Avoiding Superfluous Details in Stories

In a comment to this post:
John said:
“I’m working on Matava’s “Talks Too Much” and “Refrigerator” in my two levels, and the students want to linger on one situation, and come up with all kinds of crazy details. This is great because they are excited about it, but it forces me to go out of bounds too often. But I sense that the kids will lose some interest if I wrap something up too quickly and artificially in order simply to move on. Any thoughts about keeping the pace going, but keeping them engaged?”
Anne Matava answered this question with a subtle answer that reveals how difficult it is to move the plot of the story along at a good pace, keeping interest high, while at the same time avoiding going out of bounds and thus bogging down the story in a bunch of new words, which is a bad thing to do in storytelling. Here is what Anne said:
“In “Talks Too Much”, your man gets kicked out of wherever he is, sending him by default to the next location. Let’s say he’s at the movies, talking in Laotian about nuclear waste to Britney Spears. (By the way, with first-year students, I wouldn’t have picked nuclear waste from the pool of suggestions, as it is cumbersome to say in German, My guy would more likely be talking in Italian about Pop-Tarts. Somewhere in one of Ben’s books he writes about the use of an English word to give the brain some relief. I find it also helps the students to keep the focus on the new structures. But that’s just me.)
“Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah, at the movies. So you want to move your story along, you just introduce the conflict. The manager shows up. In my classes, when the manager/parent/principal/police shows up, it shifts the energy. Now we don’t want to add details. We want to see what is going to happen to our man. In fact, being the sadistic little cretins that we are, we can’t wait to kick his ass out. “Get out!” is so fun to say. Now our man is happily moving along to the next location, and with any luck some kid will suggest the library, which is a perfect location for this story.
“You’re right, the kids will lose interest if you move it along too quickly. It is a tightrope act. What I have to do is to allow those wacky details in judiciously. Use them sparingly, like dried herbs. I was testing a new script yesterday, and it was dull as hell. It had our man trying to buy a shirt for the prom, and every place he went the shirt didn’t fit. Ho-hum. When I asked the kids where he went for the 3rd location, someone said “the stone age.” Bingo! We found a time machine, our man went to the stone age, and the story came back to life. Before that I was guilty of no herbs at all in the soup. In my defense, it was the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, and the day before a massive snowstorm.
“My stories end up pretty sparse, but usually with one or two ridiculously-described items or characters. A boy can fly, and he flies to the Lady Gaga concert, big deal, right? Except that he flies with rainbow elephant ears. (What’s not to like about Regenbogenelefantenohren?) The kids hear “flies to” about a gazillion times, with not much else to clutter up the minds, except that from time to time they get to joyfully answer the question, what kind of ears does our man have?
“Ben is right when he says, less is best. A sparse script can be brought to life by enthusiastic but compliant actors. Dialog adds interest as well. In my experience, allowing the class to load up the story with a bunch of admittedly funny but hard to incorporate details wins me cool points with the students, but doesn’t really facilitate acquisition.
Parent: Susie, how was school today?
Susie: It was great! In German class we made the coolest story! Justin Bieber went to the moon in a solar-powered submarine made out of marshmallows. On the way he picked up Dick Cheney hitchhiking, and Mr. Cheney peed his pants while reciting the Bill of Rights backwards in Dutch!
Parent: How do you say all of that in German?
Susie: Beats me.
“It’s not easy to strike that perfect balance. For me, it’s just that challenge that keeps me interested in my work, after all these decades.”



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