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The Form of a Story: A Kind of “Cup” That Holds the Content

We’re guilty of eavesdropping on a conversation between Kathi Appelt and Lindsey Lane about their upcoming workshop, Unlocking Your Story: Forms and Genres, A Mashup. It’s happening October 24-27 and their special guest is Sona Charaipotra. Thanks for letting us listen in!


L2: Kathi, what would we say is the idea behind this workshop?

KA: First off, we wanted to do something that would be valuable for any writer in any genre.  So, when the notion of  “any genre” entered into the conversation, we realized that there were plenty of things to talk about—character, structure, voice, etc.  However, in general, those topics are widely covered.  But what about form?

I first studied form as a graduate student when I picked up a copy of Susanne Langer’s book, Feeling and Form. That was where I began to think of the form of a story as a kind of “cup” that holds the content.  Sort of like a frame, but more like a container. The shape of the container, the way it falls out on the page, all of that impacts the story itself.  But it also does something a little more mysterious: if the story is in the correct form, it actually gives rise to feeling/emotions. The form, in other words, serves as a subtext.  So, for me, I wanted to invite participants to take a story and actually try it out in different forms–poetry, short story, script, etc.–to see what happens.

Thinking about form naturally led to consideration of genres–picture books, young adult, middle grade, nonfiction–to study the ways that the content impacts the form.

So, what we’ll be doing then is looking at (1) the ways that form gives rise to feeling, and (2) the ways that content informs the structure.

I know it sounds a bit abstract, and at a certain level it will be.  But on another level it’s all about experimentation, and looking below the surface of the story itself, while at the same time recognizing that the surface is part of the story too.

It’s going to be very cool.

KA: So now my question to you. Fortunately you—master of the short story, writer of plays, essays, articles, television/film scripts, and brilliant teacher—agreed to co-lead with me. Because of your own experience in writing across genres and forms, what are your hopes and goals for the workshop?

LL: My hope for the workshop is for participants to take a manuscript or even a section of a manuscript, one that is rebuffing their efforts to go deeper, and crack open that stuck place so the story can pulse again.

I know we’ve both had the experience when we are starting a story that it could go in a zillion different directions. It feels wild and exciting. With each word, choice and page, the story starts to set. Sometimes, it loses its juice. The story becomes one thing after another. How do we look at that story and allow ourselves permission to shake it up, turn it upside and find a form that supports the energy of the story?

It is a marvelous time for storytelling right now. I feel like we are in a golden age of rule breaking and genre bending. And I think readers are terrifically sophisticated. I would love for writers in this workshop to bring a draft of a story or an idea of a story and walk away with a big permission slip to tell that story in a form that gives the writer and the story more vitality and energy.

Back to you, my dear friend, how are we going to accomplish that not very small feat? What kinds of cracking tools will we use to assist these dear writers in finding the form that supports and breathes life into their stories?

KA:  One of the most important cracking tools (I love that image, by the way) is taking a good look at some excellent work by our peers.  Some titles that I hope we can discuss, and that we recommend workshoppers consider before they arrive are:

WHAT I LEAVE BEHIND, by Alison McGhee.

LONG WAY DOWN, by Jason Reynolds

BROWN GIRL DREAMING, by Jacquelyn Woodson

COUNTDOWN and REVOLUTION, by Deborah Wiles

LIPS TOUCH, THREE TIMES, by Laini Taylor

SHOUT, by Laurie Halse Anderson

VINCENT AND THEO: THE VAN GOGH BROTHERS, by Deborah Heiligman

JUMPED, by Rita Williams Garcia

Of course, everyone should read EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN, by Lindsey!

I realize, looking at that list that those are all largely YA titles—a mix of fiction and nonfiction, written in prose, poetry, graphics.  Do you have titles for the younger set that you recommend?  I’m thinking a series, like Debbie Michiko Florence’s “Jasmine Toguchi” would be fun to consider.  What else, oh sage of Story?  What else?

LL: I think some of the best crackers are George Saunders for short story (“Tenth of December” and “Victory Lap”) and Kari Anne Holt for middle grade (RHYME SCHEMER). And let’s not forget the “Baby Mouse” books by Jennifer and Matthew Holmes for graphic novels.  I also think reading poetry and examining scene work in television and film can fire the imagination and serve the writer to think outside conventional form and push us to look at what form will serve the story and bring that subtext alive.

Because this is a weekend workshop, I’d love to ask our participants to do focused readings, which we can dig into together at Highlights. But I would also like to provide the time and space for them to crack open their own work and share it. Not just once. But two or three times so they can get a sense of how changing form might serve their story. What do you think?

KA:  Yes! We’ll do some close reading, some re-rendering, and some fun experimentation, so that when all of us leave, we’ll have some new ways of looking at our stories.  We will have done some cracking!

I love it. So I hope that all of our participants will get their hands on at least some of the above-mentioned titles, gather up some of their own works-in-progress, or at least an idea that they want to explore, and then we’ll all “jump write in.”

Any final words?

LL: Only this…So, my eavesdropping friends, join us. Bring us your stuck, your weary, your hard-worn pages and let’s rediscover the pulse that drew you to the page. Let’s crack your manuscript open, put it in different forms and see what happens. See you on October 24.


Unlocking Your Story: Forms and Genres, A Mashup
October 24-27
Faculty: Kathi Appelt & Lindsey Lane
Special Guest: Sona Charaipotra
register now

Posted on: August 5, 2019

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