Story Tainting

Posted October 14th, 2012 by wonko

My year 9 ICTE students have begun exploring the “Virtual Worlds” unit and we are set for some good (geeky) times as they will use a Textiverse (ICTEMMO), a Browserverse (terraMOO) and a 3D Opensim (terraceLIFE) to express non-linear narrative.


The focus of this unit is storytelling, actually – the worlds merely the delivery vehicle (but don’t tell the kids, right), although each pre-suppose very different skills, offer vastly different perceptions and appeal to different levels of geek.

I tried something (they were keen and had NO IDEA what I had planned for them – that sort of  “on edge excitement” is useful sometimes) involving story tree generations.

I wrote a program to randomly pick people and set about dividing the class into random pairs (under the guise of “people have to form productive partnerships, regardless of whether they would choose to” or some such tripe) and then tainted their story – let me explain:

We fired up Inspiration (a mind-mapping software title, insert your fav, it does not matter – one pooter per pair), I got them to type a story seed as their first bubble: either

  1. “Timmy fell down the well” for one class or
  2. “You regain consciousness as the airlock hisses closed behind you and the oxygen levels return to normal” for the other.

I then preceded to explain how to spread the bubble map based on possible scenarios and decisions-different outcomes, spinning stereotype story arcs just to illustrate how a story tree might work. I then deleted all but the “seed”, left that on screen while the groups then spun their stories.

I apologised profusely for tainting their story, by exploring aspects of the narrative live in front of them. I begged them to think how the story would go from their own imagination, pleaded for them to think originally, then let them at it.

The instructions were clear – make it interesting, make it make sense, talk, confer – VERY quietly so as to not influence the group beside you … go!

After 15-20 of the most interesting minutes in class this week (wow were they absorbed) they were required to upload their story trees to Moodle (so they sort of “commit” to their work) and then we looked at structure/content.

Interesting how many of them took the seed as a “starting point” for their story (neither of which make particularly good opening scenarios, unless in flashback). “Delete everything that is not original” I said – I don’t want to read someone elses story, just what YOU have come up with … not a lot left. Well, not entirely true, some argued passionately the fact that they had re-worked the story from Halo, or LOTR or whatever so that made it original, some actually did use their own imaginations but most lost lots of their trees.

So what?

Original story telling is HARD, because there has been so much story telling in the past. It is a tall ask, cold, to try and invent a good, coherent, engaging story without plunging into stereotype and popularist tripe – doubly so when readers can choose their own pathway through it (I love non-linear narrative for this very reason – no 2 readers get the same experience).

Students suggested (spontaneously) that a plan of attack would have been much better than merely launching into the narrative – give those kids a prize as they worked out, for themselves, the purpose of the lesson.

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