During Birmingham’s Artsfest, which is the UK’s largest free arts festival, Iain and I ran a Collaborative Writing Workshop.
We were housed in the Council House, so we enjoyed some gentle background music from a guitarist performing in Victoria Square.
The participants who turned up had a variety of expectations. Some were writers that we knew, so they had come along, knowing that we’d play some fun, creative games. Some were fairly new to writing, and were looking for ways to shape ideas.
Here’s how it works:
We set the ground rules first of all. Meant in a fun way, we want to make sure that everyone is comfortable playing nicely and sharing ideas openly. Any ideas generated are up for grabs for anyone to develop afterwards, collaboratively or not.
To make sure that the workshop fits into an hour, we have to quickly establish what is the common ground between collaborators who haven’t met before. Participants’ first job was to pair up with someone and use our story ideas worksheet to compare the types of story that interest them. This is a super-fast way to find out what sort of story they will work on for the rest of the workshop. By choosing three ideas that resonate for them both (three matches out of forty ideas on the worksheet, the odds are good) then most writers find it almost impossible not to start talking about the plot they can see shaping up.
A few minutes later and we have to put on our bossy boots to insist that each of the pairs can summarise their story in a sentence or two. This is crucial to be able to move onto the next stage. Good news – they all can!
Now it’s time to start work on characters. Participants have a few minutes to decide who are their main two characters and some idea of gender, name and age. That’s the basics over and now we move onto the most popular part of the workshop.
Each pair has a set of index cards and makes their own deck of “character trait” cards. These can range from physical characteristics to political views or maybe nasty habits. Depending on the participants, we expect some bizarre and amusing traits to pop up.
We might decide to mix the cards up by swapping them between groups. Then we play a selection game where each participant takes a character that they are developing and builds up a library of traits. They will take it in turns with their partner to pick up a card that they think they can use. It doesn’t hurt to have a few conflicts in there, it makes for more interesting characters. After selecting the cards that they want, the two collaborators will discuss their characters and find that they suddenly know them much better.
We can test this. If we have a particularly confident pair of collaborators then we spend a few minutes questioning one of them about a character, and how they’d behave in a given situation. Their partner (who has been placed into our sophisticated isolation booth) will then be asked the same questions to see if they match. Yes, this is the same as the old gameshow Mr & Mrs, but it works perfectly to round off our workshop. The hour has flown by and we send our participants away with the bones of a story and their two main characters.