It’s how a story starts.
Once upon a time: four words which make us wait with bated breath for a consuming story.
We settle down at the words, our mouths and minds agape, for what is about to unfurl.
Once upon a time there was a lady in a tower, or a deeply unpromising youngest son, go the fairytales. Once there was a servant girl, or a garden full of witch’s lettuces.
Later, the promise settles beneath the surface. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, ” the fifty year old “It was love at first sight,” or a favourite of mine, “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black…”
I came upon a perfect Once Upon A Time today, fresh out of life itself, starting out on its journey by word of mouth from fact to folklore.
Once upon a time, in the far Western reaches of our rugged little island, there lived a hard-working farmer.
Farmer Thomas had been born and raised in the family farmhouse. Folks in that part of the island get their feet under the table, and they don’t take to gadding about changing houses.
He was a kindly soul, helping all in his path. And his kindness extended to animals. His favourite part of every day was his early morning journey, clad in wellington boots, to feed the animals.
Always at his heels was his constant companion: Monty the blackmustachioed dog.
One morning early, Farmer Thomas put on his wellington boots, marshalled Monty, and began the climb up the hill to see the animals.
But he never got there.
For out of nowhere on that inhospitable hillside in the semi-darkness, he was suddenly lifted, violently, off his feet and hurled up into the air.
And in that freeze-frame moment which so often accompanies cataclysm, he carefully noted the silhouette of his wellingtons against the sky, and the ground somewhere beneath his head.
He remembered nothing more. All went black.
Twenty minutes later, Farmer-Thomas was woken. He was brought to consciousness by the dishevelled, plentiful whiskers of Monty.
The dog waited patiently, encouraging the farmer – shaken and shocked- to drag himself painfully to his feet and walk back to the house.
None of the doctors at the county hospital could work out what was wrong with him: they scratched their heads and ordered scans.
The scans confirmed that he had been the victim of a bolt of lightning. If it had not been for his wellington boots, he would not have survived.
And after four days the Farmer went home to the little dog who had helped him. And they both lived happily ever after.
A tall tale. Formulaic. Timeless. True, loosely, actually.
A great event looms in the lives of many of my writer friends. NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month – commits them to write a novel in a calendar month.
There is great industry, planning plots and devising characters.
It is compelling.
How much to plan? That is the question. We teach storywriting by numbers to our UK youngsters: opening, characters, setting, conflict, growing suspense, climax, relaxing of suspense, resolution, ending.
They often find it tedious.
Because storytelling comes from the realm of the subconscious. Our conscious mind should not have too fierce a grip.
A storyteller walks out on an enchanted lake. Look down: and you will sink without a trace, all the way down to stark reality.
Today I met an author who had her books borrowed 16 million times from UK public libraries in the decade 1999-2009.
Jacqueline Wilson writes for children, quite beautifully. Maddie is entranced by her modern books; but most of all by her Victorian heroine, Hetty Feather.
Jacqueline talked about her novel, Sapphire Battersea, today at London’s Foundling Museum.
Someone asked the author a question. Does she map her stories out in detail before she writes them?
Her beginning, she says, is always mapped out. She has ideas about what will happen to her main character – one or two key events. And she has a good idea of how her story should end.
And that’s it. Because, she says, her stories have a life of their own. And the real fun of writing is watching how they take the reins and steer themselves.
If you know precisely how the story is going to turn out, where’s the fun in writing it?
The epic promise of Once Upon A Time: it endures, for both listener and writer. The story strikes us like a bolt of fairytale lightning and sweeps us up into the sky so that our wellingtons are silhouetted against the sky.
It takes control and, on some days, it tells itself. It can change direction when we least expect it.
I wish the whole exuberant clan of November storytellers the bolt of lightning for which they yearn.
Written in response to Side View’s challenge: Once upon a time….they lived happily ever after