visual narratives in 99 Ways to Tell a Story. In a fascinating series of drawings which questions the very definition of narrative, Madden stretches the limits of the comics genre by telling the same story from different narrative perspectives and in a range of styles including maps, graphs, ‘Public Service Announcement’ and even ‘Paranoid Religious Tract’.

Experimenting with very short stories in the way that Queneau and Madden have done is a fun and engaging way to teach young  learners about narrative, and because the basic plot has to be as simple as possible, it is an inclusive exercise – everyone can try it. Similar success can also be found in setting young people challenges such as the Six-Word Story (where the writer has to compose a powerful story in only six words), the Six-Picture Story (the same exercise using six randomly selected pictures) and the 50-word mini-saga, in which writers have to compose a story of epic proportions in exactly fifty words, not a word more and not a word less.

For more on this topic see previous posts Every Picture Tells a Story and Stornoway Saga.

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Reading. Aloud.

There was a time when a great deal of time in school was spent on reading – and even singing – aloud, in turn, around the class. I remember well the feeling of dread as my turn drew nearer. Many a child was made to feel humiliated in front of his or her peers, and generally speaking, time marched very slowly. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spoken haltingly by embarrassed thirteen year-olds over the course of an entire school year is probably not how Shakespeare had envisaged it. Little wonder then that over the past three decades the practice has fallen out of fashion, and children are rarely asked to read aloud beyond the early years of primary school. Which is a great pity, because it is only by reading or speaking aloud that we can truly understand, or demonstrate an understanding, of the written word. I was reminded of this recently when re-reading one of my favourite writers, Hanif Kureishi, in an essay enitled Dreaming and Scheming – Reflections on Teaching and the Writing Life, where he describes one of  his writers’ workshops:-

“In the hope of dissipating some of the self-consciousness, I play a few standing-up ‘name’ games, where people introduce themselves. Then we run about a bit, before sitting down to play some word games. Whatever you do at the beginning it will always take a few weeks for people to begin to feel at ease for them to be able to speak to each other about their writing or to read it aloud.”

Developing oral skills in young people takes time and patience, but it can also be fun. New technologies, such as MP3 players and – even better – simple hand-held video cameras and smartphones, make it so much easier for us to encourage children to read and playback the written word, to enjoy the pleasure of language and to reflect on their own performance, without the embarrassment of reading aloud in front of the whole class. Yet sadly, one of the unintended consequences of target-setting and data-crunching in schools is that teachers often feel obliged to move too quickly to writing, a full folio and and evidence of that which is often confused with learning – WORK!

For more on reading aloud see this previous post Reading Aloud – Not Only in New York

Storytelling in the Classroom

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”

Ancient proverb

It is likely that oral storytelling has been around for as long as there has been human language, as ancient communities were  maintained and strengthened through stories that connected the past with the present and the future.  Writing (and drawing) in his indispensable study of the history of the comic book – Graphic Storytelling and Visual Art – the great American comic book writer Will Eisner considers the importance of storytelling in any medium:-

“The telling of a story lies deep in the social behaviour of human groups – ancient and modern. Stories are used to teach behaviour, to discuss morals and values, or to satisfy curiosity. They dramatize social relations and the problems of living, convey ideas or act out fantasies. The telling of a story requires skill.”

Here is Roger Hurn’s ‘take’ on teachers as the inheritors of the storyteller’s tradition, presented by Brainpop‘s famous duo, Tim and Moby.

Teachers, of course, have long recognised the power of storytelling, and now it appears that the introduction in Scotland of new curriculum guidelines has encouraged a revival in story-based pedagogy in the classroom, as witnessed by a growing interest in the Storyline approach which originated in Scotland but has lain dormant for a number of years, and the exciting work being done at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

To try to establish whether this renaissance is random and coincidental, or whether there is a systematic story movement growing across the country, former primary teacher-turned researcher Fiona McGarry is collecting data via an e-survey to inform a research project on the use of story in the primary classroom. The survey forms part of a national study on the use of story in the primary classroom by the University of Dundee, in association with Scottish Youth Theatre and The Scottish Storytelling Centre. It takes about 5 minutes to complete, and as a “thank you”, teachers completing the survey will be entered into a prize draw for a 15- book Roald Dahl Collection.  The results of the survey, and the implications for practice arising from these will be shared via Glow when the data analysis has been completed. So if you are a primary teacher in Scotland, or if you know any primary teachers in Scotland……….you know the rest!

March into Literacy with Infographics

You may have noticed the recent rapid development of a concept known as ‘infographics’, a term used for the visual presentation of data and statistics, and short for ‘information graphics’. It can be a very effective way of communicating information through a combination of numbers, words and eye-catching images. This particularly appealing one on the subject of ‘most-loved children’s books’ was created by the lovely people at the University of Southern California to show their support for ‘March into Literacy ‘Month in the US, a project set up to provide the gift of a book for some of the most deprived children in the country (read more).
Most Loved Children's Books - MAT@USC
Via MAT@USC: Become a Teacher

You can search for infographics on over 2,000 subjects or create your own at the excellent Visual.ly website.

For all you need to know about Infographics, including tips on how to be creative, visit this website.