Narrative Know How for Safe Space

One snowy December night in Dunfermline I ran a workshop for the charity Safe Space. As part of a fun raising initiative Safe Space are holding a Write-athon.  Novice writers have signed up to write their chosen distance between September 2012 and March 2013.  The races range from 5K (five thousand words) up to Ultra Marathons (fifty two thousand and six hundred words).

Many of the runners had never written for pleasure before.  My challenge was to come up with a workshop that would give helpful information and a sprinkling of inspiration.  I thought back to when I first started creative writing – the thing I had most trouble grasping was narrative point of view.

After our welcome cup of tea and Tunnock’s biscuits we settled down to work.

I wanted to keep it simple so I used two paragraph examples from various pieces of fiction to illustrate different types of narrative and encouraged the participants to seek out the full texts.

First Person. I reintroduced the group of one of the most famous 1st person narratives, the wonderful unreliable narrator Holden Caulfield in that old school text The Catcher in the Rye. One of the drawbacks of using first person is the tendency for the reader to believe the piece is autobiographical. This can be avoided by creating a unique narrative voice.

Second Person. Many of the group had never read the second person.  Although it is widely used in song writing it is less common in fiction.  I used Ali Smith’s short story Second Person as the example and everyone in the group agreed that they immediately felt complicit in the story.

Third Person Limited.  For this I used my own novel The Incomers where the reader sits on the shoulder of Ellie, the main character, throughout.  I explained it is possible to use alternating Third Person to allow more freedom.  Many of the group felt this was the point of view they were using

Third Person Omniscient.  This was perhaps the best illustration because I could highlight where the point of view shifted within the paragraphs and how the down side of this point of view could be lack of character depth.   The example I used was from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

Exercise  I asked the group to choose one of the examples or a paragraph from their own writing and change the point of view.  Many chose the second person, all found that the change was significant.

We still had some time left before the end of the session and the keen bunch demanded another exercise so I handed out a few paragraphs of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna and explained the Epistolary nature of the narration. Not only that, although it is written in first person the point of view is hard to detect.

Exercise  I asked the group to write a paragraph describing how they made their way to the workshop WITHOUT using the words I or me.    They rose to the challenge and even in the cases where it didn’t quite work, everyone picked up on what went wrong.

I hope the workshop helped. If nothing else the participants left the session with a few book recommendations and an appreciation of why wide reading is important to a writer.

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