31 October 2021
Storytelling and Escalation
In his book ‘A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: in which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life,’ the American writer George Saunders talks a lot about tension, rising action or escalation and causality. We need to master what he calls these very ‘Hollywood’ aspects of the craft of writing a story in order to hold the reader’s attention and pull her all the way through. He says that he often jokes with his students that if they find themselves… ‘trapped in exposition, writing pages and pages in which their action doesn’t rise, all they need to do is drop this sentence into their story: ‘Then something happened that changed everything forever.’ The story has no choice but to respond.’
In our workshop today we talked about this aspect of storytelling. Quite often it can feel fake or mechanical to crank a story out along these lines and yet, we agreed, that without a sense of escalation and one thing leading to another in a way that feels specifically crafted, the reader becomes bored – even the writer becomes bored – and the story seems to die. So we took an exercise from the Saunders book, designed to focus the mind on rising action, and used just 50 words to write a 200-word story. The rules were clear: 50 words to write a 200-word story. 200, not 199 or 201. It had to be exactly 200 words and we only had 50 words to use to do it. We wrote our 50 words out on one page and stopped at 50. Those were all the words we had to use.
What we found was a) it was really hard to make something in which anything really happened at all, and b) that while we were busy counting words something was still coming out of us that might not feel much like a story but could be the beginning of one. The idea with the exercise, as with so many that we explore in the women writers group, is to allow a less conscious, more playful storyteller out into the arena. And we all had very different results, but this is certainly an exercise I’ll be using in the workshops again.
Madeleine said: ‘For me this exercise was fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. I found I just couldn’t manage the two hundred words – I managed a hundred and sixty. I think my difficulty was due in part to the words I chose – or that chose me! I tried to draw ideas from our second exercise of the morning, on freedom, but for some reason my fifty words took me to a darker place, and I struggled to find a way through it. That happens sometimes, and perhaps I’ll come back to it another day.’
The day began with me skipping miles through open fields, then crossing the bridge and standing beside the river, the waters flowing and you standing beside me.
The day began with kindness, and freedom, and playing.
But then the skipping and the playing ended. Words began falling from your mouth, your words, your knowledge somehow lacking kindness. And then you began crossing waters, hostile words falling from your mouth, flowing from you.
The sign was in the cold rain falling with your words, taking from me the freedom to speak, taking whatever was open and living in me.
The day ended with me trudging miles through wind and rain, then reaching the bridge and standing beside the river, and then part diving, part falling in the flowing waters.
The day began with me, and living, and the kindness of open fields, and ended with you, and your words, and whatever was lacking, and then freedom in the cold, hostile river.
Reem said: I found today’s exercise very challenging and stimulating at the same time. Natalie asked us to write down fifty words which we would then incorporate into a story of two hundred words. I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it.
Excited as a bee upon discovering nectar, Anna couldn’t contain her excitement when her
father announced that he was leading an expedition to the Northern areas of Pakistan in July but only with his daughter as a companion. She started visualizing her journey to reach lake Saif ul Malook. They were to start their journey after sunrise and travel five hours on horseback and the rest on foot to their destination.
Anna’s mother recited and blew Quranic verses on her daughter and husband the next day, all teary-eyed and worried. They rested every hour with snacks and cinnamon tea bought from the local vendors until they reached the base of the valley where the horses would remain. The remaining journey was uphill amongst dangerous paths, crevices and hidden caves. Finally, they reached their destination after a whole day of trekking and lo and behold! Lake Saif ul Malook stood in all its glory, reflecting the majestic snowy mountains in the background. Anna gasped with wonderment at the place where fairies meet. The age-old adage came to her mind: there is no heaven without death. She took out her phone and took a much deserved for selfie! Her father beamed.
Katie said: This morning's session definitely made me feel like my brain has had a workout! It was such a different exercise and not at all easy, yet I really enjoyed the logical nature of it and it certainly helped with working on structure. It's great to push ourselves and get that niggle of discomfort to stretch our writing.
This morning I woke to birds singing. I listened and I waited. The birds sing together. We know the feeling. We’ll remember these days.
The woman found me. She was listening there, in the pressing days. She knows what’s happening. She knows the buttons to press. She presses the buttons and waits.
The anger is inside me. Everyone tells me to think. I dothink, and wait and remember, and think more.
She tells me lies. Anger presses me. Words tumble. More lies. There are more pages, more words, more lies. She doesn’t listen. She lies once more. We tumble together once more.
I feel the anger. The anger is inside me. The anger isme.
I once woke to find the lies were not words. I wait to remember these days. More waiting, in the days of not knowing what is happening.
The birds do not sing. I remember the singing of the morning once more. A day to remember.
The woman tells me to go. I remember this feeling. I know we’ll go. I do not know more. We go together and she presses me.
Someday, I tell the woman, we’ll listen to the birds singing once more.