Intuition in Storytelling

Q. You’ve called QL3 and QL4 – where and with whom – the “power questions”. Can you elaborate?

A. Many years ago while watching Susan Gross teach us about storytelling in many workshops, I just noticed it. I noticed that a story would “take off” when those questions were asked. It took some careful observing, but I figured it out.

Q. So then what came out of that awareness?

A. In my own teaching I noticed that the general run-of-the-mill questions that I asked never got much traction, or even any quality answers from my students. But I noticed that whenever I got to those two questions of where and with whom I noticed more spark.

Q. Can you define what “spark” means in how you use it there?

A. I noticed how the story just seemed to gather energy whenever those questions were asked. I was always on the lookout in class for anything that would build interest in a story, and those questions did it. So I identified them as critical questions in tableau and story development for the Star. This was true ten years before I even invented the Star, back when I was doing TPRS.

Q. I would never think that those two questions were key in storytelling…

A. Well, we see the same thing in novels if you think about it.

Q. How so?

A. Novels depend almost entirely on the three elements of character development, setting and plot. For example, look at a Steinbeck novel. His works depends heavily on his great ability to describe places.  I would that say much of Steinbeck’s genius lies in this very ability to evoke and develop those California settings.

Q. And the same is true of character development, right? His characters are unforgettable.

A. Absolutely. So, we can say that Steinbeck’s genius lies in his ability to create truly compelling settings and of course characters. And those are the where and with whom parts of the Create phase of the Star – where and with whom.

Q. And then the other key element in a novel is action. How does that fit into what you are describing?

A. The way I see it that the plot comes out of, emerges from, as it were, the setting and the characters. When you read the first few chapters of a Steinbeck novel he first focuses heavily on setting – usually the Salinas Valley – and then his characters.

Q. So plot emerges from location and the characters.

A. I’m not an expert, but I see that happening in his novels.

Q. So you are saying that without first developing a deep and rich location, in the Salinas Valley, and without first doing detailed character development, Steinbeck’s novels would lack something.

A. Yes, think of the character development in the Red Pony, to give just one example, of Jody and the Tiflins and especially Billy Buck. The plot wouldn’t display its greatness in that story without that setting and those great, really unforgettable, characters.

Q. So to say it in one sentence, can we say that the setting and the characters evoke, if you will, the story?

A. Exactly. And in our work in creating stories with our students everything depends on what we produce right there, still in the tableau phase of QL3 and QL4.

Q. Then how exactly does that relate to our work in QL3 and QL4?

A. Well my point here is that it’s the same thing as with the novels. Do you know how we are always, in QL3 and QL4, trying to figure out if we should stop after QL4 or venture forth into QL5?

Q. Yes, exactly.

A. And isn’t that what we are doing all the way from QL2, wondering if a story will happen or just fizzle out into a tableau?

Q. Right.

A. So we can say that whether we get a story going out of the first three questioning levels actually depends on what we decide in QL2 re: main character, in QL3 re: setting and in QL4 re: any other characters. This reflects our point about the novels. QL2 and QL4 – both of them – provide the characters and QL 3 provides the setting, and then if we decide the quality of those three QLs is high enough, then we would decide to go for a story in QL5 and QL6. This would then create, via the problem and solution, the plot and so we can see how the quality of the plot would depend entirely on the quality of what we got from our students in QL2 through QL4.

Q. So the Star is really just a reflection of how novels or any stories work?

A. Yes. It mirrors good story-telling.

Q. But the issue I see is that we can’t plan any of this QL2-QL4 information out. Steinbeck has the luxury of being able to tend to his story, to ruminate about things, to throw some pages away if he doesn’t like them, working behind the scenes and hiding his work from his readers, as it were, whereas we have to decide all those details on the spot when we are making up a story with our students.

A. Yes, that puts pressure on us that no novelist or short story writer ever has on them.

Q. So what to do?

A. Well, if there is an answer to that question, it has to do with activating a part of our teaching personalities that I have always felt was the most important thing in the entire storytelling process anyway – using and making the most out of our intuitions.

Q. How so?

A. Well, we can’t plan and we can’t know what is going to happen in the Create Phase of the Star. There just isn’t any time to plan. We’re not novelists and we can’t do that. 

Q. That’s true.

A. So whether we start from an image developed in the Square, or from a student card or OWI or ICI, those four source images that we use before getting into QL3, we just can’t know what is going to happen, who our characters are in QL2 and QL4 are going to be and where our story will take place in QL3. We just don’t know.

Q. Right.

A. So would you not agree that in this work we always have to listen to the suggestions to our questions about those things and kind of keep a running tab of the answers and just feel what is going on?

Q. Yes. 

A. Well that is how I do it. I just listen to my students’ answers and suggestions as things develop and try to craft a story from all the information. But it’s heavily based on “feeling” the story and not thinking about it.

Q. Why can’t we just think about it and figure out a possible story by thinking? I don’t have a very developed intuition.

A. Good question. The answer is that we don’t have time to figure out what is going to happen. Everything happens too fast in QL2-QL4 for us. There is too much is going on as we teach the class for us to think our way to a good story, if one is even possible.

Q. So this may be one reason so many teachers don’t do storytelling.

A. Yes, and some even pre-plan stories.

Q. That is a disaster for the interest factor.

A. So true!

Q. Then what to do?

A. It’s the same answer as I gave before. We just have to feel the story as it develops, to feel connections between the suggestions made by our students in QL2-QL4 and try to pounce on anything hidden there in the QL2 through QL4 process of asking questions.

Q. I’m not exactly sure what that means.

A. Well, have you noticed how when the kids throw out their suggestions, some kind of resonate with you as you decide to accept certain of them into the developing tableau or story, but others don’t feel right at all so you reject them? Some answers are exciting and you feel some potential in them, and others just go “thud”?

Q. Yes.

A. Well, that’s what I’m referring to.

Q. Can you give an example?

A. OK, so recently I was working with my Saturday group and we were talking about Karyn singing in a boat. So, we had QL2 and QL3 already decided upon there, and we came to QL4 and had to decide with whom Karyn was singing in the boat.

Q. OK.

A. And here is the point. I intuitively knew that in order to be able to move the action from the level of a tableau to a story, I needed a problem. I needed some kind of conflict.

Q. Right.

A. So then in QL4, I asked for suggestions about who might be in the boat with Karyn, correct?

Q. Yes.

A. Well here is an example of how I relied on my intuition when choosing answers from those offered: One of the suggested answers was “with Stromae”. Another was “with a wolf”. Which one do you think would lead to a better story?

Q. I’m not sure. Either one?

A. The wolf was a better answer because if Karyn was singing in the boat with Stromae, they are both singers, and there is no conflict there.

Q. That makes sense.

A. But I don’t have time to think all that through. There is literally no time to think that “wolf” is a better answer, because Karyn singing in a boat with another singers is far less dramatic than her singing in a boat with a wolf. I didn’t have time to think about all that , so I relied on my intuition.

Q. So you tried to decide which answer felt right, is that it?

A. Exactly.

Q. So you are saying that storytelling is less about thinking things through, then, as much as it is about feeling the story as it develops. Is that correct?

A. Yes. And I know that that position is not going to be a very popular position with teachers as they explore this way of teaching languages, because it already is such a big challenge, but honestly, we have to at least look into exploring our intuitive sides if we are going to succeed at this work.

Q. And why is that exactly?

A. Like I said, it is because we just don’t have time right there in the moments of QL2- QL4 to think about anything. We are just too busy thinking of using the various skills, following the questioning levels, shaping the story from all the student suggestions made in class, working with our students as they work at their jobs, etc.

Q. That makes a lot of sense, even though it is kind of a daunting proposition.

A. I know. This work isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. And even if we never get a story going, and only succeed in doing tableaux vivants before moving onto Phase 2, our students are still going to be far ahead of students who are not listening to that kind of comprehensible input in their language classes.

Q. So here’s another question. Could you say that using our intuition also applies to dialogue, which we know is another key component in good storytelling? 

Q. Absolutely! Great point. And if you think about it, dialogue, which happens mainly in QL5 and a little bit in QL6 but not so much, is even more difficult to construct in the story, because the kids aren’t even making suggestions about dialogue like they are in deciding where and with whom in QL2-QL4.

Q. Why is dialogue more difficult to create there in QL5?

A. It always goes back to the same thing – there just isn’t time. We’re trying to come up with a problem in QL5 and then a solution in QL6 and we have either a vague idea of a problem, probably in QL4 which is where we decided to try for a story or bail out to a tableau. Then at almost the same time (just after coming up with the problem actually) we have the option – which we should take – of including dialogue into the mix. What a challenge! What kind of dialogue? What are the words? Who is going to say them?

Q. I certainly agree with that!

A. So the only answer that I can see is that we have to come up with dialogue intuitively, on the spot, with nothing planned, and so dialogues as well can now be seen as one of the big challenges that we face in creating a story as well.

Q. So it’s all intuitive.

A. Pretty much, and we can’t make anything up before a journey around the Star because pre-planned stories never work.



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