Manchester Art Gallery

Writers Takeover ii

Mapping the narrative in artworks

Carole Page – English teacher, teacher educator, gallery educator, writer

Over a series of three, repeated workshops, I have been trialling the use of story maps as a creative approach to developing writing drawn from a single artwork. The workshop activities begin with close looking, using elements of line, tone, light and shade to explore the painting and what they see, in close detail. These activities are designed to ‘slow the gaze’. Students are often surprised at what they do find in the painting; all the features that had been missed in a cursory glance. Discussions about tone and light and shade, lead on to thoughts about mood, atmosphere and genre.

The interrogation of the painting using ‘impossible’ questions always generates some interesting, potential storylines. I define ‘impossible’ questions as those which you cannot possibly know the answer to unless you leap into the picture and make something up. Students don’t answer their own questions, which I think helps them to be a bit more cavalier about issues of reality. They begin to leave behind what they can actually see and start to think about the unseen and the hidden. All the groups in the workshops have generated some startlingly original and unexpected questions but my favourite was: Where is the girl? In our close examination of the painting the students had identified both figures in the painting as male so the question provoked puzzled looks and shrugs.  When pushed to answer the question though, there was a palpable buzz as someone said, ‘She could be on the boat or on the train going over the bridge.’ The feeling of immersion in the world of the painting is akin to dramatic, spontaneous improvisation where you have to go with the flow and the story goes with you.

In a similar way, the character profile questions begin to open up further possibilities of action, motivation, setting and genre. This was most noticeable when we discussed how old their character might be. The question, ‘What would it mean for your story if your character was 420 years old instead of 42, prompted puzzled looks and then realisation that their character could be a ghost, a vampire, a time-traveller or a super-hero. This then led to a re-consideration of genre and it was noticeable that a number of students chose to locate their story in the fantasy genre, something not immediately suggested by our interrogation of the painting itself.

These activities generate a lot of ideas and possibilities, so why do I feel that a story map might offer a crucial element in this planning process?

Cressida Cowell (How to Train your Dragon) notes that:

A map is … a story starter, an idea generator. Drawing a map is a magnificent way of communicating with your unconscious … When I draw the map of my imaginary world, it will tell me the direction I want to be going in, even when I don’t yet know myself

Cowell, C. The Writer’s Map, 2018:85

What lies beyond the frame?

This idea of the map directing the thinking on an almost unconscious level, was an interesting idea to explore. We had the initial setting for the story, located in the painting; a gloomy urban scene of waterways, barges and a rusted iron bridge. These elements would certainly feature but there were more questions to be asked, which a map might answer. What was beyond the frame? Where did the bridge lead from and where was it going? One of the workshop participants suggested it had been blown up and so was only half a bridge. What were the implications of this idea? Another participant suggested that the bridge was the passageway to another dimension; perhaps the view from the bridge on the other side was very different to what we could see in the painting. These ideas suggested that the opportunity to draw a map beyond the frame of the painting, might open up new directions of travel for the characters and plot.

From listening to the students and looking at the maps they drew, I do think there was evidence, at times, of the story and the map working in synergy.  Some students drew quite elaborate maps and then proceeded to label them in detail so that the action of the story proceeded hand in hand with the drawing. One workshop participant said that as he drew the map, his ideas for the story changed considerably with a shift from an industrial landscape into a university town (complete with a university of the Dark Arts).

It had appeared that naming the different locations had proved time-consuming and a stumbling block for some in the first workshop. However, I wanted the students to provide place names which might be suggestive of the mood, atmosphere, history or function of the location, as I thought this might serve as a visual backstory which would ground the narrative in a sense of ‘reality’. David Mitchell notes that his maps provide research ideas for his writing even when the stories change course and the original maps are not used.

The knowledge gained is still present in passing references, in what we sense the characters know, in the absence of avoidances and in an authority of tone

Mitchell, D. The Writer’s Map 2018:123

The map as an organisational schema of the story

Consequently, in the following workshops, we spent more time at the start of the session identifying features in the original painting and recording words which conveyed a sense of mood, tone and atmosphere. Asking the pupils in pairs to use this vocabulary to name the features in the painting: bridge, dock, boat, river, meant that they already had some established locations to transfer to their map later in the session. This activity emerged quite fluidly from looking closely at the painting and so did not end up feeling like a vocabulary ‘add-on’ but a useful extension.

As the students identified and named their locations, new possibilities opened up that suggested their characters might travel far from this grimy canal, both mentally and physically. An active volcano appeared on one map, a bazaar on another; a structure like a giant King chess piece with the label: No game, no life, sounded ominous; alien crop circles made an appearance and, in a rather sinister vein, an underground ‘Kiddie Secret Science Lab’ promised danger and jeopardy, though for whom, it was not yet clear.

Importantly, these maps provided talking points, leading into more detailed discussion of plot, sometimes opening up ideas, other times, pinning them down. This last point, the need to begin to fix ideas into a coherent narrative from all the possibilities emerging, led into the last map activity.

The students were asked to identify with a cross, where on the map their story began. This would provide the setting for their opening paragraph. A dotted line would then show the journey their character made across the map. Some pupils chose to label significant points with actions, providing, in effect a skeleton plan of the story: Stole some valuables; Failed boat jump; Police chase; Running from cars; Police lost him; Runs the other way; Climbs. Others identified the sequence of events by numbering their locations. What the map was providing was a largely visual, organisational schema of their story that would offer a narrative structure.

Reflecting on using a map as an organising structure, David Mitchell writes:

In one chapter of my novel, Black Swan Green, the thirteen year old protagonist, Jason, is required to race across a row of back gardens in order to become a member of a shadowy village gang.  To avoid repetition, the gardens needed to be different in character – some manicured, others neglected, one full of gnomes … On nearby pages the numbered houses have their own sections listing the names, ages, social class and personalities of their residents, but it’s the illustrative map that serves as the chapter’s organizing principle.

Mitchell, D. The Writer’s Map 2018:123

It seemed to me that this was one of the key functions of the story maps the pupils had drawn in that it provided an organizing principle for their narratives.

In my final post on this topic, I will draw on the students’ evaluations and my own observations to consider the success of using story maps in the workshop and how the activity might be further developed and evaluated.

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