Where do stories come from? – Sanjida Kay

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By Sanjida Kay

When my daughter was four she made me a book. It’s full of secret writing. She says I can decide what the writing says. Which made me think – is that what all books are like for writers? A book in our heads full of secret writing – we choose how those words will appear to others – but the story is already there, buzzing about, waiting to be set free.♥

Where do stories come from? What is a story? I should make a confession at this point. Shush. Whisper it. I’m a zoologist. I studied chimpanzees. So as a former evolutionary biologist, I believe stories are part of our DNA. We need them. In some way, they helped us survive and still do today, even though most of us, most of the time, are a long way from the jungle.

We tell ourselves stories to explain to ourselves why we act the way we do, to help us understand other people and the events that take place around us. We listen to stories for the same reasons: to make sense of the world and our role within it; to be transported to other spaces, times and minds; to live vicariously, dangerously, emotionally. Think of the fairy tales that have shaped us: once upon a time, they begin, and then they end, happily ever after. Stories, at their most basic, have a beginning, a middle and an end. Something happens to someone. There is a hero or maybe an anti-hero.

In my daughter’s book, alongside the secret writing, is a picture. She said it’s of an evil creature, half-bird, half-otter (don’t you love kids’ imaginations?). Isn’t that true of all stories as well? At their heart there’s always something or someone evil. Well, okay, maybe I’ve been reading too many thrillers, but there is usually an antagonist, whether it’s internal – the main character’s problem with alcohol or a mental illness; or external – an abusive husband, the threat of climate change or a wild tiger in a boat.

Classically, stories have three acts (sometimes more); the first act ends with a crisis or a twist that makes us want to read on, hungry for more. Where stories fail, it’s often because the middle – act two – is a bit saggy. In act three, we have a crisis or climax that’s bigger than all that has gone before and we wonder how the hero will overcome her alcoholism/change the world/free the tiger. She has to dig deep inside herself, and maybe obtain a bit of help. And then at the end there’s a resolution, a pause that allows us to breathe, wipe away our tears, gather ourselves together and think, There but for the grace of God go I, or sigh, as we come to terms with the grey mundanity of our everyday life.

Yes, stories are our lives in technicolour, and now I need to try and catch those secret words, like bright butterflies, spiralling round my head.

Sanjida Kay’s debut thriller, Bone by Bone, is published by Corvus Books. She lives in Bristol with her husband and her daughter.


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