February 2018: From sentence to story

Tonight our writing group did an exercise where we started with a basic sentence, then talked as a group about what we could do to bring it to life.

We had a bit of fun coming up with our basic sentence. There were six of us tonight, so we went around the table adding one word per person until we had our example: ‘John drank copiously after his sacking’.

Then we asked the question: how would we bring that story to life?

lost job image
Image by David Shankbone at https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankbone/6219944289/

We asked one another in various ways of ‘how so?’, which is similar to the theory in On Story by George Saunders at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-1xNNrABw8, which we watched after completing the exercise.

During the exercise, we were asking for more specific details. We wanted to know about John, what the circumstances were about his sacking, what the underlying emotions were. What drink was he drinking? What type of glass was he drinking from?

Saunders talks about how, when exploring stories in this way, the ‘better nature’ of the writer rises up. This happened to our group too, because the exercise triggered our humanity and made us more open-minded, and made us want to know the bigger picture. The exercise took away our initial stereotypes and assumptions: a single sentence is closed, and by enquiring we open it up to a whole new suite of possibilities.

We were concerned about the implications for John, we wanted to know how high the stakes were, and we even considered happy endings for him. Had he just won the lottery? Did he hate his job anyway? Was he drinking out with friends as a celebration? This meant we built empathy for John and we were concerned about his welfare.

By answering all of these questions and developing these parts of the story, we were well on our way to achieving our original goal: we brought the story to life.

As a reader, we have a need to relate to the situation and the character. We don’t have to like the character but we have to care about what happens to them.

How do you turn a sentence into a story?


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