For the last year or so, I have been giving creative writing workshops in secondary schools within an hour’s distance of where I live in Waterford. In fact, today’s is in my old school. When I began, I just did general exercises., but realised I could hold students’ attention far more effectively if I gave them a goal to aim towards, in this case, a complete story. And they achieve that goal – in just two hours.
I start off with a short talk about myself, the craft of writing and what students can expect from the workshop. I tell them they’ll be putting together the three ingredients for stories and ask them what they are. They usually guess correctly: character, setting, plot. The students work in groups of three. Teenagers naturally like comparing notes with their friends and this lets them do that. They can also play to their strengths: one might be the idea generator, another the organiser and a third the reader.
Then I do a warm-up, a variation of the game 20 questions. They write a short description of a famous person and pair up and see if they can guess their partner’s character. I use the warm-up as a springboard to talk about how authors create their characters.
Students then do three exercises that help them come up with the three ingredients for their stories.
1. Character sketch. Use photographs cut from newspapers to build a profile of a character, name, age, appearance, job, family and hobbies. To add intrigue, I also ask them to reveal a secret no-one else knows.
2. Selling a Destinations. Students receive a list of 10 placenames, some real, some imaginary. Each person in the group picks one and writes about it as if writing for a travel brochure, describing the scenery, weather, people and customs. They then vote on the one they’ll pick as the setting for their story.
3. Behind the Headlines. Newspaper headlines are a good example of plot -they describe an exciting event in one line. I give each group a headline and they write the story that led to that headline. This gives them the plot for their story.
They now have three very different ingredients and their task is to combine them. I give them tips for structuring and writing their story. They aim for a three-paragraph story, with a beginning, middle and end. After that, they read their story to the class and receive applause and fulsome praise.
The workshop aims to give them an insight into how writers create their stories. But mostly, it aims to give them a feeling of achievement that they’ve completed a story. At the very least, it’ll divert them on a grey schoolday.