Monday, 8 February 2010

The Writing Game (PS)

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a postscript to a blog but that’s what this is. In the last posting, I was talking about the various writing jobs I’d done over the past few days. This one is about a different sort of writing again, and it’s a tip for you if ever you find yourself in the type of sleep-deprived and/or literary trap I’m about to describe.

I’ve just got back from a weekend in Glasgow with my daughter and her two sons. Part of the deal when I stay there is that, in the mornings, one or both boys come(s) in to my bed to chat, play word games or tell stories. If it’s the story option, they clatter quickly through their turns and expect a professional performance from me. (I should say that the same thing happens when I visit my other grandchildren and one of the results is a series of stories featuring Stanley, the misanthropic fairy I’ve mentioned before and whose adventures I’ve actually written up.) Anyway, please remember that we’re talking about early mornings here, usually with me just having been woken up. In other words, the creative flow is sluggish or non-existent but the audience still expects to be entertained. Like all stories, the one you tell has to get their interest right away. But there you are in your half-awake state, knowing they watch stuff like Power Rangers and high-tech cartoons and expect intense levels of action, adventure and narrative involvement. (Although the truth is that my 7 a.m. brain is incapable of holding refined concepts such as ‘narrative involvement’.)

So, you need a reliable, recognisable structure, you need something where someone has already done the donkey-work on your behalf. And that means plagiarism, which is a no-no, or parody.

Parody is cheating in a way. It’s definitely flattering to the original, it relies on the reader/listener identifying the source, which in turn is a compliment to that source. But you’re borrowing it, benefiting from its language, rhythms, themes or, as in this case, its underlying structure.

Anyway, parody is the road I took. It happened by accident. With no idea what story would emerge, I started by saying ‘A lion was walking through the forest’. Playing for time, I asked ‘What do you think the lion was called?’ ‘Tracey,’ was the immediate answer, relayed in a voice that implied it was a stupid question. So I had Tracey the lion, and he (she?) was in a forest. And he came to a cottage, so he had to go in – and suddenly the story was there in stark relief. On the table were three pizzas, a big one, a middle-sized one and a little one. This got a laugh so I knew I was home and dry. Tracey was an incarnation of Goldilocks and changing the bear into giraffes gave me scope for all sorts of architectural gags – high ceilings, tall thin doorways, strangely shaped chairs and beds. Breaking the baby giraffe’s chair was an opportunity to introduce sound effects and a mini debate about whether giraffes make any noises at all and, if they do, what their crying might sound like after having travelled so far up their throats. Detailing the vile ingredients of the mummy and daddy’s pizzas permitted the introduction of the projectile vomiting elements and other bodily fluids kids love so much, and the only looming difficulty was the prospect of the giraffe family finding a lion in the baby’s bed. Would it suddenly turn the story into a gore-fest? Would the laughs turn to tears as Tracey eviscerated the loving domestic trio?

I won’t bore you with the resolution because it involved audience participation, suggestions and refinements, and a leonine viewpoint restricted by a combination of blankets and the height of the giraffes. Seeing only parts of his ‘hosts’ made the patterns on their skins look like carpets to the sleep-befuddled predator but no one got hurt, the lion decided never to have pineapples on pizzas ever again, and the giraffes decided to move the lock on their front door even higher, (which in turn created the ingredients for a sequel - forced entry by a baboon).

Of all the types of writing in this and the previous posting, this story-telling probably gave me the most pleasure. All I need to do now is find a way of making the boys or their parents pay me.


  1. Okay, you have got to write up the story or book that explains this line, RIGHT NOW: " the lion decided never to have pineapples on pizzas ever again".

    Sheer brilliance. :D

    And, um, I'm not sure my brain ever copes with refined concepts such as narrative involvement. Pizza, yes. Narrative involvement, no.

  2. Hmmm, well the true explanation of the line would require me to reveal the pillow talk that I shared with my grandson so I'm afraid that's impossible. On the other hand, I could invent something about the acidic component in pineapples reacting with the DNA sequencing of the King of the beasts and causing him to imagine he's a young girl with blonde hair. Would that do?

    And, between you and me, pizza is always more welcome than pretentious literary references.

  3. Love it, Bill. Just think how much your grandchildren are contributing to your creative genius. You should be paying them!

  4. Rosemary, if you ever meet them, don't you DARE put that idea in their heads.

  5. Takes me back to birthday party games which frequently used to end with my telling a story while the kids input items that had to appear.

    Stories with my own kids were different - they insisted it wasn't "real" unless I wrote it first.

  6. Lovely post. It reminds me of the time when my 3 kids (who were all born within 40 months) were little and we'd climb into bed at night before bedtime. I'd either read books (Are You My Mother? was my favorite) or we'd make stories up. One of us would start, and we'd take turns adding to the stories. There is absolutely nothing on the face of this earth as creative as a child. (Or as entertaining.)

    Thanks for prompting the wonderful memories, Bill.

  7. Sheila and Linda, I'm glad the nostalgia kicked in. There's a purity about the time shared during bedtime stories that's unique. With my own kids it was reading favourites (such as Yertle the Turtle) and I know what your kids meant, Sheila, by it being 'real' if it was written. In fact, I think that's why parody works so well. If you're just fumbling your way through a story as it occurs to you, the structure's necessarily loose and you can't prepare the effects as skilfully.
    And your idea of 'taking turns', Linda, is actually something I'd thought of proposing in a blog some time - I'd start a story and you and the others could add to it. It would be just for fun and to see where it would take us.

  8. Hmm, a child's version of your interactive mystery dinner. This from the man who blogged on 'not being totally ignorant' about fantasy. You are doing a children's book I hope?!

    Sheila mentioned birthday party games. Ironically, this came out on my birthday and I printed it off like I do so many of your blogs, to enjoy offline.

    Sounds fun - I'm not sure the last foray into interactive storytelling could be topped, Swami.

  9. 'Swami' was a clever touch, Marley, and earns you the role of cherished handmaiden, or maybe designated driver.

    And if, by 'the last foray into interactive story-telling' you mean that with my grandson, that was far more one-sided than the exercise I had in mind for you and the rest.