Claire Coughlan attended Joanna Briscoe’s workshop at the Mountains to Sea literary festival for writing.ie, and brings you her insights, hot off the press…you can read part 1 here.
Joanna Briscoe has published five novels, including the internationally bestselling Sleep with Me, which was adapted for ITV and was described by Jonathan Coe in the Guardian as “A beautifully written and emotionally candid novel which also happens to be a page-turner.”
Joanna is a tutor at the Faber Academy, where she has taught many courses in novel writing at all levels. She has also taught at Birkbeck, University of London; for City University, and the Arvon Foundation, as well as running workshops in Wales and throughout the UK.
Your characters should change. This is one of the things that Joanna Briscoe emphasised to the group of aspiring novelists at Mountains to Sea festival in the workshop From Character to Plot, how good characters lead to good storytelling. There should be a character arc – are your characters passive or active, do things ‘happen’ to your characters?
Character is a confluence of features that facilitates plot. Your plot happens at significant points in your characters’ arcs where change is occurring.
When creating your character, be mindful of what are their motives and aims. What does your character love/hate/really want? And what’s the obstacle in their way? This means there is conflict, which is where all novels start.
As mentioned last week, Joanna reminded us that we may not like big surprises in ‘real life’ but we love them as readers. Think about what is the motor of your novel. Your novel is, in a way, a game of Hide and Seek – you, as the author, know the information, but where do you plant it to keep the reader feeling compelled to turn the pages? Your reader needs to be fed that information as you see fit, you are the leading this game of Hide and Seek.
Joanna advised putting a big scene at the beginning of the novel, don’t hold off, thinking you’ll build up to it. Be confident. Don’t delay with your high points, Joanna warned, saying that most writers put off ‘big’ scenes. Think in terms of conflicts.
You can free associate in terms of plot, but it’s useful to encapsulate your story into nine points. They should be nine pivotal points of real change and the arc of your novel will emerge from this.
Betrayal is a common theme in many novels and it is useful to think about with regard to your characters. Is anyone not what they seem to be? Why?
Get to know your characters away from your main narrative. Interview them, ask them questions, such as: If you had three wishes, what would they be? Is there anyone you would die for; who and why? Where will you be in ten years’ time? If you could erase one memory or event, what would it be and why?
Write out a profile or biography for your character, asking yourself what age they are; where they grew up; what their parents were like; any siblings; what they do for a living. Ask yourself, what is their most treasured possession? Write a scene imagining your character in the room physically: what do they look like, what are their mannerisms? What are they wearing? What does their voice sound like?
All these things will inform how you depict your characters on the page.
Joanna recommended the writing guide, How to Write Fiction, A Guardian Masterclass, published by Guardian Shorts, particularly the sections on Character, by Andrew Miller, and Dialogue, by DBC Pierre, for further reading on the elements covered in this workshop.
(c) Claire Coughlan