A large blue triangle fills up most of the classroom whiteboard. Students shout out names from our readings, groups of three characters that conflict with each other to create triangles of tension. (This concept was first introduced to me by my writing instructor and mentor, Dr. Heather Sellers.) In the most effective triangles, each character or presence (weather, significant object, etc.) exerts pushback on the other two. Often the tensions aren’t explicitly stated but can be felt through each scene, making readers hungry for the next page. This is what I’ve challenged my students to name, and they excel, thrilled to see this concept in action on the page. I scribble and erase names on each corner of the triangle as fast as my students identify new groups.
When they’re breathless and satisfied, I ask what questions they have.
A student raises her hand.
“Now that we can spot tension, how do we write it? How do I get that third character in there?”
It’s a good question. I think on process, my own and the one discussed by Robert Olen Butler in our course text, From Where You Dream. I come back the next class with a guided writing exercise—one to help them pay attention to tension, to remind them to keep an eye out for that third character, and to help them explicitly reflect on desire and conflict. To go looking for trouble.
The exercise that follows leads to only the beginning of a piece, or the revision of a piece, or the opportunity to re-see where a piece might go. But for many of my students, this is the step they need to launch into full-length, polished work. Some confide in me their reluctance at “being told” what to write, though they quickly realize that the exercise gives them freedom in their writing. The prompts serve as a set of training wheels or handrails for balance and guidance, until they feel confident writing on their own.
- Have students settle into their writing spaces, whatever that may mean for them. Note: I lead my students in a guided meditation before every writing exercise. We close our eyes, pay attention to our breath, and loosen up our bodies. I’ve found that when students’ minds are cleared of distractions—when they’re allowed to relax—they are receptive to new approaches to writing, such as this exercise.
- Start with the first of these prompts and give students a few minutes to write with it: Place yourself or a character in a room or enclosed space. Where are you? What are you doing?
- Ask each of the following questions as students are writing, and be sure to give them several minutes to write with each before moving on. Going through these questions can take ten to twenty minutes, depending on how much time the students need. I let them lead; if they’re still scribbling away after a particular question, I’ll linger with it longer than some of the other questions.
- You may have already noticed this, or you’re just noticing now, but there’s another person in the room with you. What are they doing?
- You and the other character are having a conversation. What do they say to you? What do you say back? What are you doing while you’re talking?
- You may have already noticed this, or you’re just noticing now, but someone or something else is in the room with you two. Who or what is it? What do they say or do? What do you say and do?
- Dig into the desires of each of your characters. What do they want? Who and what is in their way?
- If students are willing to share, have a discussion. I encourage mine to not only share the writing itself, but to discuss observations about the writing process. What did they learn from the guided writing? What was difficult or exciting? What will they do differently in their own writing? These conversations usually take me ten to fifteen minutes, depending on the enthusiasm of the students.
- Encourage students to expand on the pieces they’ve started in class and see where the writing takes them in a full story. I have my students write this story at home, but continue to use class time if you wish.
Example of the Exercise
I’ve used this exercise in my own writing, when I’ve gotten stuck. In this example, I discovered a car can be a character that provides its own tension. With the reflective questions, I realized the scene might need to start sooner, or that I’d need a flashback in a revision to make it clear why my mother is driving my car, because it’s crucial to the tension. Note that this example is not a finished work, but rather shows the drafting process and thinking on the page that the exercise permits.
We’re driving through the dark of early morning Georgia when my car shudders. Th-thunk. Th-thunk. I bolt upright in the passenger seat, shaken from my doze.
My mother grips the steering wheel. Th-thunk. Th-thunk. Heartbeat sounds from the belly of my car. Seventy-five miles an hour, racing daylight to the Georgia–Florida line. Th-thunk.
“Should I pull over?” she asks.
I open the glovebox and dig around for the car manual. Th-thunk.
“I’m sorry, Al. We might have to get you a new car in Florida.”
I don’t want a new car. I want this car. Daisy. With peeling blue paint leaving spots like freckles on the hood. Strips of sunset-orange rust at the bottom of her body. Interior lights on the gas and the gearshift that have burned out.
I read the manual by the light of my phone. Th-thunk. “Get off at the next exit.” I shine light on the shift stick, over the letters that are burned out. “You’re driving on the D with the box around it.”
“What’s the difference?” Th-thunk.
“That’s for mountain driving. Hills.” Southern Georgia is flat, and Florida will be even flatter.
My mother wants to protect me from everything: an exhaustingly long drive, a breaking-down car, a life in Florida without her. [Note: Start scene when mom insists she drive most of the way? Flashback?]
I want to get my new life started, but I can only handle so much newness. [Note: See more homesickness? Michigan.]
If Daisy could talk, I bet she’d rather be home in Michigan, not on an endless trip. [Note: Flashback to more adventures with Daisy. Lake Michigan. What does home look like?]
Allyson Hoffman is a Michigan native who holds an MFA in fiction from the University of South Florida. She is a winner of the 2018 AWP Intro Journals Award in Fiction. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.