What Kind of Story Is Your Life Telling?
What if the structure of the world is really story structure? The simple formula is: Beginning/Middle/End, although there's more to it than that. But what if every life, and every chapter in every life, could be understood as Story? We'd see things differently. All of life looked different once DNA’s double helix was discovered. Seeing structure changes how we see life.
Beginning, middle, end. I’ve taught it to students hundreds of times. I never mention that I find the breakdown incomplete. For pity sake, you could say the same about the structure of an inchworm, and the inchworm would still be dull to behold. I invented a Storysaurus dinosaur whose visible features illustrated the need for characters, details, and a climax, all necessary parts of story structure. See illustration.
For students, it’s a useful tool to steer first graders away from list stories: “I went to the store and bought jelly beans and baseball cards and a kite and then I came home. The End.” Teacher-Me gently points out there’s not much of a beginning, their “middle” needs some action, and “The End” does not an ending make. I turned this kind of story into a dinosaur I named the Endless Borasaurus. She’s boring. See illustration.
Later on – often with fourth graders – we’d get stories with explosions and crashes and blood by the bucket, but no resolution to speak of. For them, conflict was the point of interest, and the recess bell ended their involvement with the story. We worked on that.
Later still – with junior high students, especially girls – I’d get characters with anthropomorphic hair. My students loved giving the character’s hair its own personality. It swished angrily, it swayed in confusion. We had to work the anger and the confusion about two inches south. But they were processing life, based on new observations and insights into character. That’s the beginning of good authorship, and we could work on that.
Kids are figuring out the structure of life, funneling the learning through the point of a pencil into a story, asking important questions about the nature of events, conflicts, and relationships. But really, aren't thinking adults trying to answer the same questions? What's my life about? Is it a comedy, a melodrama, or (please, not) a tragedy? I’m reading an 1898 textbook, The Story-Teller’s Art, authored by an earnest Indianapolis teacher, Charity Dye. (Eli Lilly credited her as a favorite teacher!) I like her description of plot: “design applied to life.” That’s story structure. Dye quotes Emerson, saying the Story-Teller’s Art is “to convert the vivid energies working at this hour… into universal symbols… related to the eternal order of the world.”
There’s a difference between observing the design in life and forcing an authorial design onto life’s events. Bad fiction happens when the design is forced. Astute readers drum their fingers and roll their eyes as they read the contrived events leading to a predictable "The End." But good fiction, opines Dye, “gives to the student a fullness of life that cannot be supplied in any other way.”
No small task. I think we’re all figuring out how to tell our own stories. I find myself bursting with more to say. I’ll add to this story, in another post.
Special note to homeschoolers or any interested storytellers: The Storysaurus Book is a fun textbook teaching story construction. It comes with a teacher's guide full of reproducible handouts.
Thank you for reading. What kind of story do you find yourself in?
You can click here for more ponderings on life and story-telling.