I was on the Isle of Skye last week, and so the blog took a holiday.

Come Monday I was kicking off the next round of Facets of Fiction writers workshops. Here’s the exercise we began with:

The course this time round is based on character, and mood, and explores the idea that stories have more to do with them than with the actual events recounted. We began with the choosing of names, or rather, with the allocation of names.

In a group its easy to generate a load of character names, and then choose randomly and unseen which we will use in a story. If you’re trying this exercise at home, pick a name at random from a phone book, but don’t choose it! Let the name come at you out of left field, not out of your subconscious. It just makes it that little bit more difficult, and interesting!

Having got the name of a character we made a list of headings of what he or she might do, or see done, or even have done to them, over the course of a specific period of time…. so next, choose that period of time. A day, a month, a season, an hour, a lifetime! It could be any: then do the appropriate headings. Those of a story filling a day will be very different from those filling a decade. Make them headings too, labels, not descriptions.

Then the writing: giving to each heading an equivalent wordage. Here again you get to choose. Are they chapter headings, or paragraphs, or sentences? You will feel that some need to be stretched to fill the gap; some to be compressed. That’s part of the game. For a reasonable exercise, I suggest trying paragraphs of 50 words (plus or minus ten percent), but you could attempt chapters of a couple of thousand words too.

In my first attempt at the exercise I got 15 headings. One of the group members got only 6. Mine was over a day, theirs was over a couple of hours.

 

All exercises like this tend to trawl the subconscious for ideas, and can be seen as kicker exercises, to get you writing, bit I had a more specific intention with this exercise. It is to draw attention to the way in which we add significance to the events of a story, to make it worth writing, worth reading.

It is not the events, so much as the events in the light of what has preceded, or is accompanying, or might follow them, that gives significance to a story. The backstory and forestory, and current situation of the protagonist and the other characters, and of the reader too, are what make stories interesting: the contexts in which they are played out, and taken in. Your headings are the bones of the story, but the contexts are its guts and its flesh.

You may find, as several of my workshoppers did, that the exercise leaves you with the story that will stand re-writing – and that re-writing is likely to be in the nature of ‘putting in’ rather than the ‘taking out’ we have probably become used to.

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