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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 9: Retelling Stories

A kid who wants to be a baseball player will often pick a professional athlete to imitate. That’s because one of the main ways humans learn is through imitation. We writers can learn our storytelling skills in the same way.

There are a number of skills we need in order to be good storytellers; one of the most important is being able to come up with events for our stories. Many people have trouble with this. So the practices in this lesson, like those in the previous lessons on story, are intended to help you practice only the skills of coming up with story-events and ordering them. Later on we’ll explore the skills we need to tell the story well. Right now, though, don’t worry about your language. Concentrate on the content of the story, on what happens.

You may want to try this practice (from a previous lesson) once again:

Take a story from oral history, your own family history, or the repertoire of folk and fairy tales and familiarize yourself with it. The best way to do this is to picture the story in your imagination several times. Now retell the story on the page in your own words. If you want to change some of the events, go right ahead.

What did you learn in doing this practice?

Find a story written by a professional writer; read the beginning of the story and stop. Now take that beginning and tell the rest of the story (that is, give its events), as you imagine its could unfold. When you are finished, read the story in its original version. How is it different from yours? What do you notice about the events of the original story? Why do you think the author chose these events??

What did you learn in doing this practice?

Even if you are one of those writers who prefer not to plan out your story in advance, practice in coming up with events will make your creative faculty more limber.

Take one of the stories you have retold and tell it, out loud, to someone else. This is a great practice to do if you have kids! You will also find that many adults love to listen to stories. Experiment with telling a friend the events of a book you have loved instead of just saying, “It was great.” As you go about your life, look for opportunities to tell stories, even tiny ones. The more you do this, the more you will become accustomed to what I call “thinking in stories.”

In traditional cultures, storytellers often “play” with the materials of their tales, to highlight a theme or an event they feel is important for that particular audience. You can do the same thing. Take a story you like and re-tell it on the page, this time taking the freedom to change it any way you want to. What do you notice?

It’s great practice in the craft of making stories to take a story that isn’t “original”— a folk or fairy tale, for instance—and retell it. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate piece of work or require weeks of effort. And the more we retell established stories, the more practice we get in how stories are shaped. We’ll be exploring this in more detail later; for now, I encourage you to find stories you like and retell them in your own way: get as much practice in this as you can.

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