Updated: Aug 5, 2021
When I tell people that for my master’s degree I studied the dubious art of Fiction Writing, their response is often the same.
“Oh, I see,” they say. Then, after a brief pause, ask: “Do you think writing is the sort of thing that can be taught?”
The short answer is, having spent two years attending workshops and seminars, I jolly well hope so. The slightly longer answer, is that of course writing can be taught, just as Singing, Tennis, Chess, Cookery, Mandarin Chinese, Astronomy, Mathematics, and every other discipline under the sun can be taught. It goes without saying that talent and imagination are nurtured rather than handed down, but talent alone does not get you very far, and imagination without craft will result in nothing anyone would want to read.
There are principles to writing that can be taught and practised, and yes, there are even rules, even if sophisticated writers know when and how rules can be broken. Students of all abilities can improve their imaginative writing by following guidelines, a few of which I will outline below.
1. Make sure you have Skin in the Game
It’s no good writing about a subject that you’re not emotionally invested in. Often I find my younger students want to write about superheroes or wizards simply because they think these things are ‘cool’, not because they fundamentally connect to these characters. This is not to say that fiction writing must be autobiographical in a narrowly literal sense. When Kafka described Gregor Samsa waking up to find himself transformed into a gigantic beetle, he was writing about subjects that were near to his heart: loneliness, isolation, self-disgust.
Try to find out what your students really care about: what are their passions? what are they afraid of? What relationships matter most to them? Students who explore fictional situations that they connect to emotionally are bound to write more compellingly. You might ask them to think about: what would they do if they found out their best friend had been lying to them about something terribly important? What temptation would it take to make them do something that they know is wrong?
2. Avoid clichés by paying closer attention to the world
All English teachers have groaned through stories that begin on a dark and stormy night and end several paragraphs later, after a steady softening of the weather, happily ever after. But clichés are far more widespread and invasive than these two obvious howlers. Every look that could kill and each penetrating gaze, every winter morning as cold as ice or summer afternoon as hot as hell is also at fault. The problem with clichéd phrasing is that it is neither the product of imagination nor observation, but simply imported from other books. In this way, clichés always lead us to thoughts and feelings that are borrowed rather than truly felt. The best way to avoid them is to look and listen very carefully to what is around you.
People in real life never talk the way people in books too. If you want to demonstrate this to students, simply record a conversation with them and then try and transcribe it together. They will immediately notice the number of hesitations, broken sentences, stutters and repetition that provide the unmistakable stamp of authenticity. Reality is always messy. Try asking students to think about what it really feels like to be out on a frosty winter morning for a minute before putting pen to paper. See if they then can do better than "cold as ice".
3. All characters should get a fair hearing
In crude fictions and melodramas, you have upstanding heroes, and you have moustache-twirling villains with no motivation beyond their inherent love of evil. It’s not until students realise that in fiction, just as in life, people tend to have pretty good reasons for doing the things they do (or at least reasons that seem good to them) that they are able to write genuine conflict.
Shakespeare said it best when he wrote these words for Shylock: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? […] and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” This lesson, though perhaps the most obvious of the three I’ve outlined here, is the most difficult to implement. It requires the fiction writer to hold in his or her head two or more conflicting points of view simultaneously. It is no mean feat to sympathise at the same time with the thief, their victim, the police, and the thief’s mother. But this imaginative leap of sympathy is the goal of fictional characterisation and can be both fun and challenging to attempt. How can you have two characters act in opposite ways and both believe they are doing right? You might give students an example of a conflict, either drawn from life or made up, and ask them to write monologues in which two characters justify their actions in opposition to one another.
I hope that these ideas provide a starting point for some imaginative writing exercises to complete with your students. Best of luck with all your tutoring!
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.