Sunday, March 02, 2008

Cat's Cradle

What does making a Cat's Cradle--a game that children play with string--have to do with writing (aside from serving as yet another way to procrastinate)?

Well, a few weeks ago, while preparing a lesson for my local library's young writers workshop, I was looking for a way to help the children better understand the structure of stories.

Exploring structure, I felt, would give the children a chance to look at their own stories and help them figure out why a story did or didn't work.

We began our discussion by talking about movies (because the session fell just after the winter break), and I asked the children what made them want to stay in their seats to watch a movie.

I wanted the children to think about what makes a movie compelling. And, as I'd hoped, the conversation eventually turned to plot and what a character wants, and, ultimately, to structure.

Once we began talking about movies, though, I realized there was an even better way to talk about structure. Instead of asking what the children found compelling about movies, I asked if they'd seen any movie previews that looked interesting.

Movie previews--those short teasers that appear before the start of the main movie--are a wonderful way to examine structure. That's because in the brief clips, movie makers try to hook viewers instantly. And to hook a viewer, they must reveal the essential elements of their story's structure.

So, I asked the children to think about how movie-makers create compelling previews. How do they capture a viewer's interest and condense the story-line and the character's struggle into, say, three or four minutes? (Even the marvelous short clip of Steve Martin, who poses as Inspector Clouseau and shows great irritation when his cell phone rings before realizing it's his own, is an interesting example of a story-line with a strong structure.)

In order to succeed, movie makers need to understand the structure of a story and how tension holds the elements of a story in place... just as the tension of string holds a Cat's Cradle in place.

"If the tension is too loose," I explained to the children, weaving a circle of string in my hands into a loose Cat's Cradle, "then the cradle falls off your fingers, just as your attention wanders if there's too little tension or suspense in your story."

"And if the tension is too taut," I said, pushing my hands apart to tighten the string, "well, then the cradle can break... just as the tension in a story, when it's too taut, can cause a reader to stop believing in the story because it's too incredible."

Using segments that I cut from a skein of colorful yarn, we played with Cat's Cradles, exploring together how to get the tension just right... not too taut, not too loose.

And after a while, we moved back to pens and paper to experiment with creating tension--not too much, not too little--in our stories.

It was an unusual way to approach the subject, but that simple piece of string helped the children learn a new way to think about writing suspenseful stories...stories with structure.

The next time you're stuck on a story--maybe because you don't feel there's enough tension, maybe because there's too much--why not take out a piece of string and start playing with it?

You never know... the act of working the string in your fingers may, in fact, be all you need to free your imagination so you can uncover the hidden structure of your story.

For information on how to play Cat's Cradle, visit:'s_cradle

And for a few more games to play with string, check out:

And for more information about structure and tension in stories, take a look at:

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