Running a marketing and communications company affords me many luxuries: freedom being one of the greatest. I work with brands and people that excite me, I work when I want and I choose what to do with my free time. Free time is ‘me’ time and it’s precious. It’s also time I dedicate to giving back.
One way I give back is teaching an advanced creative writing workshop at my daughter’s primary school. Boredom is a curse for clever kids so I provide a challenge for a select few, to keep writing fun and stretch their brains. It had to be writing instead of reading or admin work—I know my limitations—and I thought it would be easy. For my first workshop, let's write a book, I thought. Agree on the story-line, start writing, share ideas, focus on ways to make writing more impactful and voila, a proper writing workshop with a book as the prize. Easy. After all, I’m in the storytelling business.
I was wrong in my assumption. We are born natural storytellers and children have endless imaginations, but collecting ideas and weaving them together into a cohesive narrative does not come naturally. With my first workshop, I skipped the foundation and jumped straight into craft.
So back I went to my computer, to think about how I could write a book with eight-year-olds. I had to go back to basics. Clearly, I’d need examples the students could understand, so I started with the six basic elements of a story (some of which had already been introduced in their literacy lessons) and used fairy tales as the examples. I know, many purists will argue that there are only five elements of a story while others will argue there are eight, and then the artists will argue this approach is too limiting. All valid points, but I was a newbie teacher and that class was my trial.
Why am I sharing this, you wonder? While structuring the workshops for eight-year-olds, I thought about how lazy and forced even my own writing was at times. And then I thought that if I’m guilty of bad writing, that means many others are too. With content creation continuing its escalating talent demand, going back to basics can help everyone—from eight-year-olds to 108-year-olds.
So here it is, the outline of my first creative writing workshop.
All stories share the same basic elements, but how the story is told (e.g. tone of voice, style, point of view, etc.) is known as craft. We’ll get to craft, but for now, we’ll focus on the basic elements. Burn these into your brain because we’ll refer to these all term. Don’t get overwhelmed, this workshop is meant to stretch your skills, and when you get to university, you’ll be far ahead of your peers and thank me for pushing you.
A story has six basic, but important elements. These six components are: characters, setting, plot, conflict, resolution and theme. These essential elements keep the story running smoothly and allow the action to develop in a logical, engaging way that the reader can follow and most of all, enjoy.
CHARACTER: The people, animals or things the story is about. Every story has a protagonist (the main character who faces conflict with another character) and an antagonist (the person, place, animal or thing who opposes the protagonist). Don’t confuse pro with good and an with bad because some of the best stories cast the main character as someone evil. To win the hearts and attention of the reader, an evil protagonist often has a vulnerability, which the author insinuates early in the story and which the character realises right at the climax, finally redeeming his evil ways. Don’t neglect the other characters in the story who help and oppose the protagonist and antagonist.
SETTING: The setting is the location of the story. It can be real or imagined. There can be one or many. The goal of the setting is to connect the reader to the story, support the plot and create interest. An author should describe the environment or surroundings of the story in such detail that the reader feels that he or she can picture the scene. If you can personify the setting, even better. Be sure to describe the setting from each character’s point of view.
PLOT: The sequence of events and central idea/concept around which the entire story is based (which also supports the theme of the story). A plot should have a clear beginning, middle and end, together with the necessary descriptions and suspense (called exposition) to enable the reader to make sense of the action and follow along from start to finish.
CONFLICT: The plot is centred around a problem and how the characters attempt to resolve this problem. Foreshadowing is critical here to build suspense and give the reader clues about what’s happening next. When the action is the most exciting, just before the resolution, that’s called the climax.
RESOLUTION/LESSON: The solution to the problem is the way the action is resolved. It is important that the resolution fit the rest of the story in tone and creativity, and solves all parts of the conflict. You should weave in elements hinting to the resolution/lesson throughout the story to create tension (also known as foreshadowing). Most good stories include valuable life lessons (not always happy ones).
THEME: The theme is the glue in a story, weaving together all elements. It is the controlling idea or its central insight. The theme can be anything the author wants from fiction to non-fiction. The title of the story usually points to the theme and uses various literary devices to emphasise the theme, such as: symbol, allusion, simile, metaphor, hyperbole or irony (also known as craft, but we'll get to that later).
EXAMPLES OF COMMON THEMES
Ambition – getting what you want, stunted by, thwarted.
Betrayal – the pain of, in love and friendship.
Courage – courage to deal with conflict, lack of, developing, conquering with.
Discovery – what does it take to discover new places, inner meaning, strength, even treasure.
Death – how to escape, what happens after, consequences of.
Fear – driven by, dealing with, conquering.
Freedom – loss of, gaining, handling, fight for.
Good versus evil – survival of one despite the other, triumph of one over the other.
Jealousy – trouble caused by, denial of, driven by.
Justice – the fight for, injustice, truth versus justice.
Loss – of life, innocence, love, friends, to avoid.
Survival – man versus nature
We wrote a book. It was more work than I anticipated, but the students were proud, the teachers loved it and I felt like I had contributed something meaningful. I've had three workshops since and I'll share the lessons.