Writing Prompts

Malorie Blackman and Chasing Characterisation (Reading & Writing YA Series, Part Two)

In this series, Reading and Writing Young Adult, I'll be looking at the different ways that young adult fiction authors use and subvert writing techniques to tell unique stories. I'll also be including a practical applications for the aspiring YA writer, giving a writing exercises based on the author's work in some way.

In Part 1, we looked at the way John Green uses story structure in Looking for Alaska.

Today, in Part Two, we're going to look at another true expert: Malorie Blackman, former Children's Laureate and a prolific young adult fiction author.


CHASING CHARACTERISATION

If you've ever written about a character, you're employing characterisation - it's that simple.

We do it all the time when we tell stories - even when we're just recounting our day - through detailing a character and throwing them into interesting situations. However, to characterise in effective ways takes a little more consideration and planning.

There is no one way to effectively develop your characters. The most simplistic might be to specify on their appearance or to decide on their personality type. Taking it further, you could decide on their tone of speech or narration, giving them a backstory, and clarifying their motivations and desires - why do they do what they do? What are their goals in the wider story or in a specific scene?

Malorie Blackman, of course, characterises very deliberately. One way she does so is to compliment and contrast her characters against one another.

In Chasing the Stars, the lives of two sets of people collide: a group of thirty space-refugees are saved by a brother and sister travelling alone back to earth. Immediately, tensions run high as some of try to shift blame and others fall in love.

Vee and her brother Aiden have been travelling alone on their ship for years after the rest of the crew was wiped out by a virus. When Nathan and the rest of the refugees come aboard, it's soon clear that Aiden and Nathan are as different as the universe is vast; they disagree, they actively work against each other, and their personalities clash at every turn. Their characters are so diversely different that they begin to develop more in opposition to each other.


LET'S WRITE

One of Malorie Blackman's signature styles is writing a novel from two perspectives, with two different characters narrating for alternate chapters. Not only does she use this style in Chasing the Stars, but also in her critically accalimed Noughts and Crosses series.

PROMPT: write a scene with at least two characters in it - once from the first character's perspective, and again from another's.


Next time, we'll delve into a fantasy story and talk about world building with Trudi Canavan and The Black Magician series.

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John Green and Subverting Traditional Story Structure (Reading & Writing YA Series, Part One)

In this series, Reading and Writing Young Adult, I'll be looking at the different ways that young adult fiction authors use and subvert writing techniques to tell unique stories. I'll also be including a practical applications for the aspiring YA writer, giving a writing exercises based on the author's work in some way.

Ready to delve in? In Part 1, we're looking at the king of YA himself: John Green.


LOOKING FOR STRUCTURE

In John Green's debut novel, Looking for Alaska, we meet Miles 'Pudge' Halter as he moves to a boarding school for his Junior year. What we can expect is a classic coming-of-age tale, and in many respects, Green gives us just that; circumstances develop that bring Miles to a final realisation about himself and the world around him, leaving him a little more 'adult' than when we started.

The interesting thing about Looking For Alaska's structure is that Green uses the classic story arc and subverts it.

I'll explain further: traditionally, story structure can be categorised into five main points, like a mountain with its peak. Like this:

Just a quick google search for '5 point story structure' will bring up plenty of similar images.

Typically, the major climatic point - the crisis - comes around three quarters of the way into the story; it's the thing that forces the central character(s) to make big decisions, bringing about a resolution that has resulted in a major change. This could be a change in the character's personality, living circumstances, relationships - it's something that disrupts and brings about a new status quo that is fundamentally different than the one at the story's beginning.

So how does Looking For Alaska fit this five-point model?

What John Green does in this book is bring the major crisis forward. Instead of the climactic moment happening around three quarters in, it happens around halfway, meaning that the majority of the book is spent on the main character's searching for a resolution.

Yes, it's a little more complicated than that, but I can't say much more without giving away a major SPOILER.


LET'S WRITE

'Looking For Alaska' is set in a boarding school (not in Alaska though - that's the name of one of the characters!)

PROMPT: write about a time you've been away from home for a long time. How did you feel? Was it scary? Liberating?

Don't want to write about yourself? Create a character or use one from a story you already know and write from their perspective.


Next time, we'll be looking at the way former-Children's Laureate, Malorie Blackman, uses characterisation in her YA novel, Chasing the Stars.

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BRAINSTORMING NEW IDEAS: Part 4, Perusing the Press

As a writer, being faced with a blank page can inspire either crippling fear or wondrous anticipation — or both!

In this writing series, we’ll be discussing the ways we can generate some ideas to get started — though I love and worship the good ol’ imagination machine, I’ve found that mine can be somewhat unreliable at times.

In Parts 1, 2 and 3, we discussed people watching, word association techniques and genre checklists as useful ways to get started on your next project.

How else can we practically help our brains fill that blank page? Take out your pen or bring up a new word doc and let’s get started!

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Part 4: Perusing the Press.

It’s almost a guarantee in our media-driven world, that anything weird and wonderful going on will be covered in the press by someone, somewhere.

Journalists are always on the hunt for content (with much more urgency than us mere mortals) and so they hungrily seek after anything that they can spin into an entertaining story.

How does this help us fiction-writing folk?

Newspapers don’t just publish anything about anyone; they look for headlines that will hook you in. They look for scandal, adversity, out-of-the-ordinary. The material you’ll find in newspapers is an excellent starting point to spin off your own tales and weave a web around their initial stories.

But of course, rather than just leave it at that and send you off to fend for yourselves, I’ve come up with a few ways to help you structure your searching and generate some compelling new ideas.

1. Spin the Mundane into an Exciting Headline Story

I had a seminar with an ex-journo recently who talked about the ways journalists find their material. Her inbox would be inundated with hundreds of emails from people trying to get their businesses featured, with subject titles like:

‘Start-up company launches today!’

Now, for the person whose company that is, woohoo! That’s so great for them and it’s exciting and tense and risky and full of brilliant stories. From the perspective of someone on the outside, it’s boring. They have no personal investment, therefore no personal interest.

So what would make it more interesting?

Free tea and biscuits at the launch event? No. Something incredible or out of the ordinary needs to happen in order for the average joe to be drawn in enough to read.

The writing exercise: Take an average story and spin it into something dramatic and exciting as an initial story idea.

For example, this might be a little bit more interesting: ‘Ex-professional-boxer comes out of retirement to open a bakery.’

Already, we are compelled to know more — the questions we now ask can drive your ideas generation. Why is the boxer opening a bakery? Male or female boxer? Does he/she need money? Why? What is the bakery called?

Take these questions and make them more ridiculous: has the boxer gotten into such deep gambling debt that the mafia has forced him to open a bakery that’s a front for arms dealing?

Even normal headlines can conjure some interesting questions, let alone crazy ones.

2. Create a Backstory for an Over-the-top Tale

If journalists are stuffing their main pages with the out-of-the-ordinary events that hook us in, there must have been a lead up.

Let’s take an example:

“Woman dressed as turkey arrested for shoplifting”

Yes, this is a genuine headline… the mind baffles.

The writing exercise: Take an unusual or strange headline and think of the very human lives that led to that moment.

But how did this woman come to be dressed as a turkey trying to rob a store? You could read the whole article and research her life for every speck of the truth…

Or you could do some creative thinking and create your own tall tale.

Again, the best starting point is to ask a lot of questions. Why did she need/want to steal? What was the shop called? Was it the first time she’d stolen? Did she have a specific reason to dress in a turkey costume? Did she wear it especially to shoplift, or was this her everyday attire?

Remember that character development is the most important drive of a narrative; what has led this woman to this specific crisis point? What are her relationships like?

Sometimes, even the strangest stories have ordinary beginnings — in a way, this is the opposite of the first exercise: where before we took normal situations and spun bizarre backstories, here we take the bizarre and make the ‘characters’ more human.

3. Secondary Character No More!

“Contractor fakes death to avoid paying customers”

Now, the natural inclination is to focus a story on the contractor — what’s his background? How has he come to this? Is he destitute, or just a scammer?

But let’s look at the wider story that centres on this event.

The writing exercise: Consider the other people involved in this story and tell it from their point of view.

You could write from the perspective of one of the scorned customers and their crusade to recover their money.

Then again, you take it one step even further from the centre of the event and write the story of the contractor’s grandmother, who is now the subject of ridicule at her weekly ‘Ladies who Lunch’ club.

You might write about the life of the judge who now has to deal with him in court.

You could write about a rival business owner who is now swooping in to reap the benefits and can finally afford to buy his kid the bike he’s wanted since last Christmas.

What I hope you see, is that the possibilities really are endless.

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In Part 5, we’ll be looking at another technique for generating ideas: pictures as prompts.

Don't forget to check out parts 1, 2 and 3 as useful ways to get started on your next project if you've not already.

BRAINSTORMING NEW IDEAS: Part 3, Genre Checklists

As a writer, being faced with a blank page can inspire either crippling fear or wondrous anticipation — or both!


In this writing series, we’ll be discussing the ways we can generate some ideas to get started — though I love and worship the good ol’ imagination machine, I’ve found that mine can be somewhat unreliable at times.

In Parts 1 and 2, we discussed people watching and word association techniques to really fill up your ideas bank.

How else can we practically help our brains fill that blank page? Take out your pen or bring up a new word doc and let’s get started!

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Part 3: Genre Checklists

If there’s any handy tip in this series that I’m unsure about (yet use ALL the time) it’s this one.

Simply put: choose a genre — romance, horror, sci-fi, anything — and play to its conventions.

Before you start calling for me to be burned at the stake for my conformity, let me explain why I suggest this technique, then I’ll suggest how you go about it.

  1. Remember that this series is about generating ideas when you’re feeling stuck. It is not about plotting out a full-blown novel. I am heartily against sticking rigidly to form just ‘because’, but when you’re trying to come up with some initial ideas, talking about genre can be a good push off.

  2. Although you might feel you want to break away from the cookie-cutter, pigeon-holed world of targeted marketing, in reality you need to know the conventions of a genre if you want to break them. More on this shortly.

  3. It gives you an excuse to do a lot of research — this could be a con, if you struggle to reign it back in and start writing again, but it’s a temporary relief from blank-page-o-phobia.

Hopefully, you’ve put away your pitchforks!

We all have an idea of the kinds of genre-fuelled stimuli we can access. Pick your favourite horror books or films and list the things they have in common. Every rom-com has a familiar structure to it — you can either plot them on paper and figure out that structure for yourself, or *whispers* cheat and google it.

From thrillers, to children’s picture books, to non-fiction articles, to young adult romances, to experimental short stories, to flash fiction — all of these types of writing have a familiar structure and tone to them. If a certain type interests you, write to their conventions.

I often write fantasy young adult fiction, so let’s take that as our example.

1. Research

What kind of things might we expect in a YA Fantasy?

  • A flawed, teenaged main character: Beware the dreaded Mary Sue/Marty Sue. No young person roots for someone who doesn’t struggle. It’s not merely about cheering an underdog, but rather connecting with something real. I also heard some great advice a while ago about specifying ages for young readers; they typically want to read about characters a year or two older than them, so writing for 15/16 year olds you should make your MC 17/18. Just a suggestion and of course flexible, but it helped me!

  • Supernatural elements: does your character develop powers unexpectedly, or are they born with them? Do they have to undergo training to wield them properly? Are the supernatural elements of your story focused on what they are, rather than what they do? Are they werewolves, merpeople, half-dragons, zombies, vampires, witches, or some otherworldly creature hitherto unknown?

  • Romantic interest: not a rule of thumb, but the central character in young adult fiction tends to have some kind of relationship brewing, whether it becomes fully realised or no.

  • Problem themes: young adult fiction (including fantasy) often focuses on societal or moral issues, including mental illness, racism, class divides, rule of government, sexuality, etc.

  • Characters thrust into power: whether through royal decree, usurping governments or unworthy authorities, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the main characters of YA novels are often found leading the charge. How will they cope?

There are more conventions, to be sure, but this list took me about fifteen minutes to research, glancing over my bookshelves and doing a little internet surfing.

Don’t get lost down the rabbit hole! Let’s keep moving.

2. Insert ideas

Taking those tropes we researched in the previous step, we can start spitballing some character traits and scenarios that would fit the genre ‘criteria’.

What will my story be about?

  • A flawed, teenaged main character: Noah, an eighteen-year-old athlete, lives with his dad and runs when he’s feeling stressed. He runs every night. He’s got a mild temper, though it’s pushed to the limits by his dad’s new girlfriend, and he finds himself judging her and snapping, which he doesn’t like in himself.

  • Supernatural elements: When out running on night, Noah wants to find a new route, somewhere that will take him further because he doesn’t want to go home just yet. As he passes through an alleyway, a warm wind rushes over him, and emerging the other side he finds himself in a completely new place, a different realm where elemental magic is not only normal, but compulsory to survive.

  • Romantic interest: a young woman in the new realm, Meli, who first finds Noah when he stumbles into their world. She is older than him by a couple of years, blunt and honest, doesn’t like whiners, and shoulders a lot of responsibility.

  • Problem themes: the story could look at class divide — those who have magic vs those who do not. Another theme would look at family relationships; Noah has a strained home life with his father, but misses him when he’s gone and has no conceivable way to return.

  • Characters thrust into power: Meli is her tribe’s heir to leadership and in order to prove her worth she must train Noah to not only sense his magic and figure out which element he’ll wield, but teach him to use it to fight and defend the tribe.

There you have a quick brainstorm based on the conventions of the fantasy YA genre. This particular list didn’t take me long at all, though it’ll depend on how carefully you want to plan and how many tropes you’ve researched. Make it yours — own it!

3. Develop the bigger picture

Once you’ve come up with your initial ideas, you might want to test the waters to see if you’ve got something worth taking forward.

PSA: not every idea you come up with will be novel-worthy.

Sorry to burst bubbles (including my own), but it’s true.

  • You might try placing your ideas into a three-point, five-point, eight-point, or twelve-point narrative structure to see how they fit and expand (all very easily-googlable, though I’ll write about those in a different post).

  • You might shape out your characters by looking at their desires and motivations versus the barriers and conflicts that will prohibit them from achieving those goals.

  • You might decide to bend and manipulate the conventions of your chosen genre to add twists and surprise or amuse a reader. This could be as simple as reversing gender roles — a princess saving a prince — or changing the location — a vampire headteacher in a primary school. Do whatever feels fun and creative!

However you decide to develop your ideas into a story, don’t let those initial writers’ stumbling blocks halt your progress. Even simple exercises such as these can produce some quality material — and a page full of odd and unusable ideas is still better than a page full of absolutely nothing!

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In Part 4, we’ll be looking at another technique for generating ideas: perusing the press.

Don't forget to check out parts 1 and 2 if you haven't already!

BRAINSTORMING NEW IDEAS - PART 2: Word Association

As a writer, being faced with a blank page can inspire either crippling fear or wondrous anticipation — or both!

In this writing series, we’ll be discussing the ways we can generate some ideas to get started — though I love and worship the good ol’ imagination machine, I’ve found that mine can be somewhat unreliable at times.

In Part 1, we looked at people watching techniques to get the creative juices flowing.

So how can we practically help our brains fill that blank page? Take out your pen or bring up a new word doc and let’s get started!

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Part 1: Word Association

This is one of my favourite exercises to run during workshops and webinars, and it’s something I do all the time personally in my own fiction and non-fiction writing.

(Note: too many people praise and love prompts and exercises during workshops when they’re led by a tutor, but feel odd doing them by themselves when they’re at home. I promise they still work for you when you’re on your couch, curled up in a blanket with a hot chocolate and trying to push your cat off your keyboard!)

First of all, you need to draw yourself two columns. Give yourself plenty of space to write on both sides, and a space at the top for a dominant word. This can be handwritten or typed, but it should look something like this:

Next, you need to decide on your root word. This is something that piques your interest and conjures up related ideas.

Your root word could be a theme, a person, a place. It can even be an emotion, or just an adjective you like. The important thing is to choose a word that has plenty of connotations.

My personal favourite type of root word for the first column is choosing a theme. This gives me a broad reach when I’m completing the next stage.

Based on this root word, write a list of associated words and phrases that connect back to that root. They can be completely random, or very strategic and organised. You can make a note anywhere on that column, you can draw arrows and diagrams, you can cross things out rewrite them. These are your notes, so OWN them!

Here’s an example of one of mine:

Hopefully, you should have a nice long list of words and phrases that link back in some way — however tenuous — to that root word. You can write until you exhaust all ideas, or set a timer for 3–5 minutes and try to cram as much into the time as possible.

DON’T WORRY: you will naturally slow down the longer you list. Our creative brains are fantastic with bursts of energy and initial ideas, but suck at keeping it up long-term.

At the moment you’re probably thinking, hey, I could have figured this out. It’s not so hard. What kind of a tip is this?

But don’t forget: there’s a second column!

(And aside from that, sometimes we need someone else to kick us up the bum, right?)

It’s time to choose another root word, this time for your second column. This word should be wholly unrelated to the first, and preferably much more random. One of my favourite ways to come up with this word is to look around the environment I’m in and pick a random object.

Again, it could be a theme, a person, a place, or any kind of word, as long as it’s not related to the first.

Then go through the same word-association process with your second column.

Mine looked like this:

The last stage, then, is to use these lists and mash them together like Frankenstein’s monster.

Pair up words and phrases from your first column with your second, and see what interesting images or ideas come from these hybrids.

If you’re looking to be really random, close your eyes and pick one from each side. Do they fit together? Probably not, but perhaps you’ll find some interesting combinations.

Let’s talk through mine:

Some of those associations really work — I like the idea of death being linked with mould and decay, which is one I purposefully linked. I could even has death with a capital letter — Death, a being. Perhaps he looks mouldy and decaying in his appearance. 

I think soldiers being linked with gardeners might either spark a good metaphor or else an interesting character (a young gardener who enlists, perhaps?) 

When I used the straight across method (linking those that are directly opposite one another), I had mixed results. I feel like the phrase ‘they’re only men’ links very well with ‘forget-me-nots’, and evokes an emotional image. On the other hand, ‘uniform’ and ‘canopies swaying’ didn’t originally bring any ideas to mind for me. Though, the more I considered it, I imagined fighters hiding up in the trees, perhaps samurai, camouflaged in the high tops of the branches, looking down on their enemies.

So with a little jigging around, word associations can come up with some excellent ideas, though perhaps not always.

The best thing?

Even if you don’t get any direct ideas from this try, you have gone from a blank page to a page full, and that’s something to cheer about!

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In Part 2, we’ll be looking at another technique for generating ideas: people watching.

This article was also published on Medium.