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Your Guide to Services: 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.

A writer’s style is the interface between the story and the reader — it is either appropriate, gripping and consistent, resonating with that writer’s unique voice, or it is wayward, losing the reader’s attention even when the material of the story itself might be of interest. You have probably encountered this kind of thing yourself: captivated by a well-written blurb, you have probably started reading a story only to find that the style, the way the words are put together on the page, is dull or off-putting in some way. A master author’s style is a fundamental part of a successful story — it catches the reader up in a rhythm, compels the reader to read on, and acts as a kind of poetic hypnotist, leading the reader deeper and deeper into the hearts of both characters and plot. Style can be improved, it can be learned, and it can be brought to maturity in such a way that a writer feels strengthened by it and filled with an enthusiasm to write more effectively.

By ‘shape’ I mean the overall form of a story. The four basic genres — Epic, Tragedy, Irony and Comedy — are guidelines for a story’s basic shape, and help a writer to define what he or she is trying to say. But within these genres are other shapes, which, correctly used, can give a story a unique design. Shaping a work is a matter of bringing together the elements mentioned above and crafting a complete piece which is at once satisfying to the heart and mind of its readers.

What is a ‘workshop’? How exactly do these things work to produce a result?

In effect, a workshop from Clarendon House is a guided conversation, usually done through email, between you as a writer and me. Taking one or more of the elements above, I find out what you have created so far and help you to craft it into a smoother and more effective form. This can be done over the span of a few hours, a few days, or even a couple of weeks. The product is you, the writer, being satisfied (and hopefully blown away) by the results. In most workshops, you will have learned much more about storytelling than what it says in that workshop’s description, because of course these things are all intertwined: theme has a great deal to do with character and plot, which have to do with style and shape and so forth.

Contact me to find out more.


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