ENG 4U: Telling a Good Story

Storytelling is easy. More accurately, it is straightforward. A story is basically a series of events, told in succession, imbued with a message or a point. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

What makes storytelling even easier is that there are very few kinds of stories.  I can tell a story about a commonplace child who, in truth, is a hero capable of saving her world. I can recount the actions of a buffoon who pretends to be something he is not, only to learn he didn’t need to change himself at all.  Or, I can tell the story of someone so full of pride that they make a rash decision; they will regret it, but only when it is too late for them to correct their grave error.

Good storytelling? Now, that is much more difficult. This is because retelling the plot isn’t enough. If knowing the plot was sufficient for good storytelling, listening to me summarize the plot of a good story should be as satisfying as reading  the novel or watching the movie itself.  It is the art of storytelling that makes a story memorable.

Don’t believe me? Well, let’s consider the following clips. In each, a man is running. Simple enough, right? But the real story is how the man moves and how the story is framed.

Let’s try a little experiment in good storytelling. Each group will choose one of the videos above and create a list of short phrases and descriptions that tell the story of the character’s movement in a way that transcends simply running. You might want to consider the following:

  • what is the runner’s rhythm like?
  • how do his limbs move?
  • what is his breathing like?
  • is he striding? shuffling? scrambling?
  • how does he feel physically? mentally?
  • how does he interact with his environment?

Your Task

  • By Friday, you will submit a single descriptive paragraph that describes the actions of a single character in a film or show of your choice
  • your paragraph should be based on roughly 30-60 seconds of actual footage
  • don’t choose a scene with too much action. A fight scene from the Bourne Identity, for example, is too frenetic to capture in a paragraph. Instead, choose a scene with a sustained action–climbing, doing the dishes, exploring a room–and little dialogue.
  • use the questions below to guide your work:
    • is there a rhythm to the character’s movement?
    • what is she doing with her arms?
    • what is his breathing like?
    • how is she actually moving?
    • what is the connection between her emotions and her actions?
    • how does he interact with his environment?

Before you begin, let’s take a look at how two great writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Neil Gaiman, tell us so much without so little action. In the first, a sound in the character’s head gets louder and louder; in the second, a character walks into a graveyard and leans against a tombstone. Simple, right? And yet…

There was that noise again—that cold, cutting, vertical noise that he knew so well—but it was coming to him now sharp and painful, as if he had become unaccustomed to it overnight.

It was spinning around inside his empty head, dull and biting. A beehive had risen up inside the four walls of his skull. It grew larger and larger with successive spirals, and it beat on him inside, making the stem of his spinal cord quiver with an irregular vibration, out of pitch with the sure rhythm of his body. Something had become unadapted in his human material structure, something that had functioned normally “at other times” and now was hammering at this head from within with dry and hard blows made by the bones of a fleshless, skeletal hand, and it made him remember all the bitter sensations of life.

Around the next bend in the road Shadow came upon a tiny graveyard. The headstones were weathered, although several of them had sprays of fresh flowers resting against them. There was no wall about the graveyard, and no fence, only low mulberry trees, planted at the margins, bent over with ice and age. Shadow stepped over the piled-up ice and slush at the side of the road. There were two stone gateposts marking the entry to the graveyard, although there was no gate between them. He walked into the graveyard between the two posts. 

He wandered around the graveyard, looking at the headstones. There were no inscriptions later than 1969. He brushed the snow from a solid-looking granite angel, and leaned against it.

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