Jun 21 2015

Campfire Stories

Two of my grandkids have been staying with me for the last few days. Friday night I started a fire outside and we looked at the stars when it got dark. (Seeing the moon, Jupiter, and Venus all in the same part of the sky right before sunset was really cool!)

I didn’t have any smores makings, which saddened the kids, but they wanted to tell scary stories. As each took their turns trying to be the scariest I noticed a couple of things about how children tell stories. First, there was a tendency to rely heavily on Deux Ex Machina, Macguffins, and other plot devices. Take, for example, this conversation while my six year old granddaughter was telling a rambling shaggy-dog story:

A____: “And then a dinosaur came up.”

Me: “Wait. Where did the dinosaur come from?” (There had been no dinosaurs in her story up to that point. Not to mention any story reason why a dinosaur should take part in the narrative.)

A____: “The east.”

Next, there is the whole rambling thing. When the above conversation occurred I was already confused about what was happening in the story. Even her older brother was all over the map with his story. I’m guessing this is because both of them were making up their stories as they went along. No plan. No real plot, but plenty of plot bits cribbed from other stories they had heard.

(Plot Bits, the breakfast serial cereal of best-selling writers!)

Finally, lacking an understanding of how to increase story tension through scary moments where the audience’s fear arises from the protagonist not knowing what is going on, they both tried to raise tension by introducing scary things. Which, given the previous problems with plot devices and rambling meant they tended to keep introducing more scary things and/or amplifying the scariness of the scary things already introduced. After some discussion about this we came to the following conclusion:

Resolved (by me & 2 grandkids): the perfect scary campfire story has a zombie cyborg bear with a chainsaw for one paw. It goes ‘rawr, rawr.’

From all of this you might conclude that kids, my grandchildren in particular and maybe children in general, suck as storytellers.

I disagree. Certainly they could improve their storytelling abilities. If they did this every night, I’m sure their stories would get better over time as they told them over and over; keeping the parts that worked and abandoning the parts that didn’t. That’s how we humans get better at anything. It’s why there is that whole ‘one million words‘ thing for aspiring writers.

Yet what those kids were doing was the oldest and purest form of storytelling: sitting around a fire in the dark and trying to frighten each other. An activity as old as humanity and, possibly, one of those foundational traits separating humans from whatever we were before we got all homo sapiened out. (I believe gossip is another such trait and very much related to the first. I sometimes think stories of any stripe, whether about bears or about your neighbors, are the reason we turned language from something useful for describing where the good hunting is into something useful for creating art.)

You see, there are no rules for campfire stories. No acquiring editor is going reject a campfire story because it over-uses a stereotype or lacks dramatic tension or has uneven pacing or the characters aren’t interesting or the first paragraph is proof the writer has no idea what they are doing and there is no reason to read further.

At its core a campfire story is only about three things:

  1. The storyteller
  2. The audience
  3. The context of sitting outside, in the dark, around a flickering campfire with who knows what lurking outside your insignificant circle of light

There is nothing else there. Nothing else that needs to be there. Each campfire story is a moment in time. A moment of being, and then it is gone. The story no longer exists after the storyteller says, “The end.”

No one can ever tell that story again. If you try, you will end up telling a different story. This is because campfire stories are an improvisational art form. Making it up as you go along. Certainly there are some storytellers better at doing this than others, but it is a game anyone can play at any level of proficiency. (Unlike music, where it can take you years to get to the point you can make it up as you go long.)

I’ve often said we are our stories. I mean this on an individual basis; that each of is, to some extent, defined by the stories we tell others. Whether true our not, those stories are how we choose to expose our inner selves to the world.

Campfire stories are different.

For campfire stories the ‘we’ is collective. Campfire stories define everyone who has ever sat there in the dark wondering if maybe, just maybe, there really is a zombie cyborg bear with a chainsaw for one paw waiting out there.

Wait! Listen? Did I just hear a “Rawr, rawr?”