Group Act 1: DIY Writers Workshop
Part 1 of 2
I would be lost without my writing buddies. Even in our small community there are five of us who found each other through contacts at the local library. We each write in different styles and have our own ambitions but our monthly lunch date helps share the angst of finding the right words and keeping up momentum. In between, we celebrate, commiserate, or critique via email. But we wanted more, so we decided to create one-day workshops for ourselves, each taking a turn to do some homework to share with the others.
I drew the short straw to go first; this is what we did:
Aim of the workshop
To find a process for structuring our stories that we can adapt to our individual styles. We looked at opening lines and paragraphs, the spiral of conflict in the middle, and endings.
For my homework I used Sol Stein: Stein on Writing; Robert McKee: Story; and 20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of your Story, from Daily Writing Tips (email@example.com). I wrote handouts outlining the main points for the workshop so we could spend our time talking about them rather than have our heads down scribbling notes.
In preparation we all read and brought with us a copy of Maupassant’s The Necklace, to give us a common example to discuss, and we each brought one of our own stories to work on during the practical sessions (more relevant than ‘exercises’).
We alternated between theory and practise, and shared the reasons for any revisions we made to our own stories during the day.
Generating a new story idea to work on during the workshop
We started with a bit of fun. I’d brought a “Fiction Square” that Paula Williams features in the Writers Forum magazine each week: you roll a dice and use the numbers to identify the elements of a story – characters, conflict, setting etc. After much rattling of dice and giggling, we spent a few minutes making rough notes on a possible plot for our story ideas. After each bit of theory we discussed during the day, we returned to this story idea, and/or our own stories we’d brought with us, to make any changes or notes for revision that occurred to us.
Stein identifies three goals for an opening paragraph:
- 1. To excite curiosity, preferably about a character or situation
- 2. To introduce a setting, something visual – even one word – to engage the reader
- 3. To lend resonance to the story – something ‘clicks’ in the reader’s mind
He gives a memorable example from Earthly Power by Anthony Burgess: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced the archbishop had come to see me.”
Sometimes one line is enough: “I wanted to strangle mother but I’d have to touch her to do that.”
This introduces strong conflict and emotion, an unusual threat or omen (the reader wants to know ‘Why?’ and ‘Did she do it?’), a domestic setting is implied, and there are two threats of action that help define the character through her obvious hate and disgust.
Longer paragraphs are fine provided they contain the above elements but the first line becomes critical.
Stein tells us that conflict, or strong emotion, is the most important element to intrigue a reader instantly. Another one is to have your protagonist naked!
I tried this in a short story; the opening line began: “Standing naked at the window, the dark hair of his belly coiled flat with moisture, he stropped his damp shoulders with a coarse towel…”
No, it wasn’t a romance, no steamy love scenes, but it led into what he was watching (the threat) and why he was drying himself (his situation) – two events I needed to reveal at the beginning of the story. And maybe Stein has something because this story was a finalist in a recent competition.
Next week, in Part 2, I’ll share with you what we learnt from McKee about the spiral of conflict, core values, determining the Central Idea of a story, and the summary we came up with for plotting a new story or revising existing ones.
Oh and the theme for the new photo in the Gallery this week is…Openings