Curbing Expansionist Storytelling

This week I’ve been reminded over and over how similar my own challenges with writing are to those of the elementary school students I teach. We all suffer from the same curse: expansionist storytelling, that supernova-like tendency of our stories to become so dense with convolved ideas that they cease to hold together, and explode. Unfortunately, the scribbled mess we are left with isn’t anywhere near as spectacular as the Real Thing:

Credit: Caltech/SSC/J. Rho and T. Jarrett and NASA/CXC/SSC/J. Keohane et al

What I mean by expansionist storytelling is, at the most basic level, the inability to focus an idea. It is the broadening of a story instead of the deepening of it, the sketching out of a dozen ideas instead of the careful rendering of one. It is the problem I run into most often in my own work, and is the number one challenge I face when creating stories with kids.

Take yesterday, for example, when in a second grade room at P. Elementary the students and I were focused on creating text for a song about the earth splitting in half. As much as I tried to lead them deeper into that one key moment (what does the earth splitting in half feel like? look like? sound like?), the class immediately jumped on the path to supernova with runaway ideas about creative ways to stage the moment that, all told, introduced at least half a dozen new characters to the story, and at least as many plot twists. An added problem was, there were a lot of great ideas mixed in there that were all but lost beneath the overall explosion.

A big part of my job is being the sieve. I listen to all propositions and sift through them, picking out the few relevant pieces from the students’ sprawling ideas that will actually help move us forward. What I would really love do is teach the students to sift for themselves. I’m just now sure how.

There has to be a middle ground somewhere between teaching Aristotelian story structure, and the free-write. In an ideal world, that middle ground would teach students to take their free-writes, and shape them into Aristotelian-like structures. This is the real work of creative writing, the process of discovering the heart of your story and making it your focus. Of course, sometimes the story you are writing is so short it becomes a non-issue, but for the most part writing is the craft of editing, sculpting, honing, and scaling it down a bit. Perhaps the better I learn to do it myself, the easier it will be to teach. Here’s to hoping, anyway.



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