The usefulness of template stories

In a lot of the writing exercises and art exercises on here, I recommend trying techniques out on someone else’s existing story, rather than only on your own ideas and works in progress. (Note, those writing and art links go to almost exactly the same posts, because most exercises work for both).

This is for a few reasons. For example:

  • Using an existing story saves time. I don’t have to construct a new one before I can try the exercise, and I know that this story already works as a story.
  • It lets me play in a style I know I enjoy (or, occasionally, one I detest).
  • Using someone else’s story can be freeing. If I use an idea I’m working on or wedded to, sometimes I’m worried about breaking the idea, or else the idea is so strong it doesn’t let me go wild with the exercise.
  • Transforming a classic story is a good way to create retellings, and new ideas in conversation with existing stories.
  • It makes use of the things I already know, that otherwise are just rattling around in the back of my brain.
  • If I need to come up with a new idea in a hurry, reskinning the basic structure of a story I know well is a shortcut (the whole three-moods project is related to this).
  • Changing something in an existing story makes it very clear what the ripple effects of that change are. It can reveal all sorts of things about structure and style and choices, whether about that story (if you’re interested in analysing it) or about narratives generally.
  • Consciously using a template story can sometimes reveal and shake up my default stories — habits I have and structures I lean on.

Here are some of the types of template stories I like to use (and it is nice to use a variety for variation and for different purposes):

  • Fairy tales. This is partly because I personally like working with them, and partly because of the mythic weight (see below). But a lot of fairy tales exist in versions that have been heavily condensed and pared back and boiled down to parts that can be used as archetypes or armatures for all sorts of purposes — shifted in time, dressed up in different costumes, etc, etc. Or you can pinch their ornaments and textures and put them onto something else. I like having a few in rotation; you’ve probably noticed I use Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood pretty heavily, at least in examples.
  • Stories with mythic weight. When I get people to choose these template/reference stories in workshops, this is what I tell people to look for. By “mythic” I mean personally mythic — stories that loom large in your life, that you know well, that you recommend to others, that you refer back to. It could be Jurassic Park or a historical event or a memorable sports story. The only real rule is that it has to be a story, not a theme. You can’t say “death” but you can say “Hades & Persephone”.
  • Classics. Either stories culturally well-known, or ones I personally know well. (If you’re doing an exercise to share in public, e.g. as an example or in a workshop, the former is useful.) I’ve read Pride & Prejudice a lot, usually out loud to my dad, and it’s also pretty well known, so it shows up a lot, along with Jane Eyre.
  • Works with cultural resonance. Some of these are classics, others are familiar in certain circles — even the idea of a movie I’ve seen too many previews for but have no wish to watch can be the base of an exercise.
  • Stories I actively want to mess with. Sometimes it’s less about the exercise than the template story — maybe I want to see how I could fix something that irritated me, or work out what made me like it so much by changing elements until I identify the key components. (For a lot of people, these are also source urges for fan fiction and fan art.)
  • “Testing ground” stories. I do have a couple stories of my own I use as test cases. They are old manuscripts based on ideas that never quite worked, from long ago, and have been so handled and worn out and outgrown that I don’t mind doing terrible things to the base material.
  • Images. Illustrators can use all the stories above exactly as for writing. But sometimes there’ll be a single image or classic illustration that you can use in the same way as a template story.

I’ve posted a lot of writing and art exercises on here. (Note: exercises are usually at the end of the relevant posts — follow either the writing exercise or art exercise link, as almost all exercises work for both.) But it’s also worth trying other exercises you encounter out on a template story. Or try making your own exercises.

Here are some uses for a template story, as a starting point:

  • Playing around:
    • Doing scales
    • Aesthetic tests
    • Fanfiction
    • Messing around and having fun.
    • Test driving concepts
    • Distraction and procrastination
    • Play-writing
  • Working though:
    • Examples and demonstrations of concepts (e.g. for workshops)
    • Watching what happens to a story when you make a dramatic shift
    • Feeling for the levers and gears of a story
    • Tweaking visuals
    • Understanding what an existing story is doing, and how (in order to better understand that story, or the technique)
    • Learning to read as a writer/look at stories as an illustrator
  • Mythic palette:
    • Borrowing powerful narrative structures and approaches
    • Leaning on metaphor
    • Guiding choices in an unrelated story/image (e.g., using the characters in a fairytale to suggest the character and placement of chimneys on a skyline, or using words from Rapunzel to describe vines)
    • Lifting aesthetics and imagery
    • Ransacking for material/inspirations
    • Retelling
    • Using to strengthen or provide a point of comparison to another story

If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, here are some options!

7 thoughts on “The usefulness of template stories

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