Big Top Storytelling

On Sunday I attended the matinee of this year’s Circus Flora performance. I have mentioned before in this blog how much I love having a traditional small circus based in my home town. I strongly urge anyone who can arrange the trip to come to St. Louis to see their show–it is well worth a long drive and a night in a hotel. I will happily offer travel advice to anyone who wants to look into it.

Unlike the Barnum-style mega-circus in an arena, Circus Flora works in a very intimate setting.  It’s like the difference between seeing a band from the 82nd row in a sports stadium and seeing them play in a nightclub. In this day of massive CGI spectaculars, the feel of watching a live act of athletic prowess close enough to nearly touch the performers is amazingly powerful.

Today, though, I want to talk about the circus as a model for storytelling. Because Circus Flora also holds to the traditional European style of making a show a story, rather than just a succession of acts.

This sort of storycrafting could be characterized as Talent Driven Plotting and you can see it in the heirs of the old Carnie traditions–Professional Wrestling, Stage Magic, and Burlesque. (What’s more, I recall reading that several of the classic Pulp writers had Carnie backgrounds, but I’ll be hanged if I can find that reference now.)

The short form is that you start with your “bits” and you build the story around it. Let’s say that you’re putting together a circus season and you’ve managed to secure the services of a high wire act, a troop of trained miniature horses, some tumblers, and a fire eater.

Using those acts to construct your story, you could decide to put on a show involving the search for a mysterious lost city deep in the jungle. You start with the expedition setting out with their pack animals (the miniature horses) and along the way the explorers have to cross a perilous mountain gorge (the high wire act) battle against a tribe of savages (the tumblers) and at last confront the sorcerous high priest in the lost temple (the fire eater.)

Stage magicians use a similar method to script their patter for a show, starting with the tricks and building a monologue around them. Burlesque Shows (if you can find one that follows the traditional model) and old style Variety Acts do the same. Pro Wrestling (which is scripted, but not fake) works up stories from the different athletes particular signature moves.  Many older musicals (White Christmas is a perfect example) were written around a collection of songs.

So how does this apply to writing fiction?

Well, what are your “bits”? What are your strengths as a writer of fiction–what kinds of scenes do you do well? Not just broad categories like “action” or “romance”, but as specific as possible. The “moment where the boy and girl first notice each other” or the “lone hero with his back to the wall” scene.

Take a look back over your body of work with an eye for picking out what parts you are really pleased with. Make a list of a half-dozen scenes that you feel represent your best work. Then give each scene a brief description, and lastly, devise a story that incorporates those types of scenes to make a story.

Let me try with my own work. Taking scenes from my Book Of Lost Doors series, the ones that come to mind of the top of my head…

  1. Exquisite’s eulogy for Sublime in The Worms Of Heaven.
  2. The reveal of the city of Zenith in Gingerbread Wolves.
  3. The battle with the kraken in Cannibal Hearts.
  4. Morgan’s offer to Catskinner in Catskinner’s Book.
  5. The Orchid’s labyrinth in The Worms Of Heaven.
  6. Godiva’s negotiation with Agony in Catskinner’s Book.

Let’s look at those. The first one is really tough to sum up (one of the reasons I like it so much) but I’ll call it Weird Tragedy. The second I’ll call Enter The Nightmare. The third I’ll call Group Melee. The fourth I’ll call Evil Genius Talk. Number five is very similar to number two, so I’ll use Enter The Nightmare again, and number six is another Evil Genius Talk. (Catskinner’s Book, my first novel, is kind of talking heads intensive.)

Still, this gives me four separate bits that I think show my strengths a fiction writer: Weird Tragedy, Enter The Nightmare, Evil Genius Talk, and Group Melee.

So… let’s go with a Weird Tales story. We’ll start with an office building late at night.  Strange malfunctions begin happening, and the night crew find a new floor in the building that they have never seen before (Enter The Nightmare). They are attacked by alien demonic creatures (Group Melee) and then are confronted by the cause of the event, a sorcerer/scientist from an alternate world who attempts to bribe the crew into joining forces with him (Evil Genius Talk). The majority of the survivors reject the offer and escape back into their own universe. Once there, one of the group has an emotional realization that his life in the real world is barren and empty, and he wishes he could go back to the alien world, but the way is forever closed (Weird Tragedy).

Now this is just a quick and dirty example, but I have to confess I find myself wanting to write that story. (I’ll put it on the list with the dinozillion other story ideas I’ll get to one of these days.)

In any event, if you find yourself stuck for something to write, consider giving this method a try and seeing what comes of it. I’d be interested in hearing about what you come up with.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, pulp revival and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Big Top Storytelling

  1. This is very good (and you are SO lucky to live within driving distance of a circus; it’s a dying art). I will keep this method in mind for the future. Thank you.

  2. Okay – I like your idea for a writing prompt. I’ll have to use that for my next story, really could have used that for tonight’s, I went scrounging online for a prompt as I didn’t feel like writing but I wanted to write. I really like how you can observe something like the circus and come away with a post like this.

  3. Pat D. says:

    I like this advice about classifying story bits and will keep it in mind (aspiring writer, nothing published). Would definitely read that story!

    I might check out Circus Flora this year, I live in the area but have never been.

  4. Mary says:

    Christmas Revels does the same, mostly. Some years the connections is looser than others.

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