You may have noticed – or perhaps not – that it’s a very long time since my last blogpost, but I came across this previously unpublished essay which I wrote several years ago then promptly forgot, so I thought I would share with you. It is really a reflection on the history of storytelling.

New Literacies and the Importance of Narrative

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

Ancient proverb

 

Think of what happens every time you meet a friend in the street, or in a bar, or when you speak on the telephone. You will almost certainly take it in turn to update the story of your life since the last time you met. The story may be embellished, or you may want to emphasise the more glamorous and exciting parts of it, but essentially you are updating the story of your life’s journey, and it is as much for your own benefit as that of the listener.

Will Eisner, the great American comic book writer puts it more eloquently when he says:

“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.”

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. Australian Aborigines did not have written languages until well into the 20th century but their songs, chants, legends, and stories constituted a rich oral literature, and, since the Aboriginal tribes had no common language, these creations were enormously diverse. Long unavailable to or misunderstood by non-Aboriginals, recent studies have suggested that this oral tradition was both subtle and complex.

Additionally, the oral literature of the Aborigines, as with other ancient cultures, is associated with non-verbal performance. Traditional song is very often associated with dance, and storytelling with gesture and mime. Stories are acted out in dramatic fashion; storytellers will traditionally announce who they are, where they come from, and what their relation to the story is, as though they are integral to the story as well as its messenger. They use the common devices of oral literature such as repetition and enumeration and formulaic expression. But they always take care with their songs and stories; they are as careful with imagery and symbolism, with the figures of speech, as they are with other aspects of ceremony.

 

Narrative IN learning/Narrative AS Learning

As teachers – and perhaps especially as English teachers – we are already aware of the importance of narrative, or storytelling, IN learning, but what I would like you to consider in the course of these few pages is the importance of narrative AS learning, the idea that all learning takes place through the creation and analysis of narrative, and that narrative is the vehicle by which we move towards an understanding of the world and attempt to explain it to each other, because after all, what is learning but an attempt to understand the world and all its mysteries?  If you accept this premise then you realise that every time you step into a classroom you are constructing a particular narrative for learning, a narrative which has infinite possibilities, and which will be understood to a greater or lesser degree by those young people for whose learning you have some responsibility. The extent to which they relate to, and understand that narrative, will depend on a number of factors, including the effectiveness of your communication skills, your ability to engage and to motivate them, and their own prior knowledge and experience, as well as cultural and family differences. In developing this understanding, you will also be supporting and nurturing their ability to construct and share their own stories with each other and with the rest of the world, as competently, as  confidently, and as creatively as possible.

The History of ‘Literature’

Before we consider the kinds of narrative and narrative media which are engaging us today, it is worth looking at the ways in which storytelling has developed through the ages, and whether in fact there is a limited number of story ‘types’. In his fascinating study of stories and storytelling, The Seven Basic Plots, the English journalist and author Christopher Booker sets out to examine a theory which had been suggested many times before, that there is a limited number of storylines in all of literature and that every story is a variation on one or more of these themes. Where Booker differs from many who had gone before him however, is that in examining his theory – and in a work that takes him over thirty years to complete – he reads extensively from literature covering several hundred years, and his texts include everything from the Greek classics and Shakespeare to the popular films of the late 20th Century, making very  little distinction between them in terms of quality or significance. In the introduction to this comprehensive study Booker talks about the significance of stories in our everyday lives:

“We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them; listening to them; reading them; watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films or on a stage. They are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence….Not only do fictional stories play such a significant role in our lives, as novels or plays, film or operas, comic strips or TV ‘soaps’. Through newspapers or television, our news is presented to us in the form of ‘stories’. Our history books are largely made up of stories. Even much of our conversation is taken up with recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. These structured sequences of imagery are in fact the most natural way we know to describe almost everything which happens in our lives.”

Had The Seven Basic Plots been published even five years later than it was (it was published in 2004) the author might have added social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as the rapidly increasing number of blogs and bloggers, to his list of news sources,  as one of the consequences of the evolution of Web 2.0 technologies in the first decade of the 21st century was the phenomenon sometimes known as ‘citizen journalism’, whereby news events were being reported in ‘real time’ by anyone who happened to be present and had access to a smartphone and the internet. At the same time a decreasing number  people was content with passively receiving their ‘news’ from what had previously been regarded as reliable – often state-run –  sources, but were choosing instead to turn to turn to the growing army of online commentators for immediate information, and  becoming more likely to comment on or question the information they were receiving.

Having outlined his theory and named his seven plots, Booker devotes a whole chapter – the fourth and final part of the book, entitled Why We Tell Stories – to an examination of the deep psychological need for narrative in our lives:

“One of the deepest human needs met by our faculty for imagining stories is our desire for an explanatory and descriptive picture of how the world began and how we came to be in it. There is no culture in the world which does not possess at least one great story to account for how the world came into being, and all such stories have certain things in common.”

To put it simply, according to Booker the overriding desire for sharing stories, common to every culture across the globe and across the centuries, is the desire to find an explanation for the conundrum that is human existence. How did we come to be here, and what is our purpose? At least until the answers to these questions are found, the need for stories and storytelling will never diminish.

More than One Way to Tell a Story

Very few people would dispute that there are some 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.

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.

Many educators still believe that there is a body of texts which are recognised as being at the core of our educational and cultural development, and which ideally should have been read by every child by the time they leave school, a principle implied by the expression ‘texts recognised as having enduring social and artistic value’ in the Literacy strand of the Australian curriculum. However, if the texts which ‘are chosen because they are judged to have potential for enriching the lives of students’ are to be chosen by the students as well as the teacher, which I believe they should be, then we also have to accept that they will not always fit our own particular definition of ‘literature’, so perhaps that is a definition which is also going to have to change over time, as we broaden our definition of ‘texts’. The issue is further complicated by the fact that in a rapidly-changing media environment, it becomes more difficult to predict which texts will have enduring social and artistic value, and the inclusion of ‘multimodal representations’ and ‘print and digital contexts’ recognises  that the shift from printed to electronic texts is irreversible. How long traditional (i.e. paper) books will survive is a matter of conjecture and, for some, of great concern. David Shields, writer-in-residence at the University of Washington, and author of the award-winning Reality Hunger, is unequivocal:

“The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire texts in to this (the universal) library. The reign of the copy is no match for the bias of technology. All new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the library as you might add more words to a long story. In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. On this screen, now visible to a billion people, the technology of search will transform isolated books with the universal library of all human knowledge.”

Concerns about the shift from print to online and on-screen reading have been voiced since access to the internet became commonplace, and a leading voice of those most concerned is Nicholas Carr, whose influential essay ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ appeared in Atlantic magazine in August 2008. Ironically, its influence was largely thanks to the power of the world wide web, and Google in particular. Carr writes: ‘For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded…But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.’

Carr’s concerns were not new, even in 2008. A year earlier, in the remarkable Proust and the Squid – The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Professor Maryann Wolf compared the current seismic shift from a largely written culture to one dominated by visual images and massive streams of digital information, to a similar cultural upheaval just over two thousand years ago, when Socrates warned that the creation of the Greek alphabet, and subsequently the written word, would have disastrous consequences for learning, as he firmly believed that it was through spoken discourse and the exercise of memory that real learning took place and knowledge was acquired.

Socrates’ concerns had three aspects. First, he contended that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual’s intellectual life. Second, he regarded the fact that the written word reduced the importance of memory as nothing short of catastrophic; and finally he warned that oral language had a unique role in the development of morality and virtue in society. In other words, he felt that writing was just plain bad and likely to lead to corruption, especially of the youth of Athens. (It is interesting to note that at the same time he was seen by the city elders as corrupting the minds of the wealthy aristocrats’ sons with his revolutionary views and unorthodox ethics.) It should also be remembered of course that we wouldn’t know any of this, but for the fact that Socrates’ words were being recorded in writing by that young rascal Plato, who obviously knew a thing or two about the future.

Wolf draws parallels between Socrates’ fears for the consequences of writing, and the effect of these ‘endless streams of digital information’ on the evolution of the reading brain, and like Carr, wonders whether ‘the rapid, almost instantaneous presentation of expansive information threatens the more time-demanding formation of in-depth knowledge.’ However, having examined the evidence in some detail she reaches the more optimistic conclusion that the two are not mutually exclusive, that one will not replace the other, but rather the brain will adapt and learn a new set of skills to add to our intellectual repertoire. In other words, our definition of reading doesn’t so much need to change, as it needs to expand to take account of the changing nature of our texts.

Comics and Picture Books

Maryann Wolf’s ‘culture dominated by visual images’, while undoubtedly accurate, is hardly a new phenomenon. The use of pictures to tell stories is as old as man himself, as evidenced by the discovery of cave paintings in Western Europe dating back up to 35,000 years. From 113 AD, Rome’s Trajan’s Column is an early surviving example of a narrative told through pictures in sequence, while Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek friezes and medieval tapestries such as the famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066, combine sequential images and words to tell a story. The invention of the printing press in the 15th Century meant the temporary separation of words and images once more as they required separate printing techniques, but a mass medium had been born and the form could be delivered to a wide audience. As printing techniques developed, due to the technological advances of the industrial revolution, magazines and newspapers were established. By the middle of the 19th Century these publications were including illustrations – soon to be known as ‘cartoons’ – as a means of commenting on political and social issues of the day. Before long, many more artists were experimenting with establishing a sequence of images to create a narrative, and the comic strip was born.

The success of most of the early comic strips, and many of those still popular today, lay in their use of humour, yet still we underestimate the need for humour in our lives and the search for humour in our stories. One of the earliest forms of storytelling which young people learn about is through the medium of jokes, something which many carry through into adulthood but which is often frowned upon as a distraction from the serious business of learning and ‘growing up’. In the telling of jokes we have the perfect context in which to develop young people’s awareness of the key ingredients of successful narratives and the skills required to deliver them effectively.

From its origins in the daily newspaper strips in the USA in the first half of the twentieth century, publishers recognised the popularity and the potential of the comics genre, and comic strips began to appear in booklet form, first as reprints and then as original stories. Their popularity spread rapidly across the globe in a variety of new forms and formats, as readers began to identify with the cartoon characters and look forward eagerly to the next instalment of their adventures. This identification with character is key to the success of comics, as it is with other  narrative media, and lies, according to Will Eisner, in the peculiarly human need to step into another’s shoes, or to imagine oneself in another’s position:

“Perhaps the most basic of human characteristics is empathy. This trait can be used as a major conduit in the delivery of a story. Its exploitation can be counted upon as one of the storyteller’s tools…………..Empathy is a visceral reaction of one human being to the plight of another. The ability to ‘feel’ the pain, fear or joy of someone else enables the storyteller to evoke an emotional contact with the reader. We see ample evidence of this in movie theatre where people weep over the grief of an actor who is pretending, while in an event that is not really happening.”

Eisner recognises here the similarities between the comics genre and film, although as he points out elsewhere in his 1996 study Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, they also have their – fairly obvious – differences. While both comics and film rely on the interplay between words and pictures, film has the additional element of sound and the illusion of real moving action, whereas comics has to generate the same effects from a series of static images on the page.

Comics and picture books have long been associated with storytelling, and some of the comics of my own youth in the 1960s consisted of  a combination of comic strips and text-only narratives. In many ways they were a bridge between early reading and the ‘serious’ reading of adolescence and adulthood, but since comics were apparently easy to read and consisted predominantly of drawings, for a long time they were regarded as inferior and  a serious threat to literacy. Eisner believes that this reputation was partly justified, as for decades many writers in the comics genre pandered to the lowest common denominator in terms of the intellectual demands of their content, but it would be interesting to consider a philosophical question here – whether reading ANYTHING ever made a person less literate than they were before they read it.

By the end of the 20th Century comics had become something of a niche market, as they found themselves competing with more sophisticated media, though paradoxically the evolution of the graphic novel  had also revived the genre to the point where it became accepted as a literary medium worthy of discussion and study. When Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman  won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first graphic novel ever to do so, the comics genre had truly arrived back in the mainstream. By now, however, the moving image, in the form of television or film was becoming all-pervasive.

Moving Image Education

Most young people have watched countless hours of film and television before they enter pre-school education, and already they have set about building  – in their heads –  a rich audio-visual library. Unfortunately, it is most often a library, to extend the metaphor, in which the texts are simply piled up in a disorderly heap in the middle of the floor. The viewing is almost always unregulated, and rarely do they have any understanding  that what they are watching and listen to is a sophisticated piece of work, something which has been painstakingly constructed and edited, not simply the result of pointing a camera at real-life events. Since it is unlikely that children are going to be taught to ‘read’ moving image texts at home any time soon, it seems that as teachers responsible for the development of literacy, we have a moral obligation not only to use moving image texts in our classrooms, but to teach film literacy as part of the mainstream curriculum. In order to do this, teachers themselves need to be familiar with some basic concepts relating to films and filmmaking, including a vocabulary which allows them to discuss – and possibly create – moving image texts with their students.

Living in a predominantly visual age, surrounded by moving image texts, it would be almost perverse to ignore the power these texts shape and influence our daily lives. Yet teachers still feel it difficult to justify to themselves and others why they should spend time watching films in the classroom when they should be concentrating on raising traditional literacy standards – despite the fact that it has long been recognised that working with moving image texts can improve those very skills. Digital Beginnings, an extensive study carried out by Jackie Marsh and colleagues at Sheffield University in 2005 reported that in England “the introduction of popular culture, media and/or new technologies into the communications, language and literacy curriculum has a positive effect on the motivation and engagement of children in learning”, that “practitioners report that it has a positive impact on children’s progress in speaking and listening….”, that “parents feel that media education should be included in the school curriculum” and  that “many think this should be so from when children are very young.”

Film is already commonly used in lessons of course, but often it does not extend beyond showing ‘the film of the book’ in order to supplement the study of the printed text, or it is used as an end-of-term reward for hard work or good behaviour. While there is nothing desperately wrong with this in principle, it reinforces the notion that film is not a ‘real text’ in the way that, for example, the novel is. Another of the traps into which even the most enthusiastic teachers often fall when introducing moving image texts into the classroom, is the temptation to focus on the current popular box office hit or full-length classic, since these are the texts with which children are already familiar, when in fact, as with printed texts, the key to success is to begin with short films.

A full-length feature film is a hugely complex piece of work and can be quite daunting to a teacher and students hoping to engage in critical analysis. On the other hand, there are many advantages to using short films in the classroom: a short film can be played in its entirety within one lesson while longer films lose their impact by being viewed over a number of lessons or by being screened only in extract form; the short running time of the films makes it possible for repeated viewings, allowing teachers and pupils to become quickly familiar with the texts and to explore them in more detail; short films, like short stories, are not governed by the same conventions as longer films, and often provoke stronger responses from their audience. Film and print, while different in many ways, are also very closely allied, so that the study of film can be used as a vehicle to improve the traditional literacies of reading, writing, talking and listening, and, importantly, film is an inclusive medium, often accessible to pupils who are more visual learners and who otherwise may feel that they have little to contribute.

Born Digital

Despite the ubiquitous nature of film and television, it is the novel which has been the mainstay of narrative in English classrooms for over a century, reflecting its significance as the main vehicle for literary prose fiction, and the close reading of a novel still has a central place in the examination syllabus of most formal educational establishments. So what is to become of the novel in the 21st century? The good news is that the development of new technologies, specifically in the form of electronic ‘readers’, has generated a revival in reading in general, and novels in particular. Where once it was common to carry a novel in your bag, it is now possible to carry around a library in your pocket.

At the same time, the availability of new media platforms and free computer applications has encouraged writers to develop new literary forms, of which the digital novel Inanimate Alice is a prime example.  Written  (interestingly, as many of the earliest novels were written) as a series of episodes, it tells the story of a young girl’s journey, both physical and metaphorical, as she develops through adolescence into adulthood. Over four increasingly complex and interactive episodes  – six more episodes are in development – we accompany Alice from the age of eight in China, where her father works in the oil industry and has just mysteriously disappeared, to her maturity at twenty-something as the ultimate games designer on a mission to save the world. In the words of her creator Ian Harper, Alice was ‘born digital’. In other words, it has never appeared in print, nor is it an e-book in the now commonly accepted understanding of the term, but a new concept in reading which combines elements of the written word, digital still photography, moving image, drawing, painting, puzzles, music, sound effects and elements of computer gaming. Unlike many computer game, however, it does have the linear progression of a book, and the reader ‘turns the page’ – by clicking on a double arrow icon which appears on screen – when he or she is ready to move on.

In educational terms, Inanimate Alice provides a hugely rich context for learners and teachers, with as many opportunities to stretch the imagination and challenge the intellect of the most academic student, as it does to engage reluctant readers at the other end of the educational spectrum. Put simply, from a literacy teacher’s point of view, the text can be used in a number of different ways, in a range of subject contexts, and on a number of different levels, with students from junior school through to university undergraduates. The immediate effect on most young people when introduced to the text is that they want to create their own episode, peopled by their own characters and in their own setting.

The creation of this new kind of digital text – and surely more will follow – would appear  to signal a further merging of traditional narrative genres and the arrival of a new form of storytelling for the digital age. If comics and film were multi-modal, then according to Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, new texts like Inanimate Alice are the early arrivals in the world of ‘transmedia storytelling’, which Jenkins describes as ‘storytelling by a number of decentralised authors who share and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media.’ In considering the shift which new technologies have brought to the way we think of our relationship with media, and how the skills we acquire initially through play may have implications for how we learn, work, participate in the political process and connect with other people around the world, he dismisses talk of a ‘digital revolution’, and prefers that we think instead of a ‘digital evolution’.  In this new age of transmedia texts, popular storytelling increasingly takes place across different media platforms and passive consumers have been replaced by active  participants or ‘players’:

“Welcome to convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways. Convergence culture is the future, but it is taking shape now. Consumers will be more powerful within convergence culture – but only if they recognise and use that power as both consumers and citizens, as full participants in our culture.”

In the chapter entitled Why Heather Can Write, Jenkins examines the phenomenon known as ‘fan fiction’, and the ways in which it exemplifies the new media landscape. On fan fiction websites like Fiction Alley for example, the largest of a number of websites dedicated to fans of Harry Potter, young writers come together to write, collaborate and share stories about their favourite characters, and sometimes to invent new characters of their own. New writers are mentored by an army of unpaid volunteers known a ‘beta readers’ – a term derived from the world of technology where ‘beta’ means ‘in development’ – and criticism, while it is always positive and constructive, is also focused and direct, dealing with issues of grammar and style as well as plotlines. The beta readers are also contributing authors, and what all the writers have in common is that they are looking to improve their work, not simply to have it praised. This relationship between learner and mentor, based on the trust of peers on what is effectively a shared journey is, by definition, quite different from the formal teacher-pupil relationship found in school and allows the young writers to experiment with their craft within the safe confines of a pre-existing fictional world. For many of the writers who contribute to the fan community, the journey begins by simply reading the efforts of others, before they are comfortable enough to submit their own stories. Once they are committed however, the feedback provides the incentive for them to develop and improve. They quickly come to regard themselves as real ‘authors’.

Critics of fan fiction argue that it is unoriginal and imitative, but as Jenkins points out, this kind of ‘apprenticeship’ model is common in other cultural spheres, and historically young artists learned their craft by initially imitating the great masters, sometimes contributing to their work, before establishing styles, techniques and content of their own. Whether the same conditions for writing can be created within a formal school setting, is a different matter. Again, as Jenkins points out:

“Schools have less flexibility to support writers at very different stages of their development. Even the most progressive schools set limits on what students can write compared to the freedom they enjoy on their own. Certainly, teens may receive harsh critical responses to their more controversial stories when they publish them online, but the teens themselves are deciding what risks they want to take and facing the consequences of those decisions.”

Armed with this knowledge, it might be tempting for teachers either to write off fan fiction entirely as inferior or worthless (despite its massive popularity), or to encourage their students wholeheartedly to become involved, but the growth in such online communities and the collaborative nature of this new form of storytelling creates a challenge for those teachers who have always regarded it as an individual pursuit. One thing seems clear, and that is that unless teachers are able to provide young writers with a real and critical audience – possibly through blogging and online forums such as wiki-spaces – they may well decide that telling their stories elsewhere is a more fruitful alternative.

Although much of what I have written has been about the importance of narrative fiction, I believe that everything which holds true for fiction is equally true for non-fiction. Learning through narrative applies no matter the subject. Take the example of a friend of mine whose responsibility is to teach geography. The topic is ‘Landscape’ and he wants his students to come to a better understanding of how landscapes are formed. He has tried everything to make the topic interesting, but in his own words it’s the dullest part of the course. Then he is inspired. He asks his students to think of themselves as a river, and to tell the story of their lives from birth to death, or their journey from source to sea (employing Eisner’s central notion of empathy). The stories are written, digitally recorded using their own devices, and finally uploaded to the class wiki as a series of podcasts.  The topic is transformed and learning is much more successful, a good example of the effectiveness of learning through narrative.

Definitions of Literacy and New Meaning of Text

Given this new media landscape, and the infinite possibilities it provides for the creation of narrative, it seems reasonable to suggest that we need to re-think our definition of ‘literacy’. Imagine if you were to walk down your local main street today and stop the first ten adults you meet. Ask them what they understand by the term ‘literacy’ and I suspect their answers will include – and possibly not extend beyond – notions of reading (print), writing (continuous prose), spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting. Of course, no one would argue that all of these skills, or ‘traditional literacies’ as they are often described, would have to be included when we talk about literacy today (and in another age would have been the focus of the English teacher’s efforts) but are they sufficient in themselves to enable a person to live a productive and fulfilled life in the modern world? I suspect not.

According to James Paul Gee, Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, there are at least two reasons why we should consider literacy in broader terms than the traditional concept of literacy as the ability to read and write. First, in our world today, language is by no means the only communication system available. Many types of visual images and symbols have specific significances, and so ‘visual literacies’ and literacies of other modes are also included in Gee’s notion of new literacies. Second, Gee proposes that reading and writing are not such obvious ideas as they first appear. “After all,” he states, “we never just read or write; rather, we always read or write something in some way”. In other words, even if we are talking about traditional print-based literacy, it should be conceived as being multiple, since we need different types of literacies to read different kinds of texts in ways that meet our particular purposes for reading them. So what must our broader understanding of ‘literacy’ now include? Perhaps we should begin by looking at the stated aims of the ‘Literacy’ strand of  Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority’s  English curriculum:

to develop students’ ability to interpret and create texts with appropriateness, accuracy, confidence, fluency and efficacy for learning in and out of school, and for participating in Australian life more generally. Texts chosen include media texts, everyday texts and workplace texts from increasingly complex and unfamiliar settings, ranging from the everyday language of personal experience to more abstract, specialised and technical language, including the language of schooling and academic study. Students learn to adapt language to meet the demands of more general or more specialised purposes, audiences and contexts. They learn about the different ways in which knowledge and opinion are represented and developed in texts, and about how more or less abstraction and complexity can be shown through language and through multimodal representations. This means that print and digital contexts are included, and that listening, viewing, reading, speaking, writing and creating are all developed systematically and concurrently.”

This shift from traditional literacies to a broader understanding of literacy not only reflects the reality of the digital age, but is an important declaration in the face of opposition from those who would wish to maintain a narrow, rigid curriculum, in which a diet of reading from print-only texts is considered the norm, and superior to all other forms of reading.  However, a declaration is one thing, a shift in attitudes quite another. As if to illustrate the scale of the challenge, the Scottish writer, activist and intellectual Pat Kane, describing his ‘manifesto for a different way of living’ in the critically-acclaimed text The Play Ethic, suggests that the way literacy is currently taught actually militates against a better understanding of electronic media. Citing the Australian educational thinkers Allen and Carmen Luke, he describes the current public perceptions of literacy, and prevailing attitudes to the study of digital texts:

“This is not to deny traditional literacy as a necessary skill – but it is to reduce its overbearing emphasis in early education. We must decouple early literacy from the neo-Calvinist morality that currently grips it – casting it as a vital ‘inoculation’ against the seductive world of images, dialogue, simulations and all other kinds of semiotic promiscuity. The Lukes note that we have elaborate and useful diagnostic tools for assessing if children are succeeding or failing in their reading, whether in terms of comprehension or critical judgement. But why don’t we similarly identify “failure” at watching films, “poor” or “uncritical” television watching, deficiency at Web surfing and emailing’? Of course, this is exactly the role that media and cultural studies has tried to play in the Western education system over the last twenty-odd years – and never has a subject been more vilified, mostly by the remaining representatives of an industrial-age mindset.”

There is more than a hint of irony here in the fact that media texts, especially in the form of moving image, have been with us for more than a hundred years, yet despite their place in our everyday lives  they have generally struggled to find a place in the mainstream of the school curriculum, instead being consigned to specialist subject areas such as media studies, or – at the other end of the scale – regarded as unfit for serious study. Nevertheless, recent  attempts to provide a more modern and relevant definition of literacy and of ‘texts’ reflects a trend across most of the developed world, as education authorities struggle to ensure that their curricula keep pace with the changes brought about by universal access to the internet and rapidly developing technologies. Not an easy task when you consider that these were designed largely for another age, when a major function of the school system was to prepare young people for a life in the factory or the office.

Games-Based Learning

Just as a key feature of Henry Jenkins’ convergence culture is participation, Kane argues that not only should we regard new media consumers as ‘players’ but that we need to re-examine the purpose of education to reflect the realities of a post-industrial age:

“We need a new way to look at the complexity of the educational experience – one that regards the apparent ‘messiness’ and ‘imprecision’ of play as a deep resource for understanding, rather than something which has to be squeezed out of curricula tailored to deliver better performance statistics for short-termist politicians. I suggest that scholars might unite around a new notion of literacy – a ‘multi-literacy that ties together the deep humanism of the teaching profession with the ludic realities that face their pupils in the new century.”

If play is as fundamental to human nature as Kane suggests, then games-based learning may be the natural new home for learning through narrative – computer games designers are increasingly alert to the fact that in addition to the problem-solving characteristic which marked the early video and arcade games, a strong narrative element is necessary if a game is going to be commercially viable.

In Scotland, where research has already shown the positive impact of games-based learning through the work of Derek Robertson and others at Education Scotland, games like Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Pheonix Wright and Hotel Dusk Room 215 have been used successfully in the development of literacy in schools. There, the new Curriculum for Excellence, which re-defines ‘texts’ as ‘the medium through which ideas and experiences, opinions and information can be communicated’, ensures that teachers have the freedom to interpret the word ‘text’ more widely and gives them the opportunity to use a broader range of contexts within which to develop the literacy skills of their pupils. In many classes, even in lower primary school, youngsters are learning how to construct games using programmes like Scratch and Kodu. So not only do the games provide what Howard Gardner would describe as an “entry point” to learning, and a context in which traditional literacy skills may be developed, they are of course perfectly valid texts in themselves.

Tom Chatfield, gaming expert and author of Fun Inc., Why Games are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business, contends that ‘narrative immersion’ is central to the appeal of gaming, and in language which sounds strikingly like that of the Quest, the third of Christopher  Booker’s seven basic plots, Chatfield suggests that it’s in the desire to become whoever we want to be, and the need for a happy ending, that the secret of the perfect gaming recipe can be found:

“It’s a strange, poetic idea, and yet it gets to the heart of something quite radical about gaming as a medium: its hold on the human imagination, and its ability to make you into a hero of any number of astounding – or modest – stories. The appeal is the sense of wonder that is conjured, but also the need for a kind of security: for, like any myth, the well-designed game always works out in the end, and will always remain there should you feel the urge to return.”

In education, as in life, we will always find new ways to create and to share our stories, but the need for storytelling itself is timeless. Every time you enter the classroom you have choices to make about the texts you use and the contexts for learning, but remember that you are co-constructing a ‘narrative for learning’ – be sure to consider all the options at your disposal.

 

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A Novel Approach To Reading

Italia.jpg

Contains more than recipes. Art, geography, history, photography, folklore and classical culture are all covered.

Since acquiring an eReader last year, my reading habits seem to be developing into a new pattern, whereby I tend to download and read novels from the screen, but continue to buy non-fiction titles, graphic novels and – an increasing obsession – cookery books, in paper format. I suppose the most obvious reason is the tactile quality of many of these latter texts – I’m thinking of titles like Shaun Tan’s The Arrivals or Chris Ware’s Building Stories which is literally a book in three dimensions – but there is often, too, something about the physical weight or heft of a book in your hand which, in the case of many cookery books for example, suggests bounty or treasure – you feel as if you are getting something for your money. These are the texts for which the word ‘book’ now seems a bit inadequate, for often they are indeed artefacts or works of art.

However, sticking with novels for the moment, once you have become a fiction addict you are always on the lookout for that next fix, and I recently enjoyed a great novel called Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain. As it happens I was on Twitter when I spotted this tweet from Jamie Byng of Canongate, who published the book, and was intrigued enough to favourite it for later reference. A quick look at the reviews on Amazon confirmed that it was  ‘my kind of book’, so I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and was reading it within minutes. How the magic of technology has improved and enhanced our reading habits in recent years, particularly that facility to read a sample before we decide whether we want to read the whole text or not.

None of that would have happened though, I guess, if I wasn’t already a reader. How I  became a regular reader is a long story – much longer than any novel – which started way back in primary school, when the Friday afternoon ‘treat’ of silent reading wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but suited me just fine, thank you very much. The generous class library, which comprised most of Enid Blyton’s prodigious output, Just William in every imaginable situation, a smattering of Jennings and Derbyshire and W.E. John’s handlebar-moustached hero Captain Biggles, held a seductive enough range of material with which to escape the classroom for a couple of otherwise dreary hours. For a boy growing up in a semi-rural working-class West of Scotland community, the main attraction of the stories was the excitement of exploring other worlds, a virtual travel agency if you like, which is exactly what reading does.

Just William

Just William

It is through reading, and especially through fiction, that we are able to journey, for a while, alongside people who are not like us.

You can perhaps understand then why my heart sinks every time I hear teachers discussing which novel (often  singular) they will be ‘teaching’ students this year. I don’t blame them (I was that teacher once), but the exam-driven system which has brought them to this state of affairs. I too spent many hours in the classroom – this time as a teacher – pulling apart some  great novels to look at how you might squeeze them into the straitjacket of a particular essay question. It was a system designed for a minority of students who would study literature at university, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine an education system where young people read an increasing number of books year on year, and keep on doing so long after they leave school, rather than, in many cases, abandoning the practice as soon as they are no longer ‘made to read’. Imagine if the culmination of your efforts as a teacher, and the measure of your success was not exam results but the number of lifelong readers you had helped to create. Imagine, if in their final year, the task you set the class was not to write a ‘critical essay’, which in all likelihood most of them will never have to do again, but to complete a group investigation something like the one below. Imagine the opportunities that would present, the reading that could be done, the fun you could have together, and the gift you could pass on to future generations.

Final Year Reading Task

What is the origin of the novel as a storytelling form, and why does it remain popular today?

What novels would you say every young person should read?

What features would you say are common to all the novels you (as a group) have read?

What distinguishes a successful novel from an unsuccessful novel, and is ‘successful’ the same as good?

Why should we read novels written in previous centuries?

Further Reading:

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Study: Reading Novels Makes Us Better Thinkers

Related Posts:

Sticking to the Plot

Lighting a Spark for Reading

Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

The Power of Fiction and the Storytelling Animal

Reading by Numbers

E-Books and Beyond: The Future of Children’s Literature.

Alice in Australia Story Six – Game Play

Last week I had the pleasure of introducing Inanimate Alice to the 12th Annual E-Books Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland’s ‘largest annual ebooks discussion for librarians’, a presentation which I began by pointing out that IA is not in fact an e-book, in the sense that it is not an existing product which has been digitised for reading from a screen, but that it is a born-digital, transmedia text for younger readers, combining conventional written text with images, sound and games. Incidentally, one of the amusing aspects of the conference was the ongoing discussion about whether the term ‘e-books’ should have a hyphen or not, a debate which to my knowledge has not yet been resolved! The distinction between the e-book and the digital narrative is an important one to make, not least because of the implications for the development of literacy skills, where traditionally we have focused on reading (words) or reading (pictures) as separate entities, rather than developing a proper understanding of their interconnectedness.

For those of you who have not yet met Inanimate Alice, please visit the website and explore its many possibilities for use in the classroom. If you are already an IA fan, you will be excited by the latest developments, which include a mini-series set in Australia between Episodes 1 and 2. As the first story begins, Alice has moved to Melbourne with her parents and is having to adjust to living in yet another new country. Brad – her beloved digital friend – has gone missing from her device (she thinks perhaps she left him behind in China!), and the buzzing beehive in the neighbour’s garden is making her very nervous. Has Brad disappeared for good? And will those bees escape?!

Alice in Australia Story Two – Buried Treasure

Alice in Australia introduces a young audience to whole new levels of inventiveness, with stories by award-winning writer Kate Pullinger, stunning imagery by the pioneering digital artist Chris Joseph, and the whole thing brought to life by creative developer Andy Campbell. Uniquely as far as I can tell (please correct me if I’m wrong) the series offers teachers and students the digital assets from each of the episodes, completely free, which allows them to re-create the narratives with strikingly professional results. The stories can be downloaded as comic books, with ‘words only’ allowing readers to create their own images, or as picture stories to which dialogue can be added by the student. Add in the fact that the soundtrack and sound effects are also downloadable as MP3 files, and you have a complete set of materials with which to introduce young learners to the world of digital narrative and transmedia storytelling, where the only limits are the limits of their imagination.

New on Storify: Teaching – An Academic Career?

Given my conviction that storytelling is at the heart of learning, I was always going to be intrigued by a new curation tool and website which makes the creation of stories simple and intuitive. Alerted to Storify through my Twitter PLN (Personal Learning Network) where so much of my learning comes from these days, I decided to experiment with it and effectively write this latest blogpost using it as an alternative platform. To stimulate some discussion around a topic I posed the question ‘What is an academic?’ on Twitter and followed it up with ‘Do teachers regard themselves as academics, and would they choose to do so anyway?’. The responses were intriguing. I saved the tweets to my ‘Storypad’ (see notes on how to do this at the end of the blogpost), added some text and quotes from other sources, and published my story under the Education section. Unfortunately, because this is not a self-hosted blog, I am unable to embed the story here in its original format but I have added a screenshot of the introduction to let you see what it looks like. If you want to read the whole story just follow this link to My Storify

To create a story using Storify, just follow these simple steps:-

  1. Decide on a topic or theme
  2. Decide which media to include in your search (available sources include Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google, YouTube and others)
  3. Search media
  4. Save chosen media items to Storypad
  5. Click and drag selected items to story template
  6. Re-arrange structure as required
  7. Add text and commentary
  8. Publish to Storify

To save tweets to the Storypad (or desktop):-

  1. Open selected tweet
  2. Click on the day or time tag at the top left (this opens the tweet in a new window)
  3. Click on the ‘Storify’ symbol below the tweet
  4. Save to Storypad or an existing story (text or comment can be added at this stage if you want it)

As storytelling and essay writing become more digitally based, I think Storify provides an attractive platform for learners and teachers to experiment with new formats, It also gives the teacher a context in which to discuss issues such as plagiarism, cut and paste, ‘value added’, creativity, effective internet searching, essay structure and effective storytelling. What do you think?

 

[View the story “Getting started” on Storify]

The Power of Fiction and The Storytelling Animal

As a former English teacher, I have often argued on the blog and elsewhere that the English curriculum in schools offers a distorted syllabus, in which non-fiction is heavily outweighed by fiction texts – no doubt reflecting the fact that most practitioners have degrees in English Literature – and that there needs to be a re-balancing to reflect more accurately the texts with which we are surrounded in daily life. Time and again however, my attention is drawn to the importance of storytelling and the need to understand ourselves and the world through the medium of story.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College in the USA, explains how stories shape and define us as human beings, arguing that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems, just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. The theory is that storytelling has evolved, like other behaviours, to ensure our survival.

“The constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skilful negotiation of life’s problems. From this point of view, we are attracted to fiction, not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice (sic) reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

But isn’t fiction our ‘escapism’, you might argue. Surely it’s in fiction, whether it be in a good novel or the latest Dr Who series, that we find our escape from the problems of everyday life? Well yes, and no. According to Gottschall the nature of the stories we tell betrays their true purpose.

“There is a paradox in fiction that was first noticed by Aristotle in The Poetics. We are drawn to fiction because fiction gives us pleasure. But most of what is in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair, anxiety, Sturm and Drang. Take a look at the carnage on the fiction bestseller lists – the massacres, murders, and rapes. Look at classic literature: Oedipus stabbing out his eyes in disgust; Medea slaughtering her children; Shakespeare’s stage strewn with runny corpses. Heavy stuff. But even the lighter stuff is organised around problems, and readers are riveted by their concern over how it will all turn out.”

On the morality of stories, or whether stories have a moral purpose, Gottschall is adamant. When addressing the dire warnings of social commentators from Plato onwards that fiction corrodes

The good guy usually wins

morality, especially in the young, his conviction is that they were entirely wrong, and he prefers to accept that, with some exceptions, the most popular story forms are still structured around ‘poetic justice’: the good guy usually does win out in the end.

“As with sacred myths, ordinary stories – from TV shows to fairy tales – steep us all in the same powerful norms and values. They relentlessly stigmatise antisocial behaviour and just as relentlessly celebrate prosocial behaviour. We learn by association that if we are more like protagonists, we will be more apt to reap the typical rewards of protagonists (for instance, love, social advancement, and other happy endings) and less likely to reap the rewards of antagonists (for instance, death and disastrous loss of social standing). Humans live great chunks of their lives inside fictional stories – in worlds where goodness is generally endorsed and rewarded and badness is condemned and punished. These patterns don’t just reflect a moralistic bias in human psychology, they seem to reinforce it.”

Developing this theme, Gottschall cites the Dutch scholar Jemeljan Hakemulder, who in his book The Moral Laboratory, reviewed dozens of scientific studies which indicated that fiction has positive effects on the reader’s moral development and sense of empathy. Other studies show that fiction reinforces our belief that life rewards the virtuous and punishes the vicious. Even though this is patently not the case, for a society to function at all it is necessary for people to believe in justice.

The notion of empathy, a core feature of works of fiction, is taken up in this TED talk by Jessica Wise, who argues that the importance of fiction is that it has the power ‘to change a person’s point of view’. I think the short film would make a perfect starter for discussion in any English classroom.

Transmedia and Education – Living Lab Madrid 2012

Just catching my breath after a great conference in Madrid where I had the privilege of sharing a platform with some very impressive speakers and activists from the emerging world of transmedia, including a truly inspirational masterclass from the master of transmedia himself, Henry Jenkins. The three-day event was perhaps the most professional and well-organised event I have ever attended, thanks to the tireless efforts of the organiser Fernando Carrion, and the sponsors Fundacion Telefonica of Spain, who hosted the conference in their new state-of-the-art auditorium in central Madrid. One of the key themes of the conference was of course literacy, and the implications for formal systems of education of the developing culture of transmedia.

You can watch all the presentations from the conference, including Henry Jenkins, here.

“What skills do children need to become full participants in convergence culture? Across this book, we have identified a number – the ability to pool knowledge with others in a collaborative enterprise (as in Survivor spoiling), the ability to share and compare value systems by evaluating ethical dramas (as occurs in the gossip surrounding reality television), the ability to make connections across scattered pieces of information (as occurs when we consume The Matrix, 1999, or Pokemon, 1998), the ability to express your interpretations and feelings toward popular fictions through your own folk culture (as occurs in Star Wars fan cinema), and the ability to circulate what you create via the Internet so that it can be shared with others (again as in fan cinema). The example of The Daily Prophet (a web-based ‘school newspaper’ for the fictional Hogwarts) suggests yet another cultural competency: role-playing both as a means of exploring a fictional realm and as a means of developing a richer understanding of yourself and the culture around you. These kids come to understand Harry Potter by occupying a space within Hogwarts; occupying such a space helped them to map more fully the rules of this fictional world and the roles that various characters played within it. Much as an actor builds up a character by combining things discovered through research with things learned through personal introspection, these kids were drawing on their own experiences to flesh out various aspects of Rowling’s fiction. This is a kind of intellectual mastery that comes only through active participation. At the same time, role-playing was providing an inspiration for them to expand other kinds of literacy skills – those already valued within traditional education.”

HenryJenkins, Convergence Culture, 2006

The American-inspired Telefonica building on Madrid’s Gran Via

It strikes me that if schooling is to continue to be relevant in the modern world some fundamental changes have to be made. We need to have a much broader approach to literacy and literacy development than we do at the moment. In Scotland, as in many other countries, the curriculum narrows as young people develop into their mid-teens, and their formal education ends with the study of perhaps five or six subjects, one of which is English, which consists of the analysis of printed text (usually prose) and the ‘critical evaluation’ of one or two works of ‘literature’ (usually historic and too often repeating long-established interpretations of the text). The students’ success or failure in this endeavour often determines their future career pathway, as Higher English or its equivalent is the benchmark of acceptable intelligence. I have in fact often heard it referred to, with some affection in educational establishments, as ‘the gold standard’.

But think about it for a moment. Wouldn’t a more appropriate measure of literacy for the mainstream school leaver be an awareness of popular cultural media and an ability to make critical comment on their creation, distribution and effect? And shouldn’t a key aspect of that assessment be of the student’s ability to create and share such texts? Let’s call it Transmedia Studies.

See my photos from the Living Lab Conference here.

See previous post on Henry Jenkins and Convergence Culture here.

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.