Characters and Narrative – creative writing workshop at the UEA

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Facilitated by Lynne Bryan, novelist and short story writer, this day-long workshop was part of the University of East Anglia’s Festival of Literature for Young People. Our small, dedicated group experimented with a range of writing prompts and ideas that could be adapted for classroom use. We also received a copy of The Art Of Writing Fiction by UEA Professor of Creative Writing Andrew Cowan.

Lynne began by sharing Hemingway’s famous six word story – For sale: Baby shoes, never worn – before inviting us to write introductions using our name as part of six descriptive words. We completed this task three times, and at each writing, we were not allowed to use repeat words. We shared word lists and ideas, before our final six word story: explain your purpose for attending the workshop. Mine simply wrote itself

Scholarship study tour: teachers writing groups.

Delving deeper into our own identity was the perfect platform for working on characterisation. Lynne distributed two black and white photocopied portraits, with a few spare ‘to swap, in case you really don’t like one of your faces’. Our instructions were to choose a person and write separate six word descriptions of our character

  1. name, age, occupation and personality
  2. how they behave in public
  3. how they behave with their nearest and dearest
  4. how they behave when they are on their own

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Character development is essential in the writing of narrative, where rounded are much more preferable to flat characters:

rounded                                             flat

self has many selves                          comic style

rich detail, layered                              walk ons, forgettable

can carry a story                                trip over and no-one cares

We then moved to our second character and completed an activity known as ‘twenty questions’.There is a similar activity in Cowan’s The Art of Writing Fiction, though Lynne mixed up the order of the questions she delivered – after the first few – which is how this could work in the classroom. This was not a printed activity – each question was received as we continued to write, forcing our ideas to twist and turn with each revelation.

This time, our responses had to written in first person, and although it might be somewhat like a list to begin, we were instructed to move into longer sentences as the questions were read aloud and we became more familiar with our character. Essentially, we are delving deeper into the layers of a character once we have established the basics:

  1. What is your name?
  2. How old are you?
  3. What do you do for a living?
  4. Are you happy with your work?

and on through some quite emotional ideas, such as

  • what is your favourite smell?
  • when did you last tell a lie?
  • what keeps you awake at night?
  • when did you last tell someone you loved them?
  • what is your deepest, darkest secret?

After sharing and discussing our second character, Lynne suggested that secrets are brilliant components in narrative writing. It could lead into many areas if you consider whether the secret means a character needs protecting, would the secret be revealed to another? one person? a few? would it remain a secret? what would be the repercussions?

During our work, we were constantly reminded of the need for writers to make choices, and make choices often. There are so many elements to writing – be aware, but don’t be scared.

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After morning tea, we were given a card with two different locations. Once choosing a space, we were required to write a meeting in this location for our two characters. Even if we had identified a recluse as one of our characters, it is important to be aware that no-one lives in isolation – there will be some human contact.

This time, we were writing in third person

  • first, the main character arrives – introduce the scene from their perspective (consider senses, but don’t make it ‘cloggy’ or ‘clog it up’
  • consider their state of mind
  • where have they come from? have they hurried? have they been hanging around? came here by chance? by arrangement?
  • when they see the second character, which emotion is felt? is there a reaction? fear? shock? surprise? familiarity?

As we wrote, Lynne gently interrupted from time to time and asked us to consider different aspects of the information we had already noted for each character. Some writers shared their work, which gave Lynne an opportunity to remind us of the use of tense. She suggested this activity to help students, and us, in making the right choice for our piece.

first, ask students to write a paragraph, in third person, on what they did that morning – waking up, dressing, breakfast … Next, ask if present tense was used. Students then re-write the whole paragraph in first person and past tense – it may seem like a simple word change from ‘he/she’ to ‘I’, but other words will need changing and choices must be made. Students should then re-write the whole paragraph using second person and future tense.

This could offer new opportunities for an unexpected emotional perspective and energy. It may also help when making choices about how articulate a character is, or could create an intense immediacy also known as closing the distance between reader and character.

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After lunch, we received instructions on writing a narrative between our two characters: choose one option as the topic of conversation

i) new sculpture trail in a park

ii) refurbishment of a town centre

iii) closure of the local swimming school

iv) the weather

v) holiday plans

vi) last nights tv

BUT, there’s always an undercurrent. So, choose a subtext that you may touch on but not reveal in your dialogue

a) one is having an affair with the other one’s husband/wife, and both are aware of the fact

b) they are highly competitive parents

c) one has just achieved a great success and the other is jealous

d) one loves the other, and both aware, but it’s not reciprocated

e) they are in love with each other.

This time when sharing, we had to guess which options had been chosen.

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Our final activity for the afternoon was the writing of an interior monologue. Lynne read from Dorothy Parker’s But the One on the Right, and we discussed the tone, humour and intensity in the character’s voice.

In preparation for our monologue, we chose a portrait. I selected Interior by Vilhelm Hammershoi. Rather than rushing into writing, we completed a number of exercises:

  • imagine you’r in an attic – describe the sounds, then move into textures
  • think of an art room – describe the smells and textures
  • imagine you’re in the model’s pose – describe what it feels like: keep observing NOT in first person … yet
  • still gathering material: describe the scene in five lines
  • now, describe the view of the model in three lines
  • write five lines about the artist
  • write six lines about the model’s mood
  • now, read back through what you have written – is there a line or phrase that stands out?
  • share these, NOW use this line to begin an internal monologue.

Strangely, this was the most enjoyable exercise for me. I was so caught up in the tension between wanting to dive straight into my character, yet I was continually stymied by having to complete these other activities. Yet, this gave me many ideas, words, and options for a much more rich piece of writing.

This workshop of writing demonstrated how difficult it can be to focus over several hours. I had a comfortable upholstered chair – how do students focus all day in hard plastic chairs?

 

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