Your Guide to the Guide: Part 4 Specialised Workshops


One of the most interesting and creative services that I offer, I think, is a range of Specialised Workshops which delve into the heart of storytelling.

By examining Theme, Character, Plot, Style and Shape as elements in a whole work one can find fascinating ways of strengthening a piece of fiction’s overall effect.

Theme is perhaps the most powerful of these. Many writers begin writing ‘straight from the imagination’ and don’t stop to think about what it is that their material is trying to communicate — but the most successful authors, the master authors of literature, those whose work has survived for generations or has had a wide impact, usually monitor what appears on the page somehow, relating it to an overall concept or theme. It is this central idea, in fact, which pulls all the other elements together in a masterwork of fiction. You can take just about any page of a classic writer and find on that page clues or indications as to what the theme of the work as a whole is, in the language, the imagery, the descriptions, the dialogue and so on. Working on theme is essential if a writer is to graduate from ‘just writing’ to the level of crafting a masterwork.

Similarly, what we call ‘character’ is often misunderstood by a beginning writer to be a ‘created fictional figure’ who goes about a kind of quasi-life, with the aim of appearing as realistic as possible. This is a widely accepted definition of the fictional construct known as a character, but it is limited in the extreme. One can only truly come to grips with the power of the thing we call ‘character’ once one has understood the role of these elements in an overall piece. There are seven distinct types of character in any successful work of fiction. Knowing what these are and how they fit together (and overlap in some cases) opens the door to a true mastery of storytelling.

What we call ‘plot’ is also important, of course. The plot is the visible story, the ‘what happens’ that we see the things called characters involved in from scene to scene. But it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) just a case of stringing together events in a ‘Then this happened and then this happened’ chain. Many writers give up precisely because they take this primitive approach to connecting things together in a story: the ‘Then this happened’ finally runs out of steam and leaves the tale unfinished. When a writer grasps the fact that a plot is a machine, ideally designed to pull the reader along while also making sure that the reader’s attention does not stray for an instant from what is being described, then a work can begin to hope for some success — but how to build such a machine is an engineering task.