Monday, 28 September 2009

Sense and surreality - plotting exercise

An interesting little item in 23/09/09 Telegraph reminded me of an exercise that explores plotting and point of view which I did not include in Creative Writing: the Matrix. The news item says psychologists have 'found that bizarre juxtapositions of facts and time frames force people to engage their brain.'*

Researchers at the University of California and the University of British Columbia gave a study group a chopped up, nonsensical version of a Franz Kafka story, while a second group read a sensibly edited version. The first group remembered more and better. Conclusion by psychologists: they did better because they were motivated to find structure.

Their research seems mainly to be about learning (though it also mentions film director David Lynch's work), but I'm interest in that last phrase I bolded. I was trying to get my class to explore plot AND point of view (angle)... the various ways of telling a story, and how the ways then affect the story. It took a fair bit of preparation, worth it for the resulting lively group-work session.
  • Prep: I took a published short story and analysed, or deconstructed, it into key actions in the narrative. I typed out these key events (synopsis-style, not the actual text); nine in total. Each was only 1-3 lines long.
  • Prep, cont'd: I printed out 4 copies of this list. I numbered the first event on the first copy #1, as it occurred in the telling of the story. I studied the events and on the other three sheets chose different starting points. (I got quite deeply and creatively involved in this editing task and could see how all versions might conceivably work.) Then I cut up each sheet into strips of the 9 identical events.
  • In class, I gave each of four groups (2-6 people in each) one set of the story events. But each group had a different #1 starting event. The task was then to put the other events into an order that made sense -- possibly eliminating one if it just would not fit. This took a good noisy 20 minutes.
  • Then a speaker for each group told its story to the class. The discussion was fascinating as the variations provided different tones to the basic story, differing sympathies, motives and even personalities for the characters, and differing themes. Two groups did not manage to complete the task, but that mattered less than the working at it and all contributed to discussion.
  • Point of the exercise: to realise how flexible plotting can be, to be creatively free in storytelling, to experience how the sequence of telling a story affects readers' interests and empathies.
  • P.S. I revealed the order of the original published story (and its author) at the end; some students preferred their own versions!

Point of learning for the tutor: it was a bit confusing and chaotic (surreal!) but very stimulating and open-ended... showing, not telling, students the potentialities of plot and point of view and their effects. It is not necessary to agree, there is no one right way.

*The study is published in Psychological Science.

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