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In the March programme of Writers on Radio we focused on autobiography and family stories and I shared this method that traditional storytellers use when they begin to work with a story. Because we work with traditional material that already exists, rather than writing it from scratch as in most creative writing, storytellers need to find a way to take the tale we are working with and craft it into our own words, with our own setting and characters. I thought that this would be a useful method to learn if you are turning autobiographical anecdotes, oral history and family stories into a piece of writing, whether it is intended to be fact-based writing or fiction. However, you can also use this method on pieces of your own writing that need a revamp, where you need to strip it back and start again.

This is called the Bare-bones Method and it works particularly well with shorter length pieces so you might want to work with a short story or a chapter or incident within a longer work.  You start by gathering all the information you need. In storytelling we would find several different versions of a traditional tale that we like – there are hundreds of different versions of ‘Cinderella’ under different names for example. If you are working on autobiography you might write all you can remember about an incident, gather any records and documentary evidence such as photos and perhaps talk to other people involved so that you have all the facts in one place. For a family story similarly you might gather all the versions you can in one place.

Then you go through the story and write out a series of bullet points that are just the actions, who did what without any descriptions, emotions or setting etc. You should be left with a series of very simple statements. If you are not sure what to include, you are aiming for the simplest possible answers to the ‘W words’ – , ‘who, what, why and where’. If you have different versions of the same tale you would go through each version comparing them to the list of ‘bones’. Are any actions in a different order, are there extra incidents? This is a really helpful exercise if you are dealing with different versions of the same story – often the differences are in the details and ‘colour’ rather than the basic plot and this will help you work out the basic structure of the narrative.

You will probably find it easy to take a short story or anecdote down to 10 points but be brutal and take it down to 4 or 5 at most. This is more difficult than it sounds particularly if you are dealing with a much-loved tale or family story where you will want to cling to the details, or a particular person’s version. Take them out for now. Make a note of the information you feel you can’t lose and put it to one side, you can put it back later if you really need to. As well as sorting out the plot into a clear sequence this can help distance you from personal stories, giving a bit of objectivity as you assess it as a plot.

As an example, here are the bones of a traditional story.

  1. A widower who has one daughter remarries.
  2. The stepmother mistreats the daughter.
  3. The daughter is given help to go to a royal ball.
  4. The prince falls in love with her but she runs away leaving a token.
  5. The prince finds her using the token and they marry.

Of course these are the bare bones to the story ‘Cinderella’ that I mentioned earlier.

To begin with at least, keep the actions in chronological order. If you want to play around with that and tell a story backwards for example, you can change the order later in the editing and rewriting. Many stories also have subplots that don’t affect the main storyline, take them out and set them aside so that you are left with just the skeleton of a single story. You can work with them separately and put them into their own bare bones so you are clear on their structure too. Once you have done all that you can look at all the bullet points and decide if they are really necessary to the plot. Are they in the right order, can anything move? Is the sequence of events clear and logical? Are there any episodes that don’t actually advance the plot but just add colour? In traditional tales there are often three repeats of the same sequence of events with just one difference to the last one – two brothers fail at the quest then their youngest brother succeeds; Cinderella goes to the ball in three different dresses and leaves on time twice but gets caught out the third time and has to run. This technique can be really tedious in writing if you are not careful. Do you need the repeats, are you using them to make a point, or are you just following the story you have been given? Do you need all the characters? You will notice in the bare-bones version of Cinderella above I don’t mention the two stepsisters that appear in some versions because they don’t serve the plot at all – do you need them?

At this point it will make a difference as to whether you are intending to write a fact-based account, biography for example, or if you are going to use a real event for the basis of some fiction writing. For fact-based writing you will want to leave the basic structure alone once you are clear about the sequence of events, but for fiction you might find it works better if you move things around or you may add or remove episodes to make a point or balance the plot. You might want to change the point of view and make a different character the protagonist, or change the gender of a character. How does the story change if the daughter becomes a son or the widower a widow? With each change go through the bones again and make sure they still make sense.

Once you have the sequence of facts you can start to put flesh back on the bones. You might want to stay fairly close to the original setting and characters, particularly if you are writing autobiography. But if you are using fact as a springboard to fiction writing or rewriting a traditional story you might want to take the plot that you have and give it a new setting, perhaps move it to a different historical era or a different part of the country. Does the story remain a fantasy, with magic getting Cinders to the ball, or do you move it to the real world?

Even if you keep most of the original setting you can still change details. In my example of ‘Cinderella’ above I mention a token. Of course we will all be used to the version of the story where the token she leaves behind is a glass slipper, but actually that was only one of many different versions. Often it was a ring, or a glove or a pair of fur boots. It could be anything and that is the kind of example that you might want to change to make a story your own.

More on how to do to flesh out your plot in Part Two.

Lisa Kenwright March 2020