The Four Wheels of Great Writing: A Small Group Workshop to Jumpstart Storytelling

Note: I developed this for a writing workshop I led several years ago on the Oregon coast. These activities are best suited to writing groups with a minimum of 4-6 participants. 

To be “good,” writing must first be intelligible, that is to say, understandable by the reader in the manner the writer intends. To be “great,” writing must also be meaningful. Meaningful writing becomes an engine for captivating, charming and, in the best instances, changing readers. But how to prod the lumbering beast along? A set of four key writerly wheels provide us with the momentum to move our ideas forward:

  • Wheel 1: Rich characterization
  • Wheel 2: Compelling storyline
  • Wheel 3: Vivid description
  • Wheel 4: Rigorous editing

But how?! Let’s go a bit deeper …

WHEEL 1: RICH CHARACTERIZATION

Activity 1: Read and discuss this definition of rich characterization with your small group. What would you add?

Rich characterization: “Creating and developing three-dimensional characters whose looks, beliefs and actions throughout the story continually add to/validate to the reader’s understanding of him/her.”

Activity 2: Discuss these methods of characterization in your small group.

  • Physical descriptions – What do his/her looks reveal about habits, behaviors, personality? What can you describe besides clothing, size and hair color?
  • Attitude – How does the character affect others and vice versa?
  • Dialogue – What information do verbal exchanges reveal about characters?
  • Characters’ names – Does the name tell us something about him/her? Does it always need to tell us something?

Activity 3: Read this example of rich characterization from JD Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Then discuss as a group. 

“I flunked you in history because you knew absolutely nothing.”

“I know that, sir. Boy, I know it. You couldn’t help it.”

“Absolutely nothing,” he said over again. That’s something that drives me crazy. When people say something twice that way, after you admit it the first time. Then he said it three times. “But absolutely nothing. I doubt very much if you opened your textbook even once the whole term. Did you? Tell the truth, boy.”

“Well, I sort of glanced through it a couple of times,” I told him. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He was mad about history.

“You glanced through it, eh?” he said–very sarcastic. “Your, ah, exam paper is over there on top of my chiffonier. On top of the pile. Bring it here, please.”

It was a very dirty trick, but I went over and brought it over to him–I didn’t have any alternative or anything. Then I sat down on his cement bed again. Boy, you can’t imagine how sorry I was getting that I’d stopped by to say good-by to him. He started handling my exam paper like it was a turd or something. “We studied the Egyptians from November 4th to December 2nd,” he said. “You chose to write about them for the optional essay question. Would you care to hear what you had to say?”

“No, sir, not very much,” I said.

He read it anyway, though. You can’t stop a teacher when they want to do something.

They just do it.

 

Which of the above methods does the author use to develop rich characterization?

Can you think of other examples of writing that uses rich characterization?

What challenges do you as a writer face when working with this wheel?

WHEEL 2: COMPELLING STORYLINE

Activity 1: Read and discuss this definition of compelling storyline with your small group. What would you add?

A compelling storyline (AKA plot) arises from a compelling conflict. The story itself may be full of tension and action or it may whir quietly along, but a “hook” is essential. 

Activity 2: Discuss these methods of constructing storyline in your small group.

  • Start with a conflict – Who has what/whom? Who wants what/whom?
  • Create complications – How does the character navigate obstacles and setbacks?
  • Keep up the momentum – How does each scene move the storyline forward?
  • Remember: fancy footwork is not (necessarily) required – Does the story require twists and turns or will a simple plot do? You decide.

Activity 3: Read this example of compelling storyline from George Orwell’s “1984.” Then discuss as a large group. 

Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron and the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard …

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer, though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometre away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste — this was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania. He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air and the willow-herb straggled over the heaps of rubble; and the places where the bombs had cleared a larger patch and there had sprung up sordid colonies of wooden dwellings like chicken-houses? But it was no use, he could not remember: nothing remained of his childhood except a series of bright-lit tableaux occurring against no background and mostly unintelligible.

Which of the above methods does the author employ to create compelling storyline?

Can you think of other examples of writing that contain especially compelling storylines?

What challenges do you as a writer face when working with this wheel?

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WHEEL 3: VIVID DESCRIPTION

Activity 1: Read and discuss this definition of vivid description with your small group. What would you add?

Vivid description employs plenty of telling details that engage the five senses and paint a strong visual picture. Give ‘em the name of the dog and the brand of the beer!

Activity 2: Discuss these methods of constructing description in your small group.

  • Get out and observe – Spend time in real-time environments similar to those you’re writing about. How might observing these real-life scenes add color to your writing?
  • Fly blind – How can you describe a fictional moment in terms other than sights and visual stimulus? Give the reader smells, sounds, feels, tastes.
  • Employ great metaphors/similes – Faster than a bullet? Madder than a hornet? Reach for something more authentic and vivid. What metaphors are you sick to death of?

Activity 3: Read this example of vivid description from Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” We’ll discuss it as a large group.  

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. You would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. It was a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness. The men and women who frequented the Amateurs stayed drunk all of the time or all of the time they could afford it…

The Café des Amateurs was the cesspool of the rue Mouffetard, that wonderful narrow crowded market street which led into the Place Contrescarpe. The squat toilets of the old apartment houses, one by the side of the stairs on each floor with two cleated cement shoe-shaped elevations on each side of the aperture so a locataire would not slip, emptied into cesspools which were emptied by pumping into horsedrawn tank wagons at night. In the summer time, with all windows open, you would hear the pumping and the odor was very strong.

How would the piece be different if the descriptions were kept at a minimum?

Can you think of other examples of writing that contain especially vivid description?

What challenges do you as a writer face when working with this wheel?

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WHEEL 4: RIGOROUS EDITING

 The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.

­– Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1902-1903

Activity 1: Read and discuss this definition of rigorous editing. What would you add?

Rigorous editing means taking a long and unemotional look at your writing. It entails tweaking, reworking, rewording, rewriting and rethinking, as necessary, and it includes cutting where you can and adding on where you must. Rigorous editing often occurs in several rounds, and it should always involve peer critique.

Activity 2: Writer response. Choose one (or more) of these questions and freewrite for 10 minutes on the back of this handout.

  • What ideas do you have for improving your piece based on the critique you got?
  • How often do you edit and revise your pieces to the point where they feel “truly finished?” Does this matter to you?
  • Should a writer always change a piece based on peer critique, or is there sometimes justification for keeping elements of the story as-is?
  • Which aspects of editing your peers’ work do you find challenging?

Activity 3: Franz Kafka hung a sign above his desk that read, simply, “Wait.” He did this because as a writer he struggled with being too hasty in his writing, and he wanted to remind himself to take his time with crafting stories. If you were to hang a one- or two-word sign above your own desk, what would it say?

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