Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Story shaping

One of the really interesting things about the work that Ruthanne Edward and Marie Bilodeau and I have been doing on our upcoming show (The Warrior Queen: Chasing Boudicca - next Thursday at the NAC Fourth Stage as part of the Ottawa Storytellers Fourth Stage Series, be there or be square) is what I've been learning about story shape. Or not so much what I've been learning about it, as what I already knew and am now having vividly illustrated.

The show will be one long story, essentially, with the three of us taking different voices and approaches. I step in from time to time as the poet, reciting poems from my series, Chasing Boudicca, which I've been (off and on) adding to for the last few years. I'm a bit of an outside voice, speaking, mostly, from the point of view of myself as a 13-year-old living in England and discovering Boudicca's story. Marie and Ruthanne take the history of the Boudiccan Rebellion between them: Marie more or less covering the story of Boudicca the mother, and Ruthanne covering the warrior aspect. More or less.

We've been working on the show for a long time now - in November we took a couple of weekends and vanished to a cottage out in Westport to brainstorm and talk through what we wanted to do. I came into this with the most previous research, since I've been a Boudicca fan since I was thirteen, and I also came into it as the non-oral-storyteller of the group. I learned quick. All the stuff that really fascinates me about the different purposes Boudicca's story serves and how many times she's been reinvented and rediscovered and made to mean different things - I learned that all of it was going to have to inform the story, the way we were telling it, but not overpower it. We couldn't have multiple versions of her story. We couldn't talk about the archaeological realities - not directly. But we could take the research we'd done, the new discoveries that had been made, and put each cool fact into the story in one line of detail. The temple at Camulodunum wasn't finished when the city was sacked? Okay, we can use that to have the roof unfinished. But not actually say outright that we know for a fact the temple was incomplete.

I mean, it is really interesting what happened to Boudicca's story: written down by her enemies, preserved by chance, rediscovered in the Middle Ages, re-rediscovered by the Victorians, then resurrected again by historical fiction writers aplenty in our time, and every time made to mean something slightly different. There's just so much that can be read in to her story - or to the bits of it that we've kept over the intervening two thousand years. Or into why some bits of her story are accepted as canon now over others.

But. The point is. None of that makes a good story in itself. It's a history lesson or a semiotics lecture or a women's studies course. But it's not a good story. So what I have been learning from Ruthanne and Marie is how to take all of our research, and boil it down into a story. And not just that, into a story that will take only about an hour and a half to tell, and which must come out one syllable at a time, and be received one syllable at a time. 

Between watching Ruthanne pack our hours' worth of discussion into a thirty-second snatch of dialogue (go to the show and listen to how she works what you need to know about the Rebellion of AD 47, led by Caractacus, into three lines of a mealtime conversation between Boudicca and her husband) and seeing how Marie defines a character using one action or one line, I've been awed. They make it look so easy. Me, I'm constantly being sidetracked by more little details. They manage to know which ones have to be there.

One of the things about a story you're telling aloud is that the audience can't flip back and reread a part if they didn't follow it, and a lot of the work we've been doing is to make sure that as the story goes, the things the audience needs to know are clear. When we do foreshadowing, it's got to be pointed enough that it sticks with the audience until that element comes back around (we do some recurring notes with swords, with Boudicca's resolve not to be captured, and with the different destinies of the two daughters.) Without, of course, being heavy-handed. Where information can be delivered as part of the action, it needs to be: just giving a list of facts, or even a list of events, will be flat. (We had a fascinating moment when the two storytellers first started telling their full stories, and we discovered that some parts had come out as simple lists of facts: the three of us brainstormed actions and dialogue that would convey the facts and within 20 minutes the story was transformed, and far more exciting.)

There was also the fact, which I realized a couple of nights ago, that oral storytelling has a series of expectations and understandings which make it possible - in fact, sometimes necessary - to introduce conventions. Things that come close to what, in print, would be cliche. But sometimes you need to borrow from the images and understandings that the audience can be expected to bring. It's like when you start a story with "there was a time, and it was not my time, and it was not your time, but it was a time, when..." Or when you know you can rely on the audience to understand that the third son is going to be the honest, brave and clever one.

On top of that, I'm relying on the audience to keep trying to make the connections between my poems, which are more or less loosely tied to the narrative, and the parts that Ruthanne and Marie are telling. My poems, I think, cast a bit of an extra shade on the story. There's nothing explicit about the relationship between my adolescent temper and the fury of Boudicca, but I'm trusting the audience to see the resonances and make their own connections for a lot of the poems.

So yeah. So much depends on how you deliver the story. The constraints of a live telling, in front of an audience, are different in some ways from the constraints on a story in print: some of them are the same, but some of them are dependent on the listener, their attention, their interest, how much information they can or will want to process at once. I know a lot of this from workshops on fiction writing; "show, don't tell," "if you have to use an adverb you're not making your characters clear enough," "give personality traits through actions and speech, not directly," "go through and take out all the bits that aren't doing anything for the story."

But something about doing it for a live performance, and something about doing it collaboratively with two other performers, makes it so much clearer. It's something I think would be worth working into a writing workshop: the collaboration, the immediacy, and the constraint of it has certainly been eye-opening for me.

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