Now that I’m finally starting to escape the evil claws of bronchitis, I can finally catch you up on some of the good things that happened last month. And one of the best was hearing Philip Pullman speak about storymaking at a conference organized by the Oxford Children’s Book Group. His talk was highly visual, delightfully speculative, and altogether fascinating, and the discussion afterward made me think hard about how we construct stories.
“For children, dialogue is easy,” he said. “Narrative is hard” (By “narrative” he meant the bits between the dialogue — or what I, as an American, might call narration.) Which led to another question: “Is it really necessary to have narrative at all? Why not just have scripts and movies and animations? What does narrative give us?” Which is another way of saying, What do BOOKS give us?
Great questions! And they sparked off a general discussion about what the function of narrative is — how it allows you to make distinctions about time and place and relationships, and how it lets you emphasize or augment or undercut or even outright contradict what is actually said. (Movies can do this, too, through facial expressions and body language and later dialogue, but not in such detail or with such precision.)
The discussion gave me a renewed awareness of how much I love this aspect of books (both as reader and writer) and how much it’s shaped my view of the world. I love the point and counterpoint of novels, the moments when a character says one thing and thinks another, the way we get to see deep into the hearts and minds of other people.
Pullman talked, too, about what he called the “unconscious armature of story”: the motifs and actions and gestures that we writers create in our narratives and that give stories a great deal of their power. He said that it was only after he was done with Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) that he saw how the idea of “splitting” could be found again and again in the book, even down to the name of Mrs Coulter, which means “a blade used for plowing, to split the soil” — something he didn’t consciously think about at the time.
A few other gems from the talk:
On how to tell a story: “What are the things you want the reader to know? Put those in. Leave the others out.”
[quoting David Mamet]: “Ask yourself, ‘Where do I start the action? Where do I point the camera?’ Point of view is the hardest choice in writing a story.”
And finally, something to make you smile:
During the publicity for His Dark Materials, a reporter asked Pullman, “What do you want readers to feel when they’ve finished your books?”
“What I want them to feel most acutely,” Pullman said, “is the desire to go out and buy the next one!”