Writing workshop notes

Deborah Abela

I like to play games with students, especially if the workshop is at the beginning of a day when they may still be waking up. From the games, the students will make choices about what their stories will be about, who their characters will be and where they will be set.

What makes a great story?

Ask the students what is it they love about their favourite books. I ask this of the students because I think it’s important to write about what they love and are interested in. This includes content as well as genre or style.

Brain awakeners

One-minute story

I have three bags with cards of story basics: objects, characters, places. A student comes to the front of the class and chooses one card from each bag and has 10 seconds before they have to deliver a scenario for a story involving those chosen elements.


Eggplant, soccer ball, laser, hardhat, sword, cheesecake, Lifetime Achievement Award, snail, badly behaved dog, an ivory tusk, an ancient, powerful amulet, a whirlwind, a rusty sword, a lasso, a pyramid, a tin of beans …


CIA agent, queen, ferry driver, garbage man/woman, taxi driver, soccer star, policeman/ woman, TV news reporter, princess, knight, pilot, miser, scared guard ...


Railway station, palace, Gobi desert, the Great Wall of China, pizza restaurant, church, weight loss class, ghost town, sewer, a secret garden, a lab, holiday camp …

Stream of consciousness

Write: ‘At this moment I …’ Write whatever comes into your mind. Ramble, have fun! (eight minutes) Find a place that suggests where your story could start. Pick out the bits you’d like to keep, put the rest aside. What attracts you to that idea …? How can you start to develop it further … character, plot, setting, tone …?

Why and because

Ask half the group to start a question with ‘Why’ and the other to write a sentence beginning with ‘Because’. Ask the students to read them out: match a ‘why’ with a ‘because’.

First line

Group exercise. Give the group a first line and ask each person in turn to add to the story until they have created a full piece with an ending.

Solving problems

Writing stories is a bit like solving problems. You create dilemmas for characters and then need to come up with solutions. Come up with a solution to: He came home from school to find his house had gone. What has happened?

First part of a story

Give the students a start to a story and ask them to finish it. The story has set the tone and given a hint as to the main character or setting.

Some basics to apply to your stories

  • Originality — make sure your story is fresh and imaginative in content and style.
  • 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.

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?

Your story skeleton

Draw three columns on the board. Ask the students to think of characters, locations and situations they’d like to write about.

 Character Location  Situation
 ogre zoo  organising a parade
 baker desert oasis
 slaying a dragon
 deep sea diver
 finding a lost city
 schoolboy a palace
 escaping from an orphanage
 bus driver
ghost town
 learning to fly

Choose from each column and write a synopsis. Students may choose more than one from each or make up their own. (Make sure the situation/problem is clearly defined. It’s this that will drive their stories forward.) Share.


What methods can writers use to describe character? For example, dialogue, action, direct description. Make them feel real. Choose some of your favourite character descriptions to read out to the students.

A large truck of a man behind a desk at the front of the queue lifted his head to see what the commotion was. He eyed Max closely as she approached the desk and stepped into his darkened shadow. She felt her Danger Meter tingle inside her dress as her eyes rose warily up his bulky frame. He had stubby, sausage-like fingers, arms as thick as an old lounge chair, a crumpled orange shirt stretched over his bulging belly and a bucket sized head rimmed with a motley black and grey beard that was so thick you couldn’t see his lips. Max Remy Superspy Part 2: Spyforce Revealed page 232
Tricky was the quick-footed one on the team and could perform tricks with his feet that looked like magic. Jasper’s dad said he was Tricky with the girls too. If there was one standing within ten metres of him, he’d have eyed them off and worked out what his opening line was going to be within five seconds flat. Jasper Zammit Part 1: The Game of Life page 26

Find unique and interesting ways to describe characters. Let your reader know them in mannerism, behaviour, looks, personality. For example, maybe a character has a wintry smile and hair the colour of storm clouds.

What would be an interesting way to describe your character?

Story beginnings

What’s the job of a good beginning? What do you think we can expect from the following beginnings? (Read some great beginnings from books you or your class love.)

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

What do these beginnings tell us about: The story? Tone? Characters? Do they leave you curious for more? Write a story beginning remembering the crucial jobs of a good beginning.

A few things about 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’ (which doesn’t paint a clear picture), you could say: ‘She sat down, her hands limp at her side, her scraping breath the only sound that could be heard’.

Think of action, dialogue, description. Find ways of showing us that a character is scared, mean or angry.

... but don’t overdo it

For example:

  • Her heart shattered and she wept bitter sobs.
  • His heart ballooned in his chest, pounding with all the thoughts of love.
  • It was a beautiful blue sunny day and the shimmering sparkling water danced in the glorious sun’s radiant rays.

Sometimes it’s stronger to use quieter and simpler words.

The not very exciting sentence

Find other ways of saying:

It was a windy day. The house was falling down. The building was abandoned. The sea was rough. The mountain was high. The party was exciting. (But remember not to overdo it.)


Generally good, simple writing is very powerful but if you add colour, make it your own. Think of different words to describe:

  • Honey — not just runny, golden or sweet
  • The ocean, not just sparkling, vast, rough
  • Eyes, not just sparkling, sad or shining.


Make every word earn its place in your story. Ask students what is wrong with the following sentences: He whispered quietly. He nodded his head. She squealed excitedly.

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Deborah Abela

Above: Children's book author Deborah Abela


I believe this is really important for the students. Not everyone may like to share, but I find most students do and it is a chance to give instant praise and constructive feedback. I have also led writing classes where at the end of the year I have collected the final drafts of the stories and had them bound into a hard cover book that was then accessioned into the library, for the entire school to borrow. The students feel excited because they have been published.

Questions to ask yourself about your story

  • Were there any confusing passages?
  • Did you gain a sense of person and place?
  • Were there enough details? Were there too many for what your story needed? Was there a balance of showing and telling?
  • Was the conflict believable? Why or why not?
  • If it’s a short story, was the story told adequately in the time allowed?


  • Does the opening hook you in and do you want to read more?
  • Was the conflict clear?
  • Were the characters and setting established adequately?
  • Did it set the tone and mood of the story?


  • Are the main characters well developed, or did they seem like stereotypes or cardboard cutouts?
  • Were the minor/background characters three- dimensional?
  • Did the characters behave consistently?
  • Were the details consistent and accurate?
  • Was the motive/conflict clear?
  • Did your main character undergo some type of change?


  • Did the dialogue ring true?
  • Did the dialogue enhance characterisation, reveal new information and advance the story?
  • Could you tell who was speaking?
  • Were there too many dialogue tags or substitutions for ‘said’?
  • Did the dialect (if any) work?


  • Did you have a sense of time and place?
  • Was there too much (or too little) detail?
  • Did the places seem real?
  • Were facts accurate and consistent?


  • Was the plot believable? Why or why not?
  • Did the story begin at the right place?
  • Were there any scenes that didn’t relate to the rest of the story?


  • Was the ending believable and satisfying?
  • Did the story end at the right place?

Point of view

  • Was the point of view consistent?
  • Did the point of view jump from one character to another?
  • Would another point of view have worked better?
  • Was there any author intrusion or editorialising?


  • Were the transitions smooth?
  • Were there any long passages of exposition that detracted from the rest of the story?
  • Were there places the sentences could be tightened or rewritten for clarity?
  • Is there too much of a passive voice? Are there too many adjectives or adverbs? Redundancies? Unnecessary qualifiers like ‘seem’ or ‘appear’?

A few tips

  • Write and read lots
  • Write about things you love
  • Show don’t tell
  • A good story always feels true
  • 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 with language, content and style
  • Just start. Don’t think about it, do it. And keep trying.