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Breaking the Storytelling Mold

By Laura Backes

If your writing seems stuck in a rut, perhaps it's time to put that manuscript aside and watch some TV. Or go to the movies. Or read a comic book.

I'm not suggesting that you goof off. Rather, by looking at other entertainment art forms, you might discover a fresh approach to storytelling. Here are some new avenues to explore courtesy of some other very creative folks (don't be put off by the adult content of these examples. It's the storytelling techniques we're after.).

Don't be so literal–Listen to the lyrics of a Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello song. You may be hard pressed to figure out what the songs are actually about, but the words themselves paint such vivid pictures that you can't help but remember the poetry. While you want to avoid such abstraction in a picture book, novels for older children can benefit from moments of poetic prose and sublety that allow the reader to find personal meaning in the story.

Tell the story in a different way–Selective movie-watching can give you fresh ideas on how to present a story. The film Dead Man Walking gave equal sympathy to both sides of the death penalty issue, forcing the audience to draw its own conclusions. The Japanese film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa tells the same story through the eyes of several different people, each giving their own interpretation of the events. The independent movie Slacker by director Richard Linklater follows one character for about ten minutes. Then someone walks by, presumably an extra in the film, and the camera zooms in on this new person as her or she becomes the focus of the movie for a short period of time. This technique is repeated thoughout the film.

In The Godfather, Part II, director Francis Ford Coppola tells the parallel stories of organized crime boss Vito Corleone and his son Michael in their respective eras as head of the family. The movie jumps back and forth in time, but the scenes are connected because the changes in the father as he rose to power are mirrored in his son many years later.

The storytelling techniques of these films add more texture to the plot than a linear beginning, middle, and end would have.

Go for the unexpected–The first half of Robert Rodriguez's movie From Dusk 'Til Dawn is a classic criminals-on-the-run story, until the main characters are locked into a bar where all the patrons turn into vampires. While you might find the movie violent and distasteful, you have to admit there is no way you could have predicted where the story eventually ended up. Try taking your story to unexpected places, and don't always worry about explaining why.

Be willing to take chances–An animated film that appeared at the Breckinridge film festival involved Leonard, a latchkey child who receives a pet dog for his birthday. However, his parents failed to check the vital signs of the mail-order pet, and the dead dog is dubbed "Stiffy" by Leonard. Too young to grasp death, Leonard takes Stiffy out for his first walk.

Now please don't send me letters about what a horrible idea this is for a children's story. My point is that the writer went out on a limb, and the result was very funny.

Think backwards–Characters are all around us. When you see someone interesting in an unexpected place, ask yourself, "How did this person get here?" Start at the ending, then back up and show how your character arrived at that point. Many movies use this technique, but it's rare in children's books.

Expand your storytelling repetoire. Try new things, take chances. Much of what you write will never find its way to an editor's desk, but that's as it should be. Writing must be reviewed as a creative, experimental process. If we sit down with the intent of sending this story in this form to an editor, we not only put undue pressure on ourselves, but place limits on our imagination. Look for storytelling in every aspect of our culture. Incorporate what you like into your writing, and rest assured that those hours in front of the television can now be considered research.

Laura Backes is the author of the just-released Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read, from Prima Publishing. She's also the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers This article originally appeared in Children's Book Insider: The Newsletter for Children's Book Authors. Reprinted with permission from the Children's Writing Resource Center website.

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