‘Picture a scene’ – often the opening gambit from the accomplished raconteur to an enrapt audience or, indeed, from the skilful hypnotherapist to the troubled mind in search of peace … it’s a good starting point for a creative writing exercise. There is much that could happen within a single scene which could form the foundation for a first-rate short story. The trick is to make the concerted mental effort to actually ‘picture’ the scene you intend to write about before embarking upon the potentially wondrous transformation of translating that set of images into words.
Of course, it is difficult to precisely define the ideal length of a short story, but one useful definition is that it should be able to be read in a single sitting. For classroom purposes, 600 – 1,000 words would seem ideal. However, in the hands of an unskilled writer, a narrative of this length often looks more like a synopsis, a blurred outline of racing events which could in reality have been evolved over many chapters in the hands of a much more astute author. Students would be well advised to make a close study of a couple of quality short stories before beginning to write.
Having thus encouraged your charges to gain an insight into the importance of depth over breadth, you might then explain to them that their first task is to plan out in detail the specific features of the scene that they wish to develop. So, before ‘putting pen to paper’, they should:
• envisage a powerfully dramatic single event
• break down this one event into the many small facets which will ultimately combine to make it so climactic
• create an in-depth character study of the main character, or characters, but just as a short story should not be overloaded with events, neither should it be overloaded with too many personalities all jostling for close-up
• understand that they may only be able to reveal a fraction of the overall complexity of their main character(s) in so few words, but can still make these revelations potent by allowing them to hint at hidden depths which could later be developed were the short story ever to expand into something more substantial
• visualise a setting which will add considerable force, meaning and atmosphere to the singular event which is to be depicted
At this juncture, it might be both enlightening and entertaining to play a powerfully dramatic scene from a film of your choice and ask your students to use the ideas above to ‘reverse’ plan it. If done well, they should have a substantial series of bullet points. After all, before the scene that you have just shown them was filmed, it was initially story boarded and then premiered inside someone else’s head. Once the initial planning exercise for their own short story has been completed, each student should then take the enormously personal imaginative leap of streaming it through his or her own mind as if actually editing the rough cut, perhaps even re-running it several more times from various angles, or from different perspectives. A few flashbacks are, of course, entirely permissible.
Your students are almost ready to begin. But before unleashing their by now tightly pent-up creative energy upon the page, it would be well worth reminding them that the art of short story writing also involves being able to use words in such a precise and vivid fashion that the film rolling on the inner screen of their own minds will also play with the same HD quality in the minds of their readers. A judicious use of adverbs and adjectives will definitely help to create the required number of pixels per square inch but, equally, do warn them not to overdo it or else they run the risk of slowing up the narrative, thus causing the picture to judder.
Finally, you might usefully replay your own personally selected video clip one last time in order to highlight the impact that can be created by a few lines of well written dialogue. Then, hopefully, readers will not only be able to visualise your students’ creations, but will also be able to hear the sounds of their voices as they burst into life on that marvellously illuminated silver screen which exists within us all … the mind’s eye!
• S.O.W (attached) which translates all of the above ideas into a series of preparatory lessons.