Last Tuesday, I visited Shoreham Academy as a creative writing teacher. I was hired to teach a few one-hour workshops to Year 7 students (that’s ages 11-12 if you’re not aware).
As I’m trying to do anything to advance as a writer, I answered, “Yes” before actually thinking about what I could do. The idea of “being a yes” is what got me going along to improv classes and what had me being an extra in a zombie movie, getting shot and then being able to tackle & kill a soldier. That was some good zombieing. Yes, that’s not a word, but I’m a writer, I get to screw with the language.
I started to study what to do, found a few exercises, then added some twists from my own love of writing, my short but fun time with improv and my now 18-years of running roleplaying games.
In my next article I’ll explain how it went, but I thought I’d go through the lesson plan, which I then had to do four times with classes of 6-8 students.
Here’s the lesson plan I thought would be a good introduction to writing and storytelling, outside of what would normally be used in the students’ curriculum.
First I introduce myself. Charlie Etheridge-Nunn, a local writer. I’ve written a novel which is in editing, but I mainly work on short fiction.
I’m going to focus mainly on storytelling for this lesson, and what we can do to twist tales into something strange, something fun, something different.
But first, I need to know who the class is, and this gives them an opportunity to learn each other’s names if they’re unfamiliar with one another. I introduce myself and say that I am an item from the supermarket. “I am Charlie, and I am coffee.” Unsurprising to those who know me, but shush, I’m teaching here.
The first of the children then has to say their name and what they are, then mine and what I am. “I’m Jamie and I’m an apple, this is Charlie and he’s a coffee.” Then the next, “I’m Ashley and I’m shredded wheat, this is Jamie and he’s an apple and this is Charlie and he’s coffee.” And so it goes. This gets people knowing who each other are, who I am, and I can make quick notes on my pad about who’s who/what.
I read “The Devil Demands Cupcakes” for the class. 3 1/2 minutes, I’ve calculated. With a good ‘devil’ voice, something to keep attention and make them laugh.
The next thing to do is to explain the utter basic idea of a dramatic story, a dramatic scene. They’ll learn a lot more rules, a lot of specifics, but boiled down it goes into, “Someone wants something, and they can’t have it.” That could be a hero (Inigo Montoya wants revenge) or a villain (Blofeld wants James Bond dead).
This is something which was an ‘ah ha’ moment for me when I read David Mamet’s letter to the writers of The Unit. The article, as drunk, angry and sweary as it gets, is something I always return to. When making something dramatic, where do we start? What informs the story? This is a great place to look at fiction and to remember when making our own stories. Now I won’t actually mention that it’s from Mamet’s letter, or about The Unit, or half the things here, the only point is, “Someone wants something, and they can’t have it.”
Skellig wants 27 & 53 and ale. The Doctor’s enemies want to kidnap Amy Pond’s weird time-child.
The first proper exercise is about anecdotes. I may share one or two, but the main thing is them.
The class pairs up and shares a short anecdote. Something fun that’s happened in the last week or so to them, maybe even to their family. As long as it’s fun, it’s awesome, it’s a bit out of the norm. If they can tell it well, then it can even be something mundane. Whatever.
Okay, great, all done with telling that story? Now switch pairs and tell the story again. The thing is, now we add to it. Add lies, add fantasy, add a monster if the mood strikes. We’re not writing these stories down as the written word will cement what it was. I want the story to change, to evolve, to mutate. I will probably even dramatically point to the big “DRAMA” written on the board and remind them to make it dramatic. If they saw something and that’s their story, now they’re in the story.
Again, a couple of minutes later, we all stop. Each kid then tells us the story they were just told. Not their own, but their partner’s. They can add to it, making more lies, more strangeness. Hopefully these should be completely outlandish and only half-recognisable from what they were.
At the end, we can compare what they were and what they are now. The evolution that other people have given them. What repeated storytelling has done and how we’ve made a simple anecdote into a story. A proper story, with drama and resolutions.
This exercise borrows elements from improv, from Pie Corbett’s “Roll On Story!” exercise, and from the roleplaying game, Fiasco.
We have four categories on the whiteboard/flipchart: Hero, Villain, Location, Object. The simple plot here is that the hero or villain has the object and their counterpart wants it. A quick, easy cheat to get a story. The thing is, we don’t get to choose our hero, villain, location or object. Oh no, that’s what the dice are for.
From the class, we get suggestions of six heroes, six villains and so on. Then, the students roll their dice for each option and get their ingredients. We write down a short piece of ~100 words or so, involving all of those elements and everyone who’s willing, can read them out.
This shows what we can do when we have to write to specific demands of what to use. It shows people’s ability to improvise something fantastic on a short deadline and with (preferably) almost no time to think and get caught up in logic or any of those problems. It also drives in the core idea of drama as the coat hanger that we’re hanging story onto.
If there’s extra time I have a fun little game I took from Pie Corbett (another writer’s lesson, we’re all thieves). Each person writes a claim which begins with “All”, for instance, “All dogs have fur.” Then they fold it over, pass it to their right and write a new statement which begins with, “There,” for instance, “There are no socks in the drawer.” Everyone passes the note along, folded over like before. Finally, they write down a conclusion, “Therefore,” so in my case it could be: “All dogs have fur, there are no socks in the drawer, therefore all owls are evil.” We present the findings and then, glibly, that can be what we’ve discovered from this lesson.
Seriously though, drama, storytelling and improvisation reminders can be used at the end. Maybe encourage them to write up the hero vs villain story, possibly even as an anecdote from the hero’s point of view.
Take a bow, grab a fresh coffee, repeat.
So that’s what my idea of what I’d do with the classes was. Next, I’ll put up an article detailing my day of teaching and my epic quest to find the school, which is a dramatic anecdote of its own.