Navigating the Story Arc with Hare and Tortoise
“Stories are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live within that allow human beings to advance”
I don’t need to convince anyone that picture books are great vehicles for telling stories. But we often overlook the fact that picture books are also great vehicles for learning about how stories work. In a picture book a story can unfold in as little as 12 double-page spreads, meaning they often have compact, concentrated and extremely well-defined story arcs.
We share picture books and they transform us
Picture books are experiences. Sometimes they can be as thrilling as a roller coaster ride and sometimes they can move us to tears. We share them and they transform us and deepen the bonds we have with the people we share them with. John Dewey, an American pragmatist philosopher, described an experience as … “passing from equilibrium through disturbance then struggle back to harmony where we have adjusted somewhat to our environment.”
Dewey was talking about everyday life experiences. A great meal, a quarrel with a friend, a punctured tyre, a maths problem, using a pencil for the first time or writing a story might all be examples of an experience, but he might just as easily have been talking about the story arc.
Imagine this everyday experience…
You are drawing with a pencil for the very first time. You get started busily drawing loops and swirls and zig zags, lost in the flow of the experience of drawing. Then disaster - the lead breaks. The pencil will no longer make a mark. You try pressing a bit harder but it's no use, all that happens is you make indentations and some tears in the paper. You look for something else to draw with but there is nothing. You try drawing with the other end. It makes an interesting red mark but it's not satisfactory. So, you go looking for help.
Eventually someone shows you how to sharpen your pencil and you are able to get back into the creative flow of making marks again. After breaking the lead and sharpening the pencil a few more times, you learn to lean a little lighter and from now on every time you draw with a pencil you know exactly how much pressure to exert. You have adjusted to your environment or, in this case, to a tool in your environment.
In the story arc a character with a goal, in a setting, encounters an inciting incident. They struggle to find a solution, there is a moment of crisis and a climax, perhaps some agency or rescue and a resolution. Eventually the character returns home changed. This is a very simple description of a story arc but you can see how it relates to our first experience of drawing with a pencil. An experience is passing from harmony to disturbance through struggle to resolution and back to harmony again.
The making of stories is also an experience
The making of stories is also an experience. We happily decide we are going to write a story, we have an idea (inciting incident) but we meet the resistance of the blank page and a struggle ensues. Many struggles happen and once they've all been conqured, we have in our hand a brand new picture book fresh from the printers. The experience of making stories transforms us; there are so many skills to learn from writing and illustrating stories: how to use different materials, how to express emotion through mark making, how colour affects mood, how rhythm and rhyme can help bounce us along a story line, how words contain layers of meaning… and so much more.
The race as a metaphor of the story arc in Aesop’s Hare and Tortoise is a great way to introduce story making. It contains all the ingredients or building blocks you need to make a great story and bands them together in a way still worth retelling after two and a half thousand years.
The animal natures of the characters give us all the information we need to set the scene: the race is set on a farm and the goal or inciting incident is to win the race. Both characters meet and overcome (or not) their own personal obstacles. Tortoise finds it hard to negotiate the long grass and tangle of weeds and her small legs make the length of the race course a daunting task. Hare’s greediness and arrogance make it hard for him to resist a carrot, and a nap.
There is an all-is-lost moment when Hare wakes, realising he is about to lose. A climax, when Hare races and chases to no avail. And a resolution: in my version Tortoise has learned to try new things and Hare has learned that winning isn’t everything (and perhaps to be a little less arrogant). They have both learned that their friendship is paramount. (I tried to keep away from the meritocratic reading of Hare and Tortoise because, in my experience, life doesn’t always pan out this way.) By the end of the story each character has returned home changed and perhaps in taking the journey with them we are transformed a little too.
Dewey saw us as works in progress, life being a collection of histories each with their own plots, inceptions, conclusions, movement and rhythms and that we are growing, changing, transforming with every experience. Experiences can be positive or negative, but either way, they shape us.
In understanding the story arc we become much more critically aware of how stories work. Stories can help us make better sense of the world or they can mislead us. Understanding how stories work gives us a sense of agency over our own destiny.
“If one’s own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book.”
To see how the story arc works in practice, listen to Alison Murray read Hare and Tortoise.