A Writing Workshop
Hello! As a few writers had trouble with today’s Zoom link for The Stay-at-Home Literary Fringe Festival, I’m putting my workshop here on line – in word form. Grab a pen and get writing!
We began by grounding ourselves in place and time, settling into our senses, before freewriting from the simple words: I want. For 3 minutes, we just wrote to the prompt – I want – however we wanted to. The task in freewriting is to keep your hand moving – any time you get stuck, just write – I want. After that, we talked about how we were going to think about wants – and desires – and objectives for the rest of the hour.
We got going with a game of word cricket, a game Vanessa Gebbie plays: I must have played word cricket in one of her workshops about 10 years ago now. Golly! To play word cricket, you need to “catch” words as they’re “thrown” to you – in my game, I held up cards from The Literary Witch’s Oracle, one at a time, introducing 10 cards and 10 words in 10 minutes.
We began with the image of a house. I asked writers to picture a person inside the house – maybe upstairs – and to choose a simple objective. Did the person want to get out of the house – or to stay in? And then the cards came, 1 after the other, until the writers had to accommodate 10 words in their story – 10 words they might not have chosen for themselves.
I drew the cards at random from the pile – and this is what they got: knife, teacup, moon, wings, wolf, doll, lantern, bees, milk, spider. I asked the writers to consider letting the words pull their story forward – driving the character – or using them as obstacles to stop the character from achieving their simple objective. After 10 minutes, the writers had a story. A simple story – but a beginning, nonetheless.
From there, we talked about how objectives build characters. We might not know a lot about those characters, in 10 minutes, but we will know how they respond – to objects and obstacles. We know what she wants – and we see her trying to get it. But how do we raise the stakes of a simple story? We explore what the character is willing to do to achieve her want – her objective – by learning what is at stake. Who will the character be if they get what they want? What will happen if they don’t get what they want?
To learn what’s at stake, we have to consider what will happen if she leaves the house. We might need some backstory to show why she wants to leave – or stay? We might need information about her relationship with the house. Something has happened that made her want what she wants – to stay or go. Characters begin in stories fully-formed, of course. Even in the opening lines of a story, we see characters coping – or not coping – with the world they’re in. Before anything changes – we see who they are (and have become) with what has already happened to them. I asked the writers to consider – what happened in the house before the story you just wrote? Is she in the house – alone? Is there someone else usually there? Has someone just left – or is someone about to come? How does what has already happened influence what they want? We talked about how we would learn about what had happened – before – through how the character perceived her environment as well as the obstacles and objects that arose.
How else do we raise the stakes? We give information on what staying in the house or leaving it means to her. What is the deeper desire – why does she want what she does? If she stays in the house, what will happen? What does she want to happen for her, in the house? Who does she imagine she will be? If she gets out of the house, what will happen? What does she want to happen for her, outside the house? Who does she imagine she will be? This gets at her yearning, her dream. After all, in a simple story like Cinderella, we know she wants to go to the ball – but what she really wants is to fall in love – and get out of the bad house she’s in.
Take some time to sketch out this cause and effect, these stakes. Did the character get out of the house? Did she achieve her desire? Or did the obstacles you placed in front of her – through these words – make it harder for her to get what she wanted? If she gets what she wants, it’s a happy ending. If she doesn’t, it’s a tragedy – or she changed her mind. But a story is made more complex – and more compelling – through things being as difficult for characters as possible. How far could you push this simple story to make it matter for your character – and you?
Stories are lit and fuelled by desire. Characters are driven through the story by what they want – rather than responding to story circumstances. Characters act – even when they are reacting. The reactions – to story elements like the things on the cards – still have to push and pull the characters closer to or further away from their desires, their objectives.
So what are our objectives? At the start, you wrote – I want – I want. How do obstacles (like things on cards) push and pull what we want? How can we stay active in our own lives, our own stories? What is the yearning that is pulling us forward in the stories of our own lives? In these strange days we’re living through, how can they not become just another story about a virus – but about a person who was changed by virus – whether through meeting it or avoiding it or trying to keep it out of the house – and survived. And thrived. And changed.
That’s a story we all want to read, isn’t it? However these days are treating you, find ways to keep writing. And why not join me online next week?