Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Writing with S. S. Taylor

What's the story of the King of Bularistan who wants to be a famous ballet dancer?

Or an electrician who runs a greeting card company?

A talking lizard that loves cheese? A third grade teacher with a stolen painting?

And what if all these people met each other?

At her October 18th workshop, children's author S. S. (Sarah Stewart) Taylor set up a series of prompts as a way to explore how story can flow organically from characters.

Sarah doesn't accept the idea of plot-driven versus character-driven stories. Plot emerges from characters and character development. For example, Sarah began her Expeditioners series with the concept of a boy explorer. From that starting concept she developed characters who would live inside the fictional world she was creating. And then, as usually happens for her, she hit a wall around page fifty - which usually means she needs to do more character development. 

"I make detailed character profile sheets," Sarah said. She wants such detailed knowledge of all characters that, in one writing class, she prompted students to create an art project their characters might have made in school.

What makes a good character? Everyone can start to answer that by asking what characters have stayed with them from books they've read.

Often it's someone entertaining. Writing a story (or even reading a story) requires spending a lot of time with your characters and ". . . if you're going to invite somebody on a road trip, you want somebody who keeps you entertained," Sarah points out.

Characters are also usually flawed, a little messy. For one thing, that makes them human. For another, this messy-ness draws the reader into working to get to know them, investing time in figuring them out. Think of Hermione in Harry Potter.

At our Saturday workshop, we did a simple exercise in story that flows from character:
  • Two envelopes circulated with slips of paper, one had starting characters on the slips, one an additional description (see above)
  • Participants drew a slip from each envelope and put them together
  • Everyone formed pairs to explore what would happen if our two characters crossed paths 
In the case of the electrician with the greeting card company, he fell into a story with a wealthy prince who had a cold. In the brainstormed story, it was the Prince's 13th birthday and he was expected to deliver a major speech to his subjects . . . but he had a cold and has lost his voice ahead of his big speech making debut. The electrician wiring the stage for the speech volunteered to voice over for the Prince. And, of course, his experience in greeting cards gave him plenty of material to throw into the script.

In another story, a cheese loving lizard stole a painting of cheese and hid it in the garage of his owner, a third grade teacher (the lizard is literally a teacher's pet). The teacher discovers the stolen painting, knows that no one will believe that her talking lizard took the artwork, and doesn't know what to do with it.

These quick ideas set up a premise for a story, then a plot would show readers what happens next.

Another exercise that Sarah does with students is to switch the character details for different characters in a work in progress, and ask how the story would change. Again, plot from character.

Our workshop group next tackled the question of when the story really starts? Or, in more technical language, the question of the inciting incident that changes the status quo for the characters. Sarah usually discovers that her stories actually start one chapter in - the stuff written as the "first chapter" is really background she'll work into the story later. In the first Expeditioners book, for example, she wrote many drafts where the father disappearing was the inciting incident. Ultimately, though, the father being gone was in fact the starting status quo for the kids in her book, and Kit receiving a mysterious code and map was the inciting incident.

Everyone took seven minutes to sketch out possible starting scenes for the stories they'd brainstormed. So, the prince and the electrician, for example, had two possible starting scenes  sketched out by each partner: 1.) a page rushing in to wake up the Prince and tell him that the speech has been moved to that day (not enough time to get over the cold) or 2.) starting on stage with the electrician micing the Prince and the Prince failing to talk for the sound check.

Deciding the actual first scene for any story is a process of trial and error to find what fits.

We reached the end of the workshop here, but Sarah recommended a few books for more writing exercises:
    • The Art of Fiction -- John Gardner
    • What If? -- Ann Bernays and Pamela Painter
There is also an "Essential Library" list of writing craft books (including many for young writers) posted, with links, here.

We're looking forward to another writing workshop in April with Gary Lee Miller. . . and for a similar article (but with different exercises) read this from our Jo Knowles and Kate Messner workshop.

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