Masterclass in writing

Deborah Abela

This is an example of an all-day workshop with suggested times. Some activities may take more time depending on the class. Be flexible.

  • Session 1: 9:30–11am: Ideas for getting started
  • Morning tea 11-11:20
  • Session 2: 11:20–12:30: Character and story
  • Lunch 12:30–1:10pm
  • Session 3: 1:15–2:30: Language
  • Afternoon tea 2:30-2:50
  • Session 4: 2:50–3:30 Presentation

Session 1: Ideas for getting started

9:30–9:40 —Name cards and what will happen today

Ask each student to write their name on a card. This will help you get to know the students and make the workshop feel more personal. Explain that we’ll play games to get our minds working. From those games we’ll make choices about what our stories will be about, who our characters will be and where they will be set. With each activity, decide what you’d like to focus on for your story today. At the end of the day, we’ll have a piece of work to share with the rest of the class.

A little about me: my writing past, show a segment of Cheez TV (a previous writing job of mine). Read from current novels.

9:40–9:50 — Problem solving

Stories often revolve around solving a problem, whether it’s completing a homework assignment on time, winning a soccer match or saving the world from bad guys. Ask the students to imagine the following scenario and explain what is going on: Your character has woken up and has no idea where he/she is.

The students need to think about who or what has woken up, where they are, why don’t they recognise where they are and what will the character do next?

9:50–10:10 — Some basics

  • Originality — fresh and imaginative in content and expression.
  • Characterisation — should be lifelike, believable and portrayed through action and speech as well as description.
  • Story construction — strong beginning, logical sequence of events, satisfying conclusion.
  • Language skills — show don’t tell, no clichés, easy on adjectives.

What makes a great story?

Think about the books you love. What makes them great for you?

10:10–10:25 — Story beginnings

What’s the job of a good beginning? What do you think we can expect from these books? Choose books that have very different styles, tones and ways of beginning.

  • Deborah Abela Grimsdon
  • Lemony Snicket The Bad Beginning
  • Morris Gleitzman Once

What do these beginnings tell us about: the story? Tone? Do they leave you curious to know more?

10:25–10:45 — Writing beginnings

Write the next part of the story (five minutes). Create your own or use an idea from the one-minute story activity.

  • He was running straight towards me.
  • I’ve never told anyone this, but …
  • Since I was a small child I’ve been able to …
  • ‘Stop!’

10:45–11 — Share

Morning tea 11–11:20

Session 2: Character and story

11:20–11:40 — Character

What methods can writers use to describe character? For example, dialogue, action, description. We want characters that feel real.

Display an image of a person to the class. Ask students to suggest details about this person that would create a full character profile, including name, mannerisms, behaviour, likes and dislikes, friends, family etc. Try to steer the students away from stereotypes.

11:40–12:15 — The bones of your story

Stephen King begins a novel by placing two characters in a situation. Have two boxes with cards. Choose two character cards and one situation card.

 Characters  Situations
 Priest  bank robbery
 Prime Minister  stuck in a lift
 sports freak  locked in overnight in a sweets factory
 clown  stuck in a ferris wheel over the ocean
 dentist  suspended from a broken cable car over the snow
 policewoman  witnessing a mugging
 school kid  

Tell us what happens next. Or

What happens next?

Set up a scene from a book leading into a passage you would like to read to the class. Do this by describing the story so far, the characters involved and what is at stake in the passage you are about to read. Stop at various points and ask what the students would do next if this was their story. This emphasises the point that writing is about choice and choosing the most interesting and compelling scenario for their work.

After you have heard many different versions of the story, read what the writer chose to do.

12:15–12:30 — Share

Lunch 12:30–1:10

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Session 3: Setting and language

1:10–1:20 — Setting

It's about detail and atmosphere. Choose one of the locations below and brainstorm words with the class to describe it. Try to imagine everything around it. What can you see and hear? Imagine what's inside and around it. What does it smell like? What is the temperature? Ask each student to set a scene by writing about one of them.

  • A castle
  • An old boarding school
  •  A sleepy antique shop
  • A cave
  • An amusement park.

1:20–1:45 — Language

Stamp your writing with your own creative touch. If you’ve heard an expression before, don’t use it unless there’s a point, e.g. to show how clichéd a character is. (However, many bestsellers are full of clichés.)

Show don’t tell

Instead of, ‘She was completely devastated’, you could say: ‘She sat down, her hands limp at her side, her scraping breath the only sound that could be heard’.


Ask your students to re-read their work so far. Are there any sentences they don’t need, for instance, the reader already knows the information in the sentence, the sentence isn’t necessary for the story to be told.

Stamp your writing

Stamp your writing with your own creative touch. If you’ve heard an expression before don’t use it unless there’s a point, for example, to show how clichéd a character is.

Be careful with ‘ly’ words

Carefully, masterfully, quietly, conscientiously, angrily … there are lots of them. Ask the students to find ways of showing their characters displaying these traits without using these words

1:45–2:30 —Write and ask yourself:

  • Does the story have a new angle or a clever twist?
  • How is my idea different from other stories?
  • Does the story flow well?
  • Is it believable?

Session 4: Presentation

2:50–3:30 — Readings of student work

  • Watch, write and read
  • Write about things you are interested in and excited about
  • Show don’t tell
  • A good story always feels true, no matter how fantastic
  • Create dramatic blocks; don’t make your story too easy
  • Writing is about making choices
  • Climax: make it believable and a result of what your story has established. Consider both the plot and the emotional journey of the character(s)
  • Be original
  • Just start. Don’t think about it, do it. And keep trying.

Afternoon tea 2:30–2:50