A couple of exercises in showing and telling this week.
This is a very famous exercise in descriptive writing, or showing not telling, devised by the American novelist and teacher John Gardner. It appears in his book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (1991): Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death. Do not mention the man who does the seeing. It is quite difficult. It’s an exercise in entering someone else’s mind. I think you are allowed to say “A man approached a barn” or “A man went into a barn”. There are quite a few attempts at doing it online. **** This one is more straightforward: Take this sentence and write three ways of showing it without saying it: She was unhappy.
Terrible weather last Sunday, so only three people turned up. As a result, we are going to repeat the “notebook story” exercise so everybody can join in. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a complete story: it can be a fragment, a poem, a piece of memoir, a scene from a play or anything you fancy.
Next week we’ll do the second half of the notebook exercise. Make some notes this week or bring some you have made before. The notes can be anything you like or think might be useful. All our notebooks will be different.
Then I want you to make something based on one or more notebook entries: story, prose piece, dramatic scene, poem.
When you come, bring the finished work and the notebook item(s) that gave rise to it.
Cutting and pasting into notebooks is allowed but only if you use scissors. 😉
This week we are going to try the Wikipedia thing I found on the internet somewhere. It means using a random Wikipedia entry as a prompt. If you want to try it yourself, go to any Wikipedia page in English and click the “random article” link on the left-hand side of the screen under the picture of the globe.
I’ve had a go and the first one I came up with is this (I didn’t cheat):
So let’s try that. You are at liberty to look up the entry and do any other research you like (“Kaptein” is Norwegian for “Captain”); but ideally I don’t want any pieces of straight journalism about Robyn Hitchcock.
For our meeting on January 19th, we thought we would take a leaf from Stephen King.
He famously does not plot in advance. He takes a situation, develops some characters and then lets the characters decide what happens. You can read more about this in his book ‘On Writing’, which is well worth £10.99 of anybody’s money.
“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”
He uses “what if?” questions to get started. So we thought we would imitate this method. ***** Here’s the situation. What if a person or people are in a car that comes to a halt miles from anywhere? It could be out of petrol, broken down, or something else.
This Sunday we are going to try writing a story in the second person. That means that instead of your central character being referred to as “I” or “he/she” you use “you”. The prompt is “You can’t be serious”. This does not have to be the first line or indeed used at all in the story. The usual 3-800 words, please. I’ve attached the beginning of a New Yorker story to show how it is done.
This week we are going to do an exercise I call “reverses polarity”. The idea is to take a characteristic of yourself and write a story in first person in which that characteristic is reversed. For instance, if you are a man, write as a woman; if you are white, write as if you are black; if you are educated, write as if you are unschooled; if you are old, write as if you are young. You can, of course, reverse more than one of your characteristics.
I hope you enjoy the exercise and I will see you next week.
Some famous books were written in present tense: Bleak House (mostly), Clarissa, All Quiet on the Western Front, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Room, Bright Lights Big City, Wolf Hall, Rabbit Run, The Girl on the Train, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, Damon Runyon’s stories, All the Light We Cannot See, Fifty Shades of Grey and many more.
Here are three prompts: As soon as I see them, I know I have to have them. There is a pile of clothing on the side of the street. She is wearing a mask to disguise her identity.