Friday, 30 December 2016

Fiction Workshop 3 A basic plot shape

This is based on the theory presented in Robert McKee’s Story. It is really written for the film industry but is also very useful for fiction writers. I suggest you read the whole book and then go back and reread Chapter 14. The shape he suggests can be condensed into:
  • Opening.
  • Growing complexities 1, 2, 3…  
  • Crisis  
    • Climax     
  • Resolution

Some notes

  1. A short story will probably only have three growing complexities. A novel will have more and will also include sub-plots – more about those later.
  2. Note the climax is the gap between the crisis point and the resolution. This is where the car chase tends to be and in commercial literature one more awful thing will happen just before the resolution.
  3. The climax usually happens somewhere between 2/3 and 4/5 of the way through the story.
  4. The resolution often lets a story down – it may be too melodramatic, unbelievable or a bit of a damp squib. This happens if you’ve not really worked out what your story is about before you start.
  5. Some writers plot in detail, others – ‘pansters’ – just put their characters together and see what happens. Stephen King is a panster but his plots are technically perfect. If you’re a panster you might use the template above for editing your work rather than creating it.   

To do

  1. Reread a story that you like and work out if this plot shape fits the story.
  2. Use the template to write a brief bullet-pointed outline for your story.      

Friday, 9 December 2016

Fiction Workshop 2

Recipe for a story

Create four characters or reuse the four characters you created in Workshop 1:

Put the protagonist with the enemy. See what happens. The story usually comes out of the tension between protagonist and the enemy. But the friend sympathises and the mentor advises.

Can you describe your story in a couple of lines?
E.g. Cinderella does go to the ball despite the best efforts of her step-mother and sisters; there she meets the man of her dreams and her life is transformed.     

Now decide how the story will begin and end.

Number 1 -6
At number 1, put the beginning
At number 6 put the end
At number 2 put what happens after the beginning – make this a growing complexity.
At number 5 put the crisis point – what is that happens that changes everything?
What happens after 2? Make this 3?
What happens before the crisis point? Make this 4.

What happens between 4 & 5?
If you do this in a Word document you can expand the list as much as you like. You might have the crisis point much further on if your story becomes complex.   

Note: some fiction writers are “pansters” – they write by the seat of their pants and don’t plan at all. At the other extreme you have people who put everything on to index cards and spread them over the whole house. Most people are somewhere between the two.  Whichever you are, keeping in mind that two line description of your story is a useful way of keeping you on track.   

Saturday, 26 November 2016

When you retire and you have generous colleagues

... this happens:

I haven't finished teaching by any stretch of the imagination  and of course I'm sneaking back to the University of Salford for a few weeks January 2017. 

But yeah, afternoon tea is one of my pleasures.Cake and writers, don't you know? 

It was fab. Thank you all so much.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Fiction Workshop 1 Character Magic

Think of four main characters in your story:
The hero – the person whose story it is e.g. Harry Potter
The friend – totally on their side but just or almost as powerless e.g. Ron, Hermione, Hagrid
The mentor – someone who can help and who does teach them e.g. Dumbledore
The enemy – Voldemort

Sometimes the mentor and the enemy may not be human.

Anyway, take your hero and one of the other characters. Think about them for a while. Make notes if it helps. This is the sort of exercise you can do whilst waiting for a train or whilst sitting in a cafĂ© . Or even if you’re stuck in a traffic jam.
You must know:

  • What your character is like physically, emotionally, intellectually
  • What their personality is like
  • What they most desire in the world
  • What they are most afraid of
  • What is their motivation in this story ( if you don’t have a story yet, what is their motivation right now)

When you know your characters well, put them together in a short scene and see what happens. Spend no more than thirty minutes writing. You may even have enough within ten. Up to you.       

Now show your scene to a writing buddy. Ask them what they’ve understood. Are they getting the same picture in their head as you had when you started?

Then ask them some specific questions about the characters, INCLUDING MATERIAL YOU’VE NOT SHOWN IN THIE BRIEF EXTRACT. For instance, you might ask what colour hair they have, even if you haven’t mentioned it.

Now, here is the spooky bit. If you’ve spent enough time on your character your writing buddy will get at least 70% of the answers right. I’ve used this exercise for ten years and only had one fail. Most people get more that 70% right. That extract carries all the DNA of your character.

Please share your experiences of doing this exercise in the comments box.    

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

A slight change: free creative writing ideas to follow soon

I’m not actually teaching at the moment – expert in the sense that I’m writing a lot of posts about writing and in a way that is teaching.
 I return to the University of Salford in January 2017 and no doubt then I shall have some more to say then. 
I do want to keep this blog live, so from now on, every time I post here I shall be offering a writing tip or idea. Do feel free to use them.   
Once I have posted a substantial number, I’ll gather them all up into a book.
So watch this space – the first one goes up in a about a week’s time. In the meantime, happy writing.     

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Criterion or norm-referenced? Which should it and can it be?

Year on year we hear the arguments as GCSE and A-level results come out. Standards have gone up, standards have gone down, too many people are getting top grades. At exam boards within Higher Education we worry if results in one module are out of kilter with the rest.  At the institution that I’ve just left we even used a tool that showed this. We worry too, if the standard deviation changes over the years or is vastly different from the average standard deviation for a cohort.        



A driving test is generally criterion-referenced. Certainly at least the theory part is. You have to have a very high score to pass. Even in the practical test, there is a recognised minimum performance required. After all, one is about to let you out with a powerful killing machine. The good driving instructor will work out what you need to know and which skills you need to acquire and how to teach you all of that. If that instructor improves her own teaching skills then she should have lots of students who pass.
Yet there is still often a feeling that the examiners want to pass a certain number a day and any more or fewer than the average would be queried.
The old O-level and A-level were norm-related. This means that a certain percentage of students were going to get each grade. This could have the distinct disadvantage that if you were in a “good” cohort, then the bar was raised.


Why we shouldn’t worry about GCSEs

When they were first introduced in the 1986 the big news was that they were supposed to be criterion-referenced. We were supposed to work out what needed to be learnt – and this was not just knowledge but skills as well- and then work out how best to teach it. There was a possibility, then, of standards rising year on year. Yet when this does happen, it is regarded with suspicion.

My two concrete examples

For much of my time at the University of Salford I taught two specialist courses: Introduction to Children’s Literature, and Writing Novels for Young People. My research has constantly fed into those modules so that at the end of nine years I was teaching a much more complex and demanding courses. However, my teaching skills also improved (about time too, after 42 years!) so despite the courses in effect getting harder results were also getting slightly better. Certainly, the collective knowledge and skill competency were increasing.

Perhaps we need both?

Criterion-referencing helps us to really define what is needed. Norm-referencing helps us to control and investigate. However, if we get a low standard deviation, or all students obtaining 60+, we shouldn’t just assume that the course was too easy or assignments too leniently marked. We should scrutinize the course and the outcomes carefully.