A Story in Five Objects

No Ballet Shoes in Syria tells the story of 11 year old Aya who has come to Britain, along with her mother and baby brother, after fleeing the war in Syria. When she stumbles across a local ballet class, the formidable dance teacher, Miss Helena, spots Aya’s remarkable natural talent and believes she has the potential to win a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Northern Ballet School. But at the same time Aya and her family must fight to remain in the UK, to make new home for themselves and to find Aya’s father – separated from the family during the perilous journey from Syria.

For her ballet audition, Aya must choreograph a dance, using five objects that hold some special significance or meaning for her. ‘They must show who you are,’ says Miss Helena. ‘Where you come from and where you want to go.’

Aya selects objects that tell the story of her past: of her life in Syria before and during the war, of her flight to Turkey, in a container, of the refugee camps, the journey across the sea in a storm, the last time she saw her father …

A ballet shoe reminds her of her dance school in Syria, of her friends and her beloved dance teacher –  of the life she once knew before the war

A piece of rubble from her bombed out home in Aleppo reminds her of the  war her family fled from, and of her friends who did not survive.

A handkerchief reminds her of the journey  to the refugee camp in Turkey, of being shut in a container for three days, of the freezing cold in the camp, of not enough food to eat.

A shell from the beach reminds her of the boat trip across the Mediterranean in the storm, of the boat capsizing, of the last time she saw her father.

Finally, a baby’s sock reminds Aya of her baby brother, Moosa, whom she has to look after now that  Mumma is ill. It also reminds her of all the people who have helped her along the way, of the kindness of strangers, of the new friends at her dance class, of Miss Helena – herself a refugee from a war long ago – of the volunteers and other families in the Refugee Welcome Centre who come together to help Aya achieve her dream…

So you can see how the objects Aya selects and the memories they unlock helped me to tell her story. They also help Aya to unlock difficult memories, as dance becomes a medium for her to work through trauma from the past,  to let go of guilt  and  to begin to look towards the future


Now it’s your turn …

Can you tell a story in 5 objects? My idea for Aya’s objects came from my Year 4 primary school teacher, Mr Hornby. At the end of each school day, he would tell the class a story and it was the best bit of the  whole day! He would ask us to select five objects, which he would weave into a tale  – on the spot! We thought it was so cool!

I tried to do the same for my own children when they were little  – sometimes I  thought ‘Oh no! I’ll never come up with a story about a piece of cheese, a ruler, a peanut and a revolver ….’ but somehow the objects always seemed to unlock my imagination in weird and wonderful ways….!

So, first choose your five objects. They can be very ordinary things, or rather outlandish ones (maybe a mixture of the two is best, it’s up to you…) Alternatively, you could work with a friend and choose objects for each other.

Then start with object number one. Describe it first, using all five senses: what does it look, smell, taste, feel, sound like? (It might not taste of anything but it might remind you  of a taste? It might be silent but recall the sound of something ….) Now think of what memories the object might unlock  – a time, a place, a person. Let your story start from there….

Now it’s time to weave in object number two. Don’t forget to describe it – make it come alive for the reader. How does this object come into the tale? The role of object number two is to help introduce a complication to your story? An obstacle that might prevent your character from achieving what they want. Over to you ….

Now do the same with each of your final three objects. Some might play a big part in the story (a key that unlocks a door, a sword that defeats a dragon …) Others might be incidental (a pebble from the beach where you saw the mermaid, a feather from the headdress of a Sioux chieftain …)

Object number three might introduce a character who can help your hero/heroine achieve their aim – along with some tools that might enable them to overcome the obstacles they face.

Object number four will probably signal the climax of your story (the great battle, the big chase scene, the night of the prom, or the grand final of the competition…), whilst object five will help you weave your way to resolution (which doesn’t have to mean a happy ending  – just a tying up of ends. Do you win the battle  – lose the race – catch the villain – kiss the boy on prom night  – and what are the consequences? Where and how does everyone end up as a result?)

So, there it is – telling a story can be as easy as 1…2…3…4…5!


No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton is published in paperback by Nosy Crow.

For more information and to see Catherine discussing her inspiration for the book and reading the opening chapters, visit www.nosycrow.com