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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Once there was a king…

Once there was a king…
How does one build a story from a very basic plot—one that is actually a joke?
As a child, I had often heard this kind of mock story, bandied about  in jest: “Ek that raja, ek thi rani, dono mar gaye, khatam kahani!” Once there was a king. Once there was a queen. Both died. That’s the end of the story.

Now once, as I was casting around for a fresh creative spark to launch a writing workshop, this kahani somehow floated into my mind. A beginning and an ending…pretty banal, true, but worth a try, I thought.
It worked beyond all expectation. First, it brought smiles on the faces of the disinterested group of teachers warily sizing me up. Perhaps they had heard this joke/tale and even if they hadn’t there was something so silly about it that they had to smile at least, if not laugh.
But when we began to fill in what happened in between, I could sense the excitement as they considered the possibilities.
These were some of the questions I posed to them to help to construct the story:

         Who was this king and who was this queen? Rather, what were their names?
·         What did they look like?
·         How old were they when the story begins?
·         What time of the year does the story begin?
·         What day of the week and time of the day?
·         Was the king a good ruler? Or was he a bloodthirsty tyrant or just incompetent?
·         What was the queen like? Kind hearted, generous, religious minded or bad tempered?
·         Did they have children? How many? How old?
·         What were their names?
·         What were these children like? Obedient, respectful, stupid, spoilt, lazy, extravagant?
·         Or did they not have any children at all?
·         Any other family? A wise aunt or a scheming uncle by chance?
·         Where was their kingdom located?
·         What was it named?
·         Was it a prosperous state? Were the people overtaxed? Did law and order prevail?
·         Who were the officials who helped them to run their kingdom?  
·         Is there some major problem confronting the king or the queen or both of them?
·         How are they trying to solve it and who is helping them or working against them?
·         Does this problem contribute to their end?
·         What were the exact circumstances that led to the king and queen’s death?
·         Were these purely external circumstances or was any one of them or both responsible   through  
        their actions for their tragic fate?
·         Does some event occur right in the beginning of the story that suggests what might happen at  
        the end?
·         Was their death caused by illness, or at the hands of their enemies?
·         Were they shot, poisoned or stabbed? Or maybe someone used a magic spell?  
·         Does their end suggest a new beginning or does it mean total destruction of the kingdom?

Many more such questions can be posed, of course, and suggestions made but these were enough to set them on the path. And how did the exercise work? There was not enough time to write a complete story. But by using these pointers some of them were able to flesh out the “Ek tha raja, ek thi rani…” outline enough to suggest that the finished product could be a gripping tale.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Right Idea

There is one question I never fail to encounter on school visits—from where do you get ideas for your stories? I usually say from incidents in my own life, from stray remarks, newspaper items or even random happenings on the roadside.  
When I narrate the real event that led to my short story “Fire” the excitement is almost palpable. It’s the forest fire that is as absorbing, I can see, as the broken friendship and the moral dilemma that resulted from it. But how many such experiences does one have to draw on, almost like a ready-made story?
That’s why I like to share something else, something I read about the creative spark behind Arnold Bennett’s well-known novel The Old Wives’ Tale—the sight of a fat old lady with grotesque gestures he caught sight of in a Paris restaurant. He states in his introduction that he began to reflect: "This woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from these ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities. Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she."
Arnold Bennett is not widely read today, and I must have been around fifteen when I read this book, but for some reason I’ve never been able to forget those words. And marvel that the mere sighting of a ridiculous looking woman could be behind a work considered a classic.
I did not realise it at the time, but I sensed Bennett’s deep empathy towards another human being. That’s what left such an indelible impression. As he says further…“Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque—far from it!—but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.”
There is no dearth of ideas for fiction. We also encounter occasional moments of drama in our lives, which possess the potential to be turned into a gripping story. But in the end, I feel, it’s a writer’s ability to glimpse the charming young girl in the grotesque old woman that leads to the creation of a masterpiece, her/his sensitivity to the pathos inherent in the transformation from charming young girl to grotesque old woman.