Once upon a time, Kurt Vonnegut (our hero) wrote a master’s thesis in anthropology (his mission), explaining how he believed that all stories have shapes. It was rejected (by the villains) but the idea prevailed, and was described by the acclaimed author as “his prettiest contribution to culture”. The graphs he produced have given us not just a happy ending, but a happy beginning, too. All stories, no matter what they’re about, follow a familiar pattern. And this is a fantastic help when teaching creative writing.
As readers, we get a great thrill from tracking the way a character and situation are established in the exposition, and heightened in the rising action, reaching the “we can’t go back from this!” point at the climax, only to resolve it all in the falling action and denouement. One of the best ways to teach storytelling is to apply these structures to stories that your students already know.
Shape and reshape fairy stories
It’s so much easier for our pupils to grasp ideas about storytelling if we use stories they’ve been telling, singing about and role-playing since they were in nappies, which means that fairy tales are ideal. Not only do these offer familiar and predictable structures, they’re also full of recognisable characters that students feel confident discussing.
Background: Memory: how trips boost recall
There are countless directions to go in: is Goldilocks a hero or a villain? An intrepid explorer who has stumbled unwittingly into an (almost literal) bear trap? Or a trespasser who struggles with boundaries and commits criminal damage? Once students see these stories as fair game to rewrite, retell and reimagine, nothing is off limits.
Know the genre, then subvert it
The familiarity of the Shrek story is a gift when teaching genre subversions. We have an ogre, but he’s the hero! He smells, lives in a swamp and has a donkey for a sidekick, but he gets the girl! The girl is a princess but an ogre, too! For every rule that is followed, another is broken.
Shrek’s Adventure!, on London’s South Bank, is a living, breathing, fully immersive fairytale experience. Children take on the role of tourists who have inadvertently run over the evil Rumpelstiltskin’s favourite witch and get caught up in a nerve-wracking chase through mysterious rooms, culminating in a heroic rescue by Shrek at the very end.
The experience is, in itself, a fantastic lesson in story structure, following the conventions of an adventure narrative. You are sent on a quest, there is a mysterious hall of mirrors, you outwit the minion helpers of the villain, all aided by the helpful tavern owner, with the appearance of a magical spell that fails at the last minute...before the baddie learns her lesson and switches teams.
There are countless questions for students to consider: what is a character? What is the purpose of a hero? And a villain? How can we use the idea of beginning, middle and end to help us give shape to our stories?
Rethink classic story characters
One of the most popular rooms at Shrek’s Adventure! allows students to meet Sleeping Beauty, who is trying to get her words out but struggling with snores instead. Back in the classroom, you can talk about the after-effects of other stories: does Snow White carry an epi-pen after her poisoned apple incident? Has Rapunzel struggled to find a hairdresser who is happy to cut her mane? And has she ever become used to living in a home with stairs?
Storytelling: role it up
Pupils can experience the fun of being in role as tourists and interact with actors as they make their way around the exhibit. And the role-play doesn’t have to stop once you’re back in the classroom; all it takes is a spare wig or a pair of glasses, and you can get into role to explore ideas and solve creative-writing problems.
The final scene at Shrek’s Adventure! leaves your students sitting in a prison cell, rats running along the benches, and an ogre beating the walls down. Back in the classroom, you can revisit this part of the adventure as a talking point for creative work. What kind of encounters could take place in the interrogation rooms here? Maybe Rumpelstiltskin has finally been caught and is facing his punishment? Students can role-play how he confesses his crimes to the newly appointed chief guard…Donkey.
So whip out your map for a fairytale kingdom in Far Far Away, and get polishing your enchanted mirror. Twisted fairytales are the perfect way to deliver a lesson on story construction, and genre studies, and bring a bit of magic into your teaching.