The Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize is closing soon, and I’ve been reading the Judges’ Comments from the past few years. I’m struck by their interest in the “spaces” and “distances” within a story. The distance between two characters whose backgrounds and trajectories are too disparate to allow them more than a brief connection (Felicity Castagna’s “Next”). The distance between the protagonist’s understanding of her situation, and the reader’s (Krissy Kneen’s “Steeple Chase”). And the idea that these spaces are full of forces (attraction, repulsion, compulsion, momentum) and resonances, as the narrator of Catherine Harris’ “The Real Thing” explicitly attests.
I’ve been studying Creative Writing for a year, and there hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on how to work with space and distance between characters or viewpoints within a story. So I’ve made up some exercises for myself. I’ll be delighted if you try them too, and post your results and/or discoveries. And if you have any exercises to suggest, for the benefit of other readers, please do put them forward – I love the idea of writers experimenting together. Most of the exercises below will require several paras and might even lead to a whole story; some might only yield a para or two, but it’s all fun and stretches the writing muscles!
1. An exercise in parallel lines and the space between 2 characters. Establish 2 characters in the same place. Variations: a. they’re strangers, versus they know each other. b. Take each character’s POV in turn, versus use one character’s POV, then repeat the exercise from the other character’s POV (thanks to Trent Jamieson for the latter exercise). c. The two characters never notice each other yet each one’s situation bounces off the other in a way that’s satisfying for the reader, versus the two characters notice each other but only fleetingly, versus some key moment occurs between the two characters, versus they come into some interaction which leads to the story’s conclusion. We may be left expecting them to have further contact, or not
2. An exercise in triangles. Have 2 characters interact and establish the space/distance between them, then a third character enters and transforms that space/changes that distance
3. An exercise in the emotional charge of space. Establish a space between 2 characters, then an event, utterance or action changes the meaning of that space from positively-charged to negatively-charged, or vice versa. Variations: the change comes from one of the characters, versus the change comes from something outside the two characters
4. An exercise in motion. Establish 2 characters in motion who try to stop and connect. Variations: they succeeed, versus they are helplessly carried on past their separate trajectories
5. Another exercise in motion. Establish 2 characters as stuck, with dead space between them, then a. bring the space alive, and/or b. put one or both characters in motion
6. An exercise in interaction. Establish 2 characters who have different understandings of the space/distance between them. As a result of their actions/interaction, this space/distance changes
7. Another exercise in triangles. Create a space between 2 characters and an object, and have the fate of the object alter the space between the characters
8. An exercise in characters in places. Establish a physical place or space. Have a character come into it and establish a relationship with it. Then another character arrives and alters this relationship
9. An exercise in confined spaces. Put 2 characters in a confined space and have them develop a relationship defined by the space. Variations: a. they’re in the space willingly, versus against their will. b. They know each other beforehand, versus they don’t. c. They feel the same way about the space and their situation (positive or negative), versus they don’t
10. An exercise in isolation. One character wants to be alone/distant, the other tries to penetrate that aloneness/bridge that distance
11. An exercise in temporal space. Establish 2 characters waiting for something
12. An exercise in strange/foreign/alien spaces. Have 2 characters interact differently with a space which is strange/foreign/alien to both of them
13. An exercise in manipulating the distance between characters. Have 2 characters move from extreme distance to extreme closeness and back again (or the other way round)
14. An exercise in irony. Have 2 characters be most distant when they seem closest, and/or vice versa