This is my favourite lesson for giving a class a first taste of creative writing. It’s based on a technique used in workshops with writers writing in their L1. It introduces a simple situation, one we’ve all experienced, one which we’re all familiar with, and asks us to explore it from a new point of view.
Premise for the activity
Characters in fiction are often introduced in their home/work environment, completing some mundane task, such as getting up in the morning. There is no direct description of the character as such, rather his/her actions and the attitude to these actions are the focus of the text.
1 I kick off by brainstorming typical early morning activities. I try and encourage them to think of actions beyond waking up and brushing their teeth, focusing on micro actions as well, like yawning, stretching, pulling the covers over their heads. I usually use an image, like the alarm clock above, to get them going. Alternatively you could start by watching a clip such as this old classic (the first minute is usually enough).
There are lots of other examples too, from other films (Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and Funeral), from TV ( Dexter, Tony in the Sopranos) even the Simpsons, have all got great early morning routines.
2 Visualisation: I ask the students to think back to when they woke up that morning, to try and remember what time it was. Did they wake up naturally? Were they woken by their alarm? Or something else? The sunlight? a noise? a thought? a dream? I ask them to remember if it was dark or light, what noises they could hear and the very first movements they made. I ask them to play through the sequence of actions in their mind, remembering the first five or so minutes of their morning. I use a lot of questions and prompts, and those students who want to, close their eyes. After a while, I give them a few moments of silence to gather their thoughts. I don’t ask them to talk about it straightaway.
3 A model: I tell them about my morning, and I ask them to think as they’re listening about the differences and similarities between my morning and theirs. When I’ve finished they discuss it in pairs and then feed back to me. We pick out differences and similarities and I ask them to think about what my story tells them about me. The students then do the same in pairs, listening carefully to pick up on any similarities and differences.
4 Now, at last, we get to the creative writing. I give the students a simple form, a character profile, with the following information to fill in : sex, age, occupation, location (country, town, part of the town), social status, who they live with. I ask them to work in small groups and invent a character who is different from them in at least three of these areas. It sometimes takes some time to get this idea across!
5 preparing to write: I ask the groups to imagine how their character woke up that morning, to imagine all the details of the first few minutes. This stage sometimes needs quite a lot of monitoring and prompting. Visualisation can help here too. Ask them to imagine the character first, what does he or she look like? What kind of mood are they in? Are they waking up in their own bed or somewhere else? Is it a normal day or has something strange happened? This stage is really important. The more details they have, and the clearer the idea in their head, the easier the actual writing stage.
6 And here it comes at last – the writing: individually or as a group the students write a short description of the character’s early morning routine. They are not to describe the person directly, but just their actions. Students can choose to write in the first person or the third person, in the present or the past. The choice of collaborative or individual writing is one I have to face anew with every class. There are pros and cons to both. I usually find that the students are more than ready to write at this stage and they out pens to paper and write quickly and fluently, whatever the level.
Varying writing speeds are not a problem here as there is no end to reach. The description can stop whenever, wherever and the task has been completed. So when I decide it’s time to wind up, I ask them to finish the sentence they’re working on at the time, and then look back and make any revisions they want to make. If the students have been writing individually then they regroup after writing to compare their texts.
7 Reading and responding: the groups then exchange texts. They read the texts and complete a second character profile form, giving as much information as possible, deducing the answers from the text. They then compare their profiles with the authors’ original profile. I find that most of the time the students are really pleased with the results, with the texts they’ve written and the reactions they get from their classmates.