SUPERPOWERS: TELLING STORIES
My grandmother had a superpower. She could begin a story about something, go off on a tangent to further explain part of it, then another one and another one and come right back to her original topic to wrap everything up.
I can’t do that – verbally, at least.
I forget what my original topic was and usually the person I’m talking to doesn’t remember what it was either. My mother had the same problem, so her mother didn’t hand the knack down apparently.
Drives me crazy when it happens to me, and I’m not the one listening to it!
Fortunately, the same thing doesn’t have to happen on the written page. Oh, sure, it might in the first draft, get overlooked in the second or third or however many you end up with. The trick is noticing that you didn’t return to fill something in, and thus didn’t tell the whole story.
In case you didn’t know, Scheherazade of 1001 Arabian Nights fame had the same superpower that Grandma had. Good thing Scheherazade did because her life was on the line. She had to keep her husband from separating her from her head the day after the wedding. Talk about a bad choice…not that she had one. Apparently he cruised the streets looking for pretty girls to wed, bed, and didn’t believe in divorce. Really predated Henry VIII – and outstrips the number of wives – because the earliest collection of the stories dates to the 9th century. Henry, of course, was 16th century and didn’t have a harem. Well, not officially anyway.
There doesn’t seem to be any historical documentation that Scheherazade (under any of the spellings – this version is of German extraction) ever really existed. I couldn’t find a date attached to her name anywhere on the Net, at any rate. Some of the tales are said to have an Indian influence, but the Rajahs and the Sultans did have very similar household arrangements. You know, lots of wives and concubines. Heck, King David and King Solomon did, too!
Although the stories have been broken into separate ones, such as the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, the entire set up is what is called an “onion” because it is one story within another story. Some are 5 stories deep!
That means that Scheherazade was the queen of the cliffhanger. She left the sultan primed for a continuation of the story every night for nearly three years.
The way it was done was to start one story and then have a character within that story begin telling another story that in some way was related. And then a character in the second layer tale began a third layer story, and within it another character began a fourth layer story, and then a character in it began the inner fifth layer story. The fifth layer story was then wrapped up by the character telling it in the fourth layer one, and the narrator of that story finished telling the third layer story, then the second layer story was wrapped up by yet another character, until the original narrator finished the story that started the whole thing. In other words, things rolled toward the inner story then backed out, finishing each of the previous layer’s stories along the way.
I did say it took a superpower, didn’t I?
Scheherazade, if she existed managed to survive past those 1001 days of storytelling. She supposedly produced a couple sons during that time and the sultan decided to keep her as his main wife and queen even after she told him she’d related all the stories she possessed. So, happy ending in that she got the equivalent of the New York Times and Amazon #1 best seller spots for her time period, which meant she got to live. There are a number of translations of One Thousand and One Nights, aka 1001 Arabian Nights and other names. Sir Richard Burton, Victorian explorer and other things – but not an actor, that’s another Sir Richard Burton, a 20th century one – translated it in the 19th century and at least in the English speaking world, that’s usually the version best known, although other scholars have taken a shot at it as well over the years.
While Gilgamesh is the oldest written story every found (and he had some fairly exciting adventures, though he’s the only hero and there is no “onion” set up in the spinning of this Sumerian/Akkadian tale), Arabian Nights is probably the best known non-religious collection of stories from long, long ago.
Fortunately for us, there isn’t an ax-man standing ready if we flub up a story by not coming full circle on something in it. However, there are alert readers who won’t pick up anything you’ve written again, and we certainly don’t want that! Editors will give you a pass, too.
However, making sure you’ve told the whole story is not always easy. We as the composers know what happens, why it happens, when it happened, who was involved, and what the outcome was. This means that when we’re rereading what we wrote, it’s easy to miss that we let one or more of the strings in the narrative slip by not letting the reader in on something they’d really like to know – really NEED to know. You do that when weaving a rug or cloth or knitting or crocheting and not only is there a hole left, the entire piece could begin to unravel.
You don’t want that happening with a story either.
Is there an easy way to ensure that you didn’t slip a story stitch? Well, that’s what we’re going to sort out in TELL THE WHOLE STORY: EDITING FOR CONTENT, the workshop beginning at Savvy Authors on July 1st. Hopefully, by the close on July 28th, you’ll have come up with a system that will work for you when it comes to telling your whole story. I won’t be attempting to lock you in to what I do. And I’ll confess, there are still times when something slips by me to be caught by my editor. I’m not sure if she grinds her teeth or does a “I caught you!” happy dance when that happens. The goal is to find something that works best with the way you write. This isn’t a “snag it once and the work is done.” It’s a “snagged this spot, now is there another one I missed?” sort of thing. There is no one way to do things when it comes to writing, as I’m sure you’ve discovered. Finding what works for YOU is what the goal will be in this workshop.
Hope to see you there!