PenTathalon: A mental workout


The PenTathalon sounded like fun. And unnerving given its ‘Five Exercises for Fiction Writers’ description. What does a fiction writer look like, one wondered. I found out on the morning of Saturday, 3rd February.

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Kavita Bhanot, the workshop leader, turned out to be a charming, soft-spoken young lady with a clipped British accent and an eye (and ear) for detail. There were fifteen participants from various backgrounds – a journalist, a business consultant, an animation script-writer, an accountant, a former magazine editor and an advertising professional to name a few.

The five exercises were actually discussions on five aspects of fiction writing: Openings, Description , Characterization, Dialogue and Point of View. Kavita started with,

You all probably read a lot of books and enjoy them. There are actually several techniques employed by fiction writers that you would not have noticed so far because you aren’t familiar with them. In this workshop we will look at some of them and how you can use them in writing.

Day 1 started off with a short talk about Openings. We were read the blurb of a novel and asked to come up with a convincing opening to it. And then our efforts were assessed to see which one was most convincing as the real opening to the book. The really useful part of this exercise was the discussion on why certain openings sounded ‘right’ – the use of certain words with relation to the blurb, the tone connecting with the book’s title and the associated images from the blurb.

The second and third exercises were combined into one ‘field experience’ where we were asked to get out of the classroom and go find material outside. For Description, we had to describe a place through the eyes of someone in a particular mood without bringing the person into the write-up and without using any direct references to the mood. I got ‘Sad’ and I had a hell of a time trying to bring sadness into a description of bright sunlight, colourful streamers, festive music and all the impressions of an art festival setting up! That’s probably why the exercise worked so well; it really was a rigorous mind-muscle flexing challenge and subtlety was a good lesson learnt.

Characterization started by picking up a person, a real person from the aforementioned field visit. It was like playing Spy. Accompanied by that rush of “So this is what the fiction writers mean when they study people!!”. When we returned we discussed our characters – not directly (how boring that would have been!). We actually created our verbal portraits of a room in that character’s house. And then we discussed our descriptions and tried to guess the kind of people these rooms belonged to. Now wasn’t that a great way to lead from observation to imagination to visualization to interpretation? It worked.

Story began where Characterization had left off. Now that we had our characters and had breathed some life into them in the form of their living spaces, their backgrounds, we started to build on their histories, their motivations, their desires and really – the plot. While this wasn’t really one of the five exercises, it connected the five together just like a good story would.

On Day 2, there was a brief discussion on conversations. We had each, on Kavita’s behest, tried to transcribe conversations we had heard the previous day. When I walked into the class, I thought I had failed the exercise since I’d found that:

  • I couldn’t write as fast as people could talk
  • I couldn’t always write in the languages people spoke in and transliteration was a skill yet to be mastered
  • As I announced in lieu of an excuse, “People keep saying the same thing over and over and over again!!!”

Kavita just smiled and asked us all if we had learnt something about conversations. It turned out we all had and that was how we began our work on Dialogue. We discussed different kinds of dialogue and how they could add or take away from a story and the characters. By this time it was starting to be clear how the various elements of fiction writing work with or detract from each other. The exercise conclude with us introducing our characters to each other and framing a dialogue between pairs.

It is a little difficult to describe the last exercise Point of View since it is so abstract. And yet, this was my personal favorite since I had been laboring on a story for a long time without a clue as to why it wasn’t quite working. POV gave me the perspective and I managed to improve it almost immediately.

I conclude by saying that this was a most fruitful weekend on account of the six hours spent learning about fiction writing techniques. Kavita, thank you for a really interesting and useful workshop! And to my fellow fiction-writers, thank you for the additional insights that you brought in and all the very best for your future fiction efforts!

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