There are many ways to tell one story.
This is something we, as writers, know. It’s something readers are aware of too. A story can be scary, or funny, or touching. It can be entertaining, or moralistic.
A story can be brilliant, or, and this is something I hope to avoid, terrible.
I’m currently working on the first draft of a new story, and as I write, it is taking unexpected turns. My characters decide to react differently to how I’d expected them to, and they’re meeting people I didn’t know existed until we met them for the first time.
My plot expands and contracts like a slowly beating heart and my setting morphs and moulds before my eyes.
In short, my story isn’t quite as I imagined it to be. And that’s ok. It’s bound to look entirely different by the end of the process. But the story I want to tell, the reason I embarked on this project, will still be there. The essence, or kernel, of my idea will be intact. It’s the anchor that keeps me swimming too far away as those new twists turn up and as unfamiliar turns force my characters to twist their words. It will keep me from drifting off into a too-strong current when a sub plot appears, threatening to drown out the important action. Like a salmon returning to a spawning river, the central thrust of my idea will bring me back to where I started; it will stop me from becoming lost in the deep blue sea.
The ability of a story to take unexpected, new and delightful twists and turns, without losing its way to the end game, was made clear to me last night at the ballet, (and if that last phrase doesn’t make me sound all high fallutin’, nothing will).
We went, the husband and I, to see Scottish Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel.
A festive feast of fancy footwork; a seasonal splendour of sassy steps and jaunty jumps. Tutus as wide as elephants thighs and thighs as wide as… er…elephants thighs?
The pre-performance blurb hinted that this telling of the classic fairy tale was indeed a RE-telling. The wicked step mother was replaced by materialistic parents, more keen on watching tv than watching the kids. The witch was a glamorous beauty, luring the children away with her lollipops.
Too late, the parents discover their loss, and they go in search of their little ones, now imprisoned in the familiar house made of sweets. Here, the ballet stuck to a familiar script of Hansel being fattened up for the pot, and Gretel handing him thin bones to convince the now-uglified witch that his time hadn’t yet come.
Dancing chefs, enchanted rag dolls and a decapitated teddy didn’t feature in Grimm’s original version, but they added to the fun rather than taking away from the tale.
Same story; different journey.
Years ago, I went to Glyndebourne (there he goes again, thinking he’s a cut above…) to see an operatic version of Hansel and Gretel. Same basic story, same music in fact (Humperdink’s score), but another interpretation.
If I remember, Glyndebourne offered up a drag version of the witch, whose house ressembled a supermarket, and where Hansel’s cage was a supermarket trolly.
That’ll have got them talking in the long interval.
Again, same story; different journey.
As I continue with my novel, I’ll keep in mind these two wildly different versions of Hansel and Gretel, and, of course, Grimm’s original tale. They all entertain and thrill and satisfy. In all, the witch gets her comeuppance and the children learn a salutary lesson about greed and trust. In all, good wins out over evil. That is the kernel of this story, and it doesn’t change in the different tellings.
As long as I keep my kernel in mind, I can take my story wherever it wants to go. Although, just to safe, I might lay a trail of breadcrumbs in case I become lost.
Just yell if you see any hungry birds looking for a snack. Look what happened to Hansel and Gretel.