This is a writing exercise aimed at stimulating the creation of character and story. I’ve adapted it (shamelessly) from a similar exercise I was set by one of my excellent creative writing tutors, Alison MacLeod, at the University of Chichester. This particular exercise led to my writing ‘Ed’s Night Crossing’, a short story about a man who takes his first trip abroad on a night ferry to France.
So, to the exercise:
1) You can do this anywhere. Close your eyes, and visualise someone you see on a regular basis, but who is a complete stranger to you. It could be the woman behind the checkout desk in Tesco’s or another parent in the school playground. I chose a man who used to walk past my front door every day as I got into my car for work. He would amble past, head down, hands in pockets, headphones plugged in. He would never make eye contact, and yet we passed each other most mornings.
2) Really visualise this person physically. Write down a full description, from the superficial details of hair colour and height to the specifics of posture and expression of face. You’re creating a snapshot.
3) Now, this person is in their home. They are packing for a journey. What would they take with them? You can pack up to ten items, personal effects/clothes/medicines etc, things which might tell you a lot about a person. My character, Ed, packed his jeans, his best black t-shirt, an asthma inhaler, a book by Stephen King, a pool cue and a spare block of cue chalk. From this alone, you could get an early idea of the kind of person Ed might be.
4) Next, you are writing about the journey itself, so you must decide on the mode of transport. You don’t need to show them getting to the station/airport etc – start the writing mid-journey. My story commences on board the ferry, just as the engines were starting up, and Ed was with his fellow travellers, getting beers in at the bar. I didn’t need to write about him getting there, because this was the point at which the real story began.
5) After ten minutes or so of writing, pause. Your character has a secret. What is it? Decide whether or not you are ready to reveal this secret to your reader, and continue writing. Just know that this secret is something your character is desperate to conceal.
6) And now you’re on your own – keep writing, and see where the story goes!
Some writers love these prescribed types of exercises, and others hate them. Whatever your feeling, it’s worth giving it a go once in a while, because sometimes the results can be exhilarating, sending your stream of consciousness into a completely unexpected direction. ‘Ed’s Night Crossing’ was a complete surprise to me, and I suspect I would never have written that story, or even a similar one, had I not been guided by Alison’s exercise.
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Isabel Ashdown was born in London in 1970 and grew up in East Wittering, a seaside village on the south coast of England. She now lives in West Sussex with her family. Her debut novel, Glasshopper, was published to much critical acclaim, and was named as one of the best books of 2009 by the London Evening Standard and the Observer Review. An extract won the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition 2008. Her second novel, Hurry Up and Wait, is due for release in Spring 2011. Isabel completed a BA and an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, and regularly appears at creative writing talks, readings and workshops across the South East. She is also the founder of Chichester Book Club, a website dedicated to reading groups and book clubs in her local area.