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May222013

terrifying audience

The head of literacy at my sons' school has asked me to give a workshop to Year 3. Sixty eight-year olds. I'm slightly frightened, as I can barely cope with one. However, I intend to keep them busy - sorry, as I'm writing this, a black cat is staring at me from outside the window; disconcerting - as I was saying, I intend to keep them busy by posing the question: 'What makes a good story?'

I am hoping they'll afford me some insight... These children, I should add, studied A Midsummer Night's Dream last term, and were so inspired, they wrote their own sonnets. My 8-year old son was so fascinated - by the story and the language - that I bought him the movie version (starring Rupert Everett so we were all happy). He watched it from start to end. This is a child who is picky about books, and reading - he favours Ottoline, some Dahl, The Secret Garden, and not much else. But Shakey made the grade!

I think we know a good story instinctively. Often it's easier to identify what is not a good story, because you're left feeling flat and dissatisfied. The structure, the plot, the characters - all are essential components, and if one is lacking, the rest suffers. But after that, what makes a story good is personal - it has to resonate with you. My 8-year old, a keen footballer, is unmoved by the many books he's given to read about football, and yet, for some reason, he is mesmerised by the tale of sad, cold, orphan Mary, who is sent from India to live with her strange uncle in Yorkshire, and who becomes friends with a robin.

This is the power of the story, isn't it - that when you write, you never know who you will reach, or exactly why. (I remember reading in the Sunday Mirror, quite a few years ago, that a serial killer, interviewed from prison, had listed one of my novels - hand on heart, this is the truth - I think it was Being Committed - as one of his favourites.) I probably won't be mentioning that tomorrow.

I suspect I will start by pinching an idea from John Le Carre. Interviewed in The Times recently, he compared the sentences, 'The cat sat on the mat' with 'The cat sat on the dog's mat.'  One was just an observation, he said, the other was the beginning of a story.... 

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