Friday, 25 October 2013

Dr Invasive's Story Surgery

This poor fellow is in a bad way

Our previous two workshops, Nuts & Bolts and Internal Combustion having exhausted our stock of mechanical metaphors, our next workshop will take its title from the world of medicine: Painful Surgery.

In fact we have every hope that the workshop will be no more painful than is necessary.

The workshop will concentrate on participants' works-in-progress and we will spend time discussing what is working in a story and what needs a generous dose of Dr Invasive's Patented Cure-All.  

"Holistic my... third eye," says Dr Invasive with unnecessary dismissiveness.
We'll be taking a holistic approach to the health of the story, examining in particular how each part of a story relates to the whole: character, story-points, language, etc.

Very often there is a single identifiable problem that can be addressed, and we'll help to root it out.  In addition to diagnosing what is wrong with a story, we'll also be prescribing a course of treatment to help get your story back on its feet.

If you'd like to participate please let us know: smallhushedwaves (at)

The workshop will take place on Sunday 3rd November from 1:30 to 4:30 in Sterling Books, 38 Wolvengracht / Rue du Foss√© aux Loups, 1000 Brussels
Their website is:

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Burning Bridges

At Sunday's workshop, Internal Combustion, we did a group exercise in which we constructed a story. (More about the workshop and exercise here.  No, hang on - here!  No, wait, let me try again - that's it - HERE!)

We selected three words: a profession, an object and a location, and tried to make a story out of them.  The three words were: pilot, match and field, and after some discussion we came up with the sentence:  The pilot lit a match and lit the trail of fuel that leaked from the fuselage of the plane. (The exact wording may have been slightly different but this was the gist of the thing.)

We further explored our assumptions about pilots.  They are assured, we concluded, authoritative, physically competent, charmers (as opposed, please note, to charming).  But they can also be lonely and, perhaps, drunken.

We took one quality - coolness or assuredness - and as part of the exercise chose its opposite: panicky, hysterical as a quality we wanted in our character.

The sentence gave rise to certain questions: what is the pilot doing in a field?  How did the plane get there?  Why is he setting fire to it?

The task then was to write the story of a panicky pilot setting fire to an aeroplane in a field.  We had twenty minutes to come up with something and this is what we came up with:

Anyway, here is the story we came up with, written up a bit by me.

Burning Bridges

Bridges’s hands shook.  These hands that had steered thousands of passengers in safety, at heights impossible to imagine, in machines incomprehensibly heavy, over huge expanses of rock and ocean, fluttered and shook like epileptic butterflies.

He couldn’t light the match.  He had years of experience in managing his nerves, months’ worth of hours clocked up, the highest possible degree of training in handling great enormous cages of finely engineered machinery, and here he was, hands trembling, unable to perform the simplest feat of technology, the one that cavemen had mastered, the one that predated the wheel probably, the definingly primitive act of lighting a fire!

He roared in frustration and scared a bird that rose from the cornfield and took to the sky above the rusted form of the old crop duster.  The beating of its wings filled the air and the pilot took a deep breath and tried to calm himself.

When his cousin had told him that he owned a plane, he should have known he meant this flying lawnmower.  Well he might not be able to light a match but if Cousin Erik could get that thing into the sky he could, or he deserved what was coming to him.

But first he needed to calm down. He needed to smoke.  He had not smoked for three days.  He was used to suppressing the need on long-haul flights, but on a long haul flight to Singapore or Melbourne you were alone in the sky.  You did not have your family in the cockpit: your father resentful and your mother tearful and your brother framing his failure to leave home as some sort of moral imperative, and weeping over his fat, sweet natured, almost unbelievably brainless wife.

It had been as depressing as he left it, the men useless in the face of grief, the women in sweaters with kittens.  When it transpired that he had no suit for the funeral, they found him one from Terry’s prom, a hideous thing made from a patented synthetic fabric.  But at least it was black; it could easily have been powder blue, and nobody would have seen anything funny about that.

That Delia had been killed by a hairdryer in the bath should not have been surprising. That Bridges should have said so at her funeral seemed madness.  But some part of him understood that he must never come home again, that if he did he would hate himself for it. 

When he left, his cockiness had seemed a thing of youth.  He thought of the crocheted toilet-paper holder in his parents’ house and he could smile, as he surveyed the continents laid out below him, at the impetuous lad who had cursed his cosy hometown and the smallmindedness of his kind dull family.  

In the years since, he had developed a nostalgia for the place, an easily assumed humility and fondness for the summer days whose endless skies in that flat country had engendered his dreams of flight.  When he occasionally encountered, in the bar of some pilots’ lounge, or some hotel, others from the same rural state, he had reminisced about counties and parishes whose names were talismans from childhood. 

He should have known better.  As soon as he returned to the flat expanse of green corn, as soon as he saw that crocheted Spanish dancer with the prudish sanitary secret under her skirts, he was disgusted; as if the life of the fields was a festering thing, endless miles of it, horizons stretching beyond horizons, and the blank mindlessness of his family as oppressive  and open and flat as the land that held them.

He had to burn his bridges.  It was a matter of life or death.  That was the only explanation.

He grabbed his wrist and held his arm tightly to his side as he walked towards the crop duster across the field.  He counted his breaths, he measured his paces to calm himself.  If he could control his breathing, he could light a cigarette; he could sigh, relax, and get away from here.  He had done it once.  Now all he had to do was run away from his immediate guilt, which was much easier than it sounded, he knew.

He didn’t feel bad about his sister-in-law, or his cloyingly unhappy parents, but he felt a twinge of guilt for the brother Terry who would never forgive him. However, it was the price to be paid for freedom, and he was glad that he would be making his escape in an aircraft, even if it was Erik’s ridiculous old crate.

Perhaps he should not have shot the dog, but nobody else was going to.  For country folk they had a sickeningly sentimental attitude towards an animal who was obviously, or at least probably, or at the very least possibly very sick.  It had to be done.  Still, he should have made sure the children were out of earshot, and that kill was a clean one.  Normally he was a good shot, his eyesight was perfect, his hands were professionally steady, his judgement when dealing with emotionally overwrought people was cool, authoritative, reassuring.  So something in him, something unconscious had made him produce the bloody mess of fur and howling that had sent the children into hysterics and brought his sister and her husband from the house to chase after him with threats of violence.  It was a need to escape from here and never come back, and that is why he had taken his brother’s car, why he had fled down a labyrinth of country roads rather than ever apologise or explain.

They were close by, Lorraine and Ray.  Bridges knew he had brought this upon himself and it was this thought that finally calmed him.  He was, he reflected, in some way unknown even to him, in control.  He had not wanted to hurt his brother but he needed a clean break.  He thought about his sister-in-law, flabby in body and mind as he had said at the graveside. Actually he had done Terry a favour.

He mastered his hands, even as the sound of his sister’s car clattered into earshot. What would they do with him if they caught him?  They had probably not even thought that far ahead.  In any case it was immaterial, because they were not going to catch him.  He pictured them waddling into the field as fast as their anger could carry them, just in time to see him take off into the sky, to freedom. 

(Since things, the theft of a crop duster was technically an act of terrorism.  Would Erik back him up when Bridges claimed that he had given him the machine?  Possibly.)

His hand was firm.  He removed the book of matches from his pocket.  Hilton, it said, Zurich, and Bridges smiled. He looked up with a sort of friendly authority at Erik’s old rustbucket.  Now, old thing, let’s see about getting you up in the air.  Right on cue Lorraine’s battered truck chugged into view, a long distance across the enormous field.  She got out and he could make out her fat figure with its ridiculous sweater barrelling towards him, her husband, lean and tall, overtaking her as he charged towards the crop duster.

He didn’t need the cigarette now, but he had time for a couple of drags before he left this place forever.  He took one from a box in his breast pocket. He could hear his brother-in-law calling his name, squawking at him.  He struck a match with a swift firm stroke and set it to the tip of the cigarette.

The match fell unostentatiously into the green corn.  Bridges approached the ancient flying machine.  He cursed as he saw a gaping gash in the fuselage.  It would take hours to get it fixed, and his relatives were approaching.  His brother-in-law was violent.  His sister was furious.  He cursed Erik, and the green fields and the small people and he turned to face his brother-in-law whose loping form was drawing near with speed.

Whatever happened now it would still be a clean break.  He would hit or be hit.  He would not forgive and he would not be forgiven.  He had lost his moment of glory, but his purpose was firm.  Fine.  Let them come.

It took barely a moment for him to think all this, and while he was thinking the match had fallen to the ground.  He would never have been stupid enough to drop a lighted match into a dry cornfield, but the corn was green and a light evening dew was already coming down.  The tiny match-flame flickered, and nosed about like a dog looking for a scent.  Aha – petrol!  It sniffed its way towards the sharp smell, flared its way along the remainder of the matchstick, and pounced.

Well! Although Bridges had seen the hole in fuselage, and even though he had steadied his hand sufficiently to light his cigarette, there must have been some part of him still flustered and flummoxed from his trip back home because you don’t need to be a pilot to know that it is the height of folly to drop a naked flame where combustible substances are around. The match’s flame took to the trail from the crop duster and, in less time than it takes to tell, it had engulfed the old machine and the trickle of fuel that had made its way onto Bridges’s clothes. 

He didn’t even really have time to think before the flames began to consume the synthetic fibres of his suit.  He dropped his cigarette, and flailed blindly at the line of orange flame that coursed its way up his leg, up his torso, all over his clothes. He felt wet before he felt hot, and he smelled the burning of his clothes before he felt it on his skin.  Although he screamed loudly, it was more bewilderment and confusion he felt, as the rickety old plane behind him exploded and blew his body apart, than pain, and he was never certain if it was anger or alarm that distorted Ray's face as his lanky brother-in-law lolloped over the cornfield screaming.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Context and Conflict

These parrot-penguins illustrate a very important point about context and conflict!

Yesterday we held our second workshop, Internal Combustion at Sterling Books in Rue Foss√© aux Loups.

Sterling books, as seen the moment before a nasty bump

We got about twice as many people as we had expected, eleven (one of the six we expected was quite small), and by the end of the afternoon we had eleven new works-in-progress by the workshop participants, and a collaborative story jointly conceived by the group.

Each participant started by writing down three words (a similar exercise to the second  one outlined here): a profession, an object and a location.

The idea, as outlined in a previous post, is that when you choose three words, your brain naturally finds a way of connecting the dots and making a new context for things to happen.

So, if I am asked to put the words "dentist", "harpsichord" and "library" in a sentence, the most natural thing is for me to write "The dentist played the harpsichord in the library".

And this sentence, unpromising as it might be, is the basis of my story.

Eleven participants produced eleven different such story ideas.  We had an interpreter who wore a yellow flower to a studio; a bar man who found the key to a safe in the toilets; a scientist who approached the door of his cabin with a hammer; a "so-called osteopath" who lured a woman away from a launderette by lying about a box of matches.

None of these is a story in itself, but they formed the basis of a story.  By asking questions about the almost randomly composed scene, we found the world of the story developing.  By asking a few simple questions, the "activist" who brought a "bottle of whiskey" to the "basement" was soon a fully-rounded character: a sensitive and socially awkward suffragette, desperate for the approval of her new associates, and harbouring an infatuation for her leader.  The "journalist" who placed his "suitcase" in the "overhead locker of an aeroplane" was now a fugitive - and we all wanted to know what was in that suitcase.

The big question in the scenario I have just come up with is a simple one: what is a dentist doing playing a harpsichord in a library?  I don't know but, in coming up with an answer, I go a long way to building the world of my story.  So let's see: as a dentist he lives a constrained life; he always wanted to be a musician but chose the sensible and lucrative path of dentistry instead; he is at a party where everybody is a dentist or the spouse of a dentist and he has stolen away from the incessant chatter (of teeth).  He finds himself in a library, almost empty.  He sits down and he plays.  The librarian shushes him but he plays on....

I don't know what happens next but I am interested in the scenario now.  There is conflict inherent in the idea of playing music in a library (no, I don't know why they harpsichord is there in the first place; I'll have to deal with that) and there is internal conflict within the dentist who has spent a life denying his artistic impulses.

These scenarios were the context: they gave us the basic shape of the story, but as we discussed, we needed something to make them move.

Here we talked about conflict (and tension as unresolved conflict) and how it helps create drama.  Conflict can be internal or external - why did the piano-tuner leave the hotel room with its piano untuned: was it because he had lost his confidence in his own ear?  Or was it because there was a tiger or a fire or a distractingly sexy occupant in the hotel room?  In answering the question "What comes between the character and his or her goal?" we go some way towards creating a dramatic problem within the context we have set up.

The last part of the afternoon was a big writing exercise.  Bearing in mind our discussion of context, conflict, tension, obstacles and the crucial matter of what is at stake in a story, the writers were given twenty minutes to come up with a first draft (or outline) of their story.
A harpsichord in a library (the dentist is just out of frame)

After time was up - twenty minutes can be a either intimidatingly long or frustratingly short - it was time to sum up and go home, but we had a chance to hear a few of the stories that had been worked on.  One or two seemed like the starting-off points of a novel (and good novels too) but some seemed ended up as almost fully-realised stories, which was impressive given that when they began each writer had only three little words.

Of course not everybody will want to write a story constructed in such an apparently haphazard way, but remember that the words you choose don't come from nowhere.  And even if you reject the scenario you have constructed, the process of thinking about your world and answering questions about it can only help you create realised fictional worlds.

And if you would like to see the results of our group exercise, the immortal piece of literature we came up with is... (wait for it).... HERE!
This farmer is charged with eliminating a plagueof mysterious red flowers....

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Internal Combustion

In our first workshop Nuts & Bolts (which you can read about here: ) we talked about the structure of a story - how every story (as distinct from, but not as opposed to, a work of literature) has a shape, a necessary structure composed of different elements.

Internal Combustion will build on this idea.  We'll be talking about what drives a story, what makes it move.  

There's more than one answer but we'll be talking about how conflict creates motion: internal conflict, external conflict, interpersonal conflict.

Of course, in nearly any story, it's characters that make things happen, and we'll be talking about that too; but specifically about conflict contained within characters.
Since our focus will be these mechanical elements of story-telling, the workshop is suitable for writers whose first language is not English, and also for writers from different disciplines - fiction, screenwriting, stage plays, even poetry.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Nuts and Bolts Workshop

We held our first workshop yesterday morning in "upside down library" of the Egg in Anderlecht.  
The upside-down library at The Egg

We started off with a quick discussion of The Last Leaf by O. Henry (here's the text of it here:  

The Last Leaf is an example of a story that has a real inevitability (some said predictability).  We discussed how the structure of the story depended on integrating the different plot points into a coherent whole, or to put it less hideously, connecting the dots.

Stories have a structure, an architecture, and the conclusion of The Last Leaf is not just a right ending, it is the right ending, like the keystone in an arch.  It fits the story perfectly and holds the whole thing together.

Humans naturally make stories, and naturally connect the dots to make coherent narratives.  It affects the way we talk about people as well as history, the news, and incidents and anecdotes from our own lives.  Our next exercise was a series of questions designed to create a character.  It's a great exercise and it resulted in some very interesting, and surprisingly full-rounded characters (even if a disproportionate number of the characters resulting from the exercise turned out to be gay violinists).

(You can download a document outlining the exercise here:

The results of the exercise were varied and interesting.  If you ask a person to invent a detailed and rounded character in thirty seconds, most people would be stumped, but by answering these questions we join the dots and find ourselves describing a person who seems real and, perhaps more important, interesting.

Again, it's a matter of joining the dots and allowing our narrative instinct to impose a cohesive structure on the information we generate.  And the results seem somehow inevitable, satisfying and "right".  Usually given the questions asked there is only one person that this character could be.

Don't tell me you see a daffodil or a helicopter; this is a dinosaur!
Our last exercise was to choose an object, a location and an emotion and put them together to create a story.  

The challenge was to use the character we'd just created and to place them in the story, and it was great to see how the constraints imposed by the exercise became a spur to creativity.  By the end of the exercise, and the morning, everybody had a new character, rounded and developed, and a new story to write.

We're hoping to run another workshop in the summer and we look forward to building on the success of our first.

Twenty Questions

At the Egg last Saturday we conducted an exercise designed to create interesting rounded characters quickly.

You start out with a blank piece of paper.  You write the numbers from one to twenty at the side of the page, then answer these questions quite quickly, without thinking too hard about them, and without censoring yourself.   The result is usually surprising real and interesting characters.

We did it at the Nuts & Bolts workshop in the Egg, and got some really great results.  Workshop participants asked for copies of the questions asked, so here they are.

  1. How old is this person?
  2. What is their sex?
  3. What is their ethnicity (this can incorporate race, religion, or any tribal loyalty or identity)?
  4. When does this person live (I encouraged people to stick with their own time, but your character can live in Elizabethan times or 500 years in the future if you like)?
  5. Where does this person live - a house, flat, castle, cave: what country or city?
  6. Who, if anybody do they live with - family, friends, a dog?
  7. What is the first thing you would notice about this person if you met them on the street or at a party?
  8. Have they got any particular talent, skill or accomplishment? 
  9. Name a secret that this person has, large or small.
  10. What has it got in its pocketses - name an object that this person usually carries with them. (And while we're on the subject - does this person carry this thing in its pockets, or has he or she got a wallet, a handbag, a rucksack, a duffel bag?)
  11. What is this person's greatest shame?
  12. Who do they love most in the world?
  13. What is their most valued possession?
  14. Write down an ambition they have.
  15. What is the first quality a friend would mention when describing this person?
  16. What is the first thing this person themselves would mention?
  17. Name something they are proud of.
  18. Name a talent or quality they wish they had.
  19. Write down something which people get wrong about this person, a false impression they often give.
  20. Lastly: think of something else, that you could not have known about this person at the beginning of this exercise, but which, given the character you have created, makes sense.
Oh, and while we're at it, why not give them a name, for God's sake?

Another exercise involved choosing an object, a location and an emotion.  I got participants to pick from a list or to choose their own.  


USB stick


teenage disco
sex shop
beach campfire
street protest


sexual jealousy

The idea then was that by being constrained to connect object, place and emotion participants would come up with narratives to incorporate all three.  It's amazing how people seem naturally to find a shape to accommodate any three.

Just choosing at random - mirror, campsite, sexual jealousy - I find myself conjuring up, without thinking about it, a story about a boyfriend who becomes suspicious of his girlfriend because who needs a mirror on a camping trip - who is she trying to impress...?

Another - bottle, monastery, pathos - suggests a monk in an abbey, becoming a secret alcoholic, dependent on the beer made by his brothers, who in spite of the supposed closeness of the community, fail to see their brother's desperate loneliness.

Birdcage, theatre, doubt - an aging diva sees in a birdcage the image of her theatrical career, and calls into question her whole life's work.  (Quite camp, that last one.)

I think any one of those could make a good story (I like the first one best) and they all came without thinking too hard from the random association of things from the list.

(Incidentally, one very important story element which these exercise do not address is change.  We'll deal with that in another posting.)