Friday, February 15, 2019

Three of Them Waiting

Three Sisters cover 1901.jpg
John Corrigan's post about starting his students thinking about beginnings for books and stories reminded me of a terrific workshop I attended. Michael Shaara was on the panel. His book, The Killer Angels, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975.
He was a mesmerizing speaker and told of a technique he used in his literature classes when he taught at Florida State University. He gave this opening: "There were three of them waiting."
Talk about immediacy! I borrowed this and used it time and again in my own workshops. The results were astonishing. Not only did this beginning spark students' imaginations, I was fascinated by what I learned about the students.
It's a terrific beginning and kicks off other necessary fictional elements. Often I would have participants write the first thoughts that popped in their heads on a 3 x 5 cards and pass the cards to me. Who or what were the three? What were they waiting for? Where were they waiting? (Setting) Why were they waiting? (Immediate suspense) What was the problem (Beginning plot)
Michael said one of his students won an important award.
I selected a card for the whole class to work on. That's all it took. After that it was a free for all. They called out answers to follow up questions. Who, where, when, why?
Here are some of the responses:
Three nuns. What were they waiting for? A train. Someone piped up "An orphan train." They couldn't call out ideas fast enough. For instance, one nun in particular had a profound sense of dread. Why? She had an illegitimate child years ago. She had reason to believe the child was on the train. Wow!
One responses was three soldiers. That's always loaded.
One group of raucous boys snickered about three guys in a bar waiting for their GED teacher. The banter got complicated. They planned to kidnap Arnold Schwarzenegger's kid. I said "okay, the kid is one of the Kennedys. You've involved the FBI" You could have heard a pin drop. It was a great space for a mini-history lesson. Serious plotting followed. How does one deal with the FBI?
The story Michael said won a big award was another story inspired by the "big three." The three waiting were ambulances. The setting was the Indy 500. Two times during the race an ambulance was dispatched.
The third and final ambulance came for the narrator of the story. . .


Anna said...

I am usually responsible for providing prompts for a 15-minute exercise to my writers' group. You can bet I will use this one. Thanks!

Irene Bennett Brown said...

Wow. Your posts are always great, Charlotte, but this is one of the best. I have to try this, "Three were waiting".

Charlotte Hinger said...

Anna, if you deal with students, you will be amazed at what is on their minds. I remember several young men who were thinking about being sent to Panama. Conflict over the Suez Canal. Who would have suspected they worried about being drafted?

Charlotte Hinger said...

Irene, it can even be used to kicking off thinking for us old war horses.

Eileen Goudge said...

Great post! Good suggestion for an opening line.

Donis Casey said...

What a great idea! Must steal immediately...