… or the glass elevator
This has been one of my favourite story-writing activities for a long, long time. My dad first introduced me to it – or the underlying technique – when I was running a creative writing option on a full-time language course in the UK. He led creative writing workshops for adults writing in their L1. I’d phone him up and ask to “borrow” ideas.
This particular technique basically brings together a disparate group of people and somehow traps them and forces them to interact. The story grows out of the tension between the characters. The device that my dad used with his writers based in rural Wales (and writing in Welsh) was to trap the characters in a snowbound country pub overnight. Each character has their own story, their own reasons for travelling in the snow, different destinations they’re rushing to get to. Slowly each one’s story unfolds through the conversations that take place between the characters.
This is fairly complex as a task. Ideal for a weekend workshop, not so ideal for a two hour class. I needed to take the basic idea and make it my own. The location, likewise, was perfect for the courses my dad ran, a familiar backdrop, so easy to picture and easy to describe. It certainly wasn’t a familiar location for my students, mainly Asian, exclusively city-dwellers, so, inspired by a string of blackouts in major North American and European cities, I created a new backdrop and a new device.
Here’s the basic lesson plan. (If it sounds familiar it may be because, when it comes down to it, all stories have been told before or it may be because you’ve seen a version of it in a coursebook. It appeared in the advanced Inside Out student’s book in a unit called Stories ). Urban worked really well for my class, you may need to think of a new location and device for yours?
1 setting the scene
Ask students to think of a large city that’s familiar to them. Ask them to think of one of the tallest buildings and to imagine they’re somewhere near the top of the building. Ask them to describe what they can see to a partner, starting close by and then opening up to the whole panorama.
Ask your students to place themselves in the picture you’ve described and take them through this short story:
You have just left a room on one of the top floors of the building. You close the door behind you. You walk along the corridor to the lift. You press the buttons and wait. The elevator arrives, the doors open and you step in. It’s a glass lift, on the outside wall of the building. It’s late evening, the sun has just gone down, all the lights in the city are going on. You are mesmerised by the view. You don’t notice anything else around you. Suddenly the lights go out. Not only in the lift, but across the whole city – only the car lights are still on.The lift bumps to a stop.
Allow a few seconds of silence as everyone bumps to a halt with the lift. Ask them to write down two or three adjectives to describe how they feel.
3 character profiles
Group students in 3s or 4s. Tell them that they are all in the lift together. Working together they create three or four character profiles (one for each student in the group). The four characters must be significantly different from each other in at least one way. They do not know each other. The students must decide why they are in the situation, where they were going, what they’d been doing immediately before and what mood they’re in. (I’ve written about using and creating character profiles here as well).
4 writing stage 1
Each student chooses a character and then describes the moments leading up to entering the lift, the lift setting off and then the power going off from their character’s point of view. They concentrate on the actions and the character’s thoughts. They write simply and directly, in the present or past, as they prefer.
Regrouping: The students read each other’s texts. They then discuss what happens next. What is each character’s immediate reaction to the situation?
5 writing stage 2
Students return to their texts and describe their character’s reaction to the power cut.
Regrouping: the students read each other’s texts and iron out any discrepancies.
6 final writing stage
Tell the students that the power comes back on. Students describe their character’s reaction.
Final regrouping: Students read each other’s texts and write a comment at the end of each one.
Throughout all the writing stages I’m at hand to facilitate, help students find the words they’re looking for, craft their sentences – if they want. And at the end we talk about what they want to do with the finished product. Sometimes we work with corrections, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we publish them, sometimes we don’t. Each author can decide to do what they want to do with their own story.
What I love about this activity is that the location and actions are so controlled that it frees the students up to concentrate on creating a voice for their character, on choosing the right language to express the thoughts and emotions of the person they’ve chosen to become. The weight of deciding on the plot has been lifted from their shoulders, and at the end of the lesson they can walk away with a completed short story that they often feel very proud of.
Here’s one a Taiwanese student wrote. She decided on a non native English speaking character, she said it was because then she wouldn’t need to worry about making mistakes. Very clever