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Every tutor tries to engage their students in their lessons, so they concentrate, understand the relevant information and take an interest in the subject matter. Some tutors use videos, others use animations and some even use toys. But what’s the underlying mechanism of all of these strategies that gets a person engaged? It’s the art of storytelling.

I recently wrote about how allowing kids to delve into the story world could enhance their ability to think outside the box and ask intriguing questions. Following on from this, let’s consider why are stories so engaging. What’s so special about stories that almost everything we read is constructed as one? Let’s go back to the most fundamental question – what is a story? As I’ve mentioned in my previous blog post, narratology is an extensively theory-heavy field about how to tell a compelling story. So, I’m only going to cover some of the most basic bits.

Each story has a beginning, middle and an end – or as poet Philip Larkin puts it, “A story consists of a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” But what exactly does he mean by a muddle? At first, the story sets the scene by introducing the world it plans to tell the story in. This stage is called ‘exposition’: we are given background information that is important for us to know as the story starts.  (For example, if we are listening to a story about a boy who is ten years old, it may be relevant to know information about the boy’s early childhood to give the story its context.) Next stage is the muddle or the ‘complication’ stage, where there is some sort of problem that must be resolved. Some stories start with the muddle stage and subtly take us back to the exposition stage using flashbacks so we can get the relevant background information to construct the story in our heads (such as in the film, Slumdog Millionaire).

The next stage is the ‘resolution’ stage, where the problems that were set in the muddle stage are resolved; the story reaches an equilibrium stage, often right back where it started. The resolution stage is important because this is the stage at which closure is brought to the story. Not reaching this stage builds suspense and keeps the audience wondering what will happen next. For example, if you switch off a crime suspense ‘whodunit’ type of movie halfway through, you will continue to wonder whom the killer was. Cliffhanger endings are also often used by soaps to get the audience to keep watching the episodes that follow.

Similarly, if tutors can structure their lessons like a story, they can keep their tutees on their toes, wondering what will happen next. For example, a student and I recently made a story about how blood flows around the body. We referred to the heart as King’s Cross tube station, where many trains link into and branch out of. The tube lines were the blood vessels, which carry the blood – the passengers, who get out at different stations – muscles. We didn’t get to finish the whole story that day, but he was so intrigued about the next part of the story that he asked me for a lesson the next day to complete the story.

That’s what I do in my tutoring sessions; I tell stories. All I need to know is which story I’m going to tell before I get there. It helps that I’m also a journalist: a storyteller by profession.

Dalmeet Singh Chawla

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