Teaching as Storytelling (3): Plot Dynamics

Can you become a rich and famous writer if you’re not much good at writing?

Yes, of course you can – it happens all the time! There are always highly successful popular novelists around who can’t write to save their lives. But they can use plot dynamics.

The dynamics of plotting are the four primary emotional states writers and storytellers of all kinds try to induce. Within these, a lifetime of emotions can be aroused. But first, the writer must be able to induce these four dynamic states:

EXPECTATION

SUSPENSE

CLOSURE

SURPRISE

Expectation means engagement, curiosity, uncertainty, the driving force of all narrative. Wanting to know. In a state of expectation we cannot help ourselves from making predictions and hypotheses – imagining the future. We are full of questions: what’s going to happen? Why did what just happened happen? Even in a less plot-driven narrative, we have doubts and questions about why the author is telling us this at all. Why is this significant? Why is it interesting?

If we seek to define the term ‘story’, we have to say that it is not just a sequence of events. There has to be something about the sequence of events that makes it worthy of narration. It can’t be ‘The alarm clock woke me up, so I got up and came to work. I worked all day and then I went home, ate, watched TV and went to bed.’ That’s a sequence of events, but it’s not a story. (It’s not even a life!)

To earn the title of ‘story’, a sequence of events must be worth telling, and to be worth telling it must involve a change of state. So if you got fired at work, OK, that’s a story. Or fell in love, even. Or murdered your boss, whatever. But first and foremost the storyteller must passionately commit to the story-worthiness of the story. Its narrativity, to use the jargon.

Even if the story starts in the most mundane possible way, there is a contract that the author must fulfill, an expectation that if I stick with this, I will… be made to laugh / cry / find out / understand / be amazed / amused/ horrified.

However, these expectations must not be met too quickly. All linear art – music, narrative – works by arousing and satisfying expectations. But – such works must exist in time. They have to take time to unfold, and during that time the audience must be in suspense, the experience of an as yet unfulfilled expectation.

The storyteller delays. A storyteller slows down, just when you’re desperate to know. A teacher must be prepared to wait.

A teacher waits… have you ever done that, without telling them what you want, just wait to see what the students will give you? Wait to see how long it takes them to realize that what you want is questions.

Which you should quite probably refuse to answer.

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Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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