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Reading and writing fantasy - Hive Mind alert!
kateelliott
In a couple of weeks I'll be giving a 45 minute workshop for mostly teen readers entitled "Reading and writing fantasy."

Oh hive mind, help me!

The key is to engage in discussion and get them talking. So what questions should I have handy to get them talking and keep them talking? It's likely I will have anywhere from 10 - 40 students in the room, aged 12 - 17 (with a few adults for good measure), and I can't count on having a chalkboard or other writing set up; are there any short group or back and forth exercises any has handy? Stuff that would get the audience engaged and or thinking?

Any and all thoughts and brainstorming welcome.

Wow, I wish I could participate in something like this!

I have a few ideas that might be of interest. First, you can always play a short game of simple storytelling - one person starts a story, stops at a cliffhanger, the next takes it up from there. Mostly, these games are very silly, but you can decide, along with the group, to see if you can make a coherent fantasy story out of it.
Second, a discussion topic which I personally enjoy when it comes to fantasy is how reading and writing fantasy is something that gives us freedom. So often fantasy novels show us the impossible, the magical, the godlike and heroic. It is a way to spread the wings of our imagination by making things up and writing them or by letting a writer take us into her or his imagination and made-up world.
Third, many fantasy authors choose to base parts of their worlds on real politics, cultures or history. You can go into a discussion about the sort of research that is needed for that, and on the flip side, the poetic license writers may take even when basing things on real events or periods.

Thank you. I think the second you mention here will be particularly useful given the short time frame and the mix of audience.

You could ask them questions - open questions, beginning with what or who or how, so that they can't just say yes or no.

What book did you like the best? What made it fun to read?

You could do the rounds on that, or let them form little groups and discuss it among themselves first....


I think given the situation this is the way I'm going to go.

Parhaps you could look at the heroes journey? I've noticed that a lot of the fantasy I've read follows it and it can be of assistance with constructing a story.

It's also restrictive and encourages using (and looking for) a formula, so I'd avoid it.

There's something I've done with teens that works really well, but it requires just a wee bit of preparation on your part. Luckily, the prep probably doesn't take more than about 1/2 hour.

You start by creating a batch of sentence subjects. If you expect up to 40 kids, probably prepare 50 just to be on the safe side. 'The old yew tree.' 'My kindergarden teacher.' 'The next door neighbour's cat.' 'The ripe tomato.' And so on. If you're really brave, use your name for one of them. Type these subjects on separate lines in your word processor, spacing it so you can cut them into strips. Print and, er, cut into strips. Prep done.

At the workshop, hand the strips out, one to each kid. Tell them to create and write the rest of the sentence to the right of the subject. For example, one might write, 'The ripe tomato fell with a great splat and its innards went everywhere.' Once they're done, have them tear off the pre-printed subjects. Collect the subjects, then hand them out again, asking them to make sure they don't have the one they started with. Have each kid read out their new sentence. It's HILARIOUS! ('My kindergarden teacher fell with a great splat and its innards went everywhere'!)

If there's time and you want to do a longer writing exercise, have them each write out a paragraph in which their new sentence is used. Have a few brave souls read out their paragraphs.

Good luck and have fun. Working with teens is bloody brilliant!

This is a wonderful exercise. It gets past the "I don't know what to say" problem and the "I don't understand what you want" problem, and defuses teen self-consciousness with laughter. Also begins to teach kids how they can go about thinking outside of the domestic realist, "this really happened to me" box.

May I use it some time?

In terms of getting them thinking about story, I'd be asking them to think about the stories they love best, the ones they couldn't put down and/or go back to re-read or watch again and again. Ask them to talk about why they love them, so they can make the connection between storyteller and audience and how a writer needs to be both. If there's time, I'd split them into 2 groups, and have one group invent a hero and the other invent a villain, getting them to focus on making the characters recognisable but original.

Excellent questions. Given how short a time I have, focusing on discussion may be the way to go.

It kind of depends a bit on the groups but I usually get a good result with the props game. You turn up with four or five deeply ambiguous objects and ask them what they could be. So, for example, I have a glass paper weight which looks like a dragon's eye/aien egg/ door knob and you get them to make suggestions as to what they could be. Then, when you have enough fantasy type ideas going you ask them to combine all five items in one or other of their possible incarnations into a plot. They can do that in groups or individually and when they mention the item you pick up the prop and hold it ( which if they are bulky and you are clumsy usually gets a laugh as well) You can ask them questions about motive etc.
I have done this with adults as well and as long as you create an environment in which craziness is applauded - it can be good fun. Good luck!

PS If you like to write things down as I do - you should be able to request a flip chart and pens. I can't do anything without a pen in my hand.

This is a really interesting idea.

There was a bit of problem last year with getting a whiteboard.

Characterisations are important. Half the reason I read at that age was because I could walk in the shoes of a dragonrider, an elf or a swordfighter. Get them to discuss what characters they love, then ask them why? What makes the character appealing? Ask them what motivates their character? What makes their character angry or sad. You can also touch on the fact that what is good or evil for one character may not be the same as others ... and get them thinking along lines of subjectivity, especially if you can find two character concepts who would naturally be opposed to each other.

You could then put them in pairs and get them to discuss how their two characters may interact and have them outline a short "plot" of how their characters would work with or against each other.

I've just done something similar with my writers' group and we've had some awesome results ... and some surprising ones.

This is a really important reminder of the importance of character and identifying with character at this age (at all ages, but especially this age for the 'walking in the shoes of' element).

Mention Harry Potter somehow.

Of course, the trick then is to somehow get it OFF of HP and onto a more general topic.

Edited at 2009-03-29 01:34 pm (UTC)

Darcy solved that problem with her comment farther down!

I just did one a couple of weeks ago, and it went like gangbusters. If you want my ideas to consider or adapt, let me know email--I don't want to risk yapping on too long in someone else's space.

Maybe you could post about this on your own space, then. Because I'd be interested. I miss talking about teaching.

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If I can suggest -- showing some awareness of the fantasy they're already engaged with might help. Not just literary/fictional. There's a popular misconception out there that teens don't read and don't do fantasy, but they do, just in a multimedia form.

So I would ask them about which fantasy video games they've played, and which fantasy manga they've read, and which recent fantasy films they've loved. Then ask them to list the specific elements that made those films/games/manga enjoyable -- this would work well as an interactive/call-out thing, with you jotting the elements on a whiteboard. (e.g., funny protagonist, sexy love interest, stuff blowing up, whatever) Then ask them to brainstorm ways to do this in lit form. Maybe have them write a first paragraph designed to "hook" a reader with one or two of the listed elements, then have a few brave souls read their paragraph and have the class discuss it.

Of course you can suggest! We are all inescapably part of the hive mind. Or at any rate, the one I am acqainted with!

Excellent reminder to include film and manga. Manga has been big here for a long time because of the strong connections with Japan.

Last year I got a whiteboard but no working pen!

Suggestions more or less off the top of my head. Use, modify, discard, ignore as suits you.

Definitely ask them about what they've read and/or watched and/or played. Ask them what they liked, but also ask them what they didn't like. And why.

Ask them about clichés. (You may have to help them understand what you mean, but I'll bet they have things they're sick of seeing and will be eager to talk about them.)

Talk about fairy tales.

Ask them what magical companion animal (or daimon, if they're familiar with Pullman) they would most want. I was writing fantasy when I was that age, and the companion animals were a big part of it.

Ask them for words they like (and come prepared with some examples, like gossamer, gloaming, synechdoche, velvet, apricot). Then have them draw a map (I think this could work either as an individual or a group task) with say, three cities, a mountain range, and a river. The River Gossamer, the Holy City of Synechdoche, the Gloaming Mountains, Velvet Town, Port St. Apricot. Et voila. You have a fantasy world. (I loved drawing maps as a teenager and drew them endlessly--more maps than actual stories.) This exercise could go a lot of places (so to speak), but it would depend on how willing your students are to participate.

Excellent. Thank you. I'm leaning toward just doing discussion for most of it, back and forth, using things like this to spark response.

Write a story they can twitter or send via text message. I think it's Hemingway who wrote "For sale: One pair of baby shoes, never used," or something like that. The sentence fragment exercise someone else suggested could be used as a starter for something like this.

There's also an exercise I've used: "What's your pet's super power and how does it get him into trouble? How does it get him out?" Mainly the virtue of this exercise is that it shows how ideas can come from real life. Put together a plausible thing with an implausible thing.

Stephen King talks about how he creates horror out of the things we trust. It's scary when a dog goes berserk: voila! Cujo. That car is really cool: Voila! Christine. And so on. Ask the kids what they trust, then ask them what would happen if the thing they trusted went crazy.

Give them a basic plot--boy meets dragon, boy loses dragon, boy gets dragon back--and ask them each to write a version of the story. It demonstrates how one plot can and will be told differently by every writer.

Talk about first contact stories. They've probably read or experienced them without realizing it: the pilgrims meet the Native Americans; puppy meets squirrel; human meets dolphin; muggle meets wizard.

Just some ideas....

The "trust" issue is an interesting one to bring up, in terms of plotting. I hadn't thought of King's writing in that way before.

45 minutes isn't much time at all. I notice there are a lot of suggestions here about the 'Writing' portion of the title, but not as many about the 'Reading' part. How important is that to the intent of the workshop?

If you can spare the time, I think you'd do well to open with What and Why - what (briefly!) is fantasy an what distinguishes it from other sorts of writing, and why would you want to read or write it? What does it make possible that other sorts of writing don't? I have my own answers to those questions, and you probably have ones that are somewhat different, but they might never have given the question any thought. And it's probably an important starting point - 'What (am I the writer)/(is the writer) trying to do with this story, and what made fantasy the best way to do it?' Each thing in a story should be there for a reason, and that includes the entire choice of genre :)

Excellent questions. thanks.

I'd open with "How many of you have read the Harry Potter books?" and after the hands go up, say "Okay, we're not going to talk about Harry Potter!"

For sparking creativity, toss out a word or phrase or idea (ie "Let your fingers do the walkin'") and have them write three sentences - NO MORE - about the idea with a fantasy twist that incorporates the concept (not necessarily the phrase).

Good opening question and response! *g*

You could also poll several writers: Who's read Harry Potter, who's read Philip Pullman, Who's read Ursula Le Guin?


Yes, this sounds like an excellent way to start.

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