Plucking Stories Out of the Air
/by Bill Kirton/
The first thing to note about a workshop that claims it’s going to help you ‘write a crime story in an hour’ is that, in all probability, it contravenes the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. On the other hand, experience shows that, with commitment from the people there, it can be done. I’m just back from a visit to a Literary Festival in France where I held such a workshop and everybody attending (including me) had great fun and created the essential elements of a fascinating story which wouldn’t have taken too long to actually write up. In fact, when the workshops have two hours to fill, we don’t just produce one story but several, all using the same set of characters and circumstances.
The way it works is this. I spend some time at the beginning sketching out aspects of crime fiction which we need to consider as we work. The same technique could be used for just about any other genre but I happen to have published five police procedurals, one historical novel and a spoof satire, all with crimes at their centre, so I’m more comfortable when there are bodies lying about.
‘Crime fiction’, of course, is a wide term. It covers cosy, noir, private eye, police procedural, psychological, historical and probably many other hybrids, but we keep it general, leaving participants to decide for themselves which direction they want to follow. Nor do we have much time for investigating the niceties of first and third person narrators and so on. We want to establish some basics and then get on with applying them.
My contention, and it’s certainly the case when I think of my own novels, is that character and motive are the fundamentals. If you can quickly establish a small group of fictional people, ascribe characteristics to them and put them into a relevant context with a few choice objects, you’ll soon see potential frictions, conflicts and consequent motives. And where you have motives, you have a plot.
The important thing is that no-one, including me, starts the session with any preconceptions or plot ideas. For that reason, in the course of my opening chat, I solicit places, people, events, objects at random, jot them all down, then make another random selection from them – and that provides the substance of the story.
In the past, this has led to some ingenious developments. Once, the setting was a health club and the group had to include a freezer. Result? The body was found on a sun bed because, after the murder, the killer had put it in a freezer to hide it and needed to thaw it out for dismemberment. On another, we had to combine a chateau, a frozen leg of lamb and a heavy thesaurus. The leg of lamb turned out to be the murder weapon but, after it had been used to club the unfortunate chateau owner to death, the perpetrators cooked and ate it, thus destroying the evidence. Except that the thesaurus was open at a page on which the word ‘lamb’ was underlined.
I hasten to add that none of these ideas was mine. Once I’ve done the introduction, my role is to ask questions, suggest lines of enquiry and cajole the group into letting their imaginations loose and being as extreme, as creative and as entertaining as they like.
Actually, my favourite anecdote is not about crime workshops but some similar ones for children’s stories which I held in a primary school. The process was the same – random characters, locations, things and off they went. One class had a story which included a caveman and a shark. Once it got under way, part of the discussion went like this:
Boy 1: The caveman went to the beach and started fishing. Very soon he caught a shark.
Me: Wow. What did he say?
Boy 1: Nothing. Cavemen can’t talk. He just said ‘Ugg’.
Boy 2: But the shark came up the beach and said ‘Hi, I’m Steve’.
So, if you’re near Haddo House in October, drop in and help to develop the latest plot from a random set of characters, in a random setting with murder(s), clues, misdirections, and, if time allows, a satisfying resolution.
Bill Kirton’s up and coming writers’ workshop at Haddo House will occur this October.