I stand at the whiteboard in front of the class, dry erase marker in hand. “What happens then?” I ask Tom, a student in the back row. He’s written a nonfiction piece and wants to present it as fiction.
“I can’t draw realize. Give me something I can put on the board.”
He ponders and says, “John enters the shack.”
By the end of our fifteen-minute exercise, we have framed Tom’s revision scene by scene. We’ve axed the uncle, added the mother whose alcoholism sets off this father and son story. We have transformed it from nonfiction to fiction. Tom and I, and maybe the whole class, are exhausted but happy.
Tom says, “I don’t know how you pulled this out of me.”
Welcome to Revision Lab.
Using a technique Carolyn Coman offers in Writing Stories: Ideas, Exercises, and Encouragement for Teachers and Writers of All Ages, I invite my creative writing students to participate in the lab after the first workshop. I show them flip charts of a novel revision I storyboarded with Coman at a novel writing retreat years ago. I eliminated scenes, added others, started the novel with an active, in medias res opening. The process helped me see I needed to shift the storytelling from contemporary to historical fiction.
Now in the classroom we take the story as is and map it out frame by frame. I ask two questions of the author for each scene: What happens? What is your main character’s emotional state? I draw stick figures as best I can. The emotional state needs to change and not jump from elation to depression from one scene to the next.
I’ll freely admit that one story throws me. The author, Brianne, has an unreliable narrator whose story is all in her head following a devastating break-up. Through the storyboarding process, we identify physical spaces. I draw concentric circles to show the inner prison of the narrator. We label the inner circle The Basement. The next circle we call The Playroom. The final circle we name The Wall. As we work through each scene of the story, it feels like slowly coming out of post-surgery anesthesia, without the nausea, struggling with fuzziness until there is clarity. The author is gobsmacked with the results. She says, “You get it! You really get what I was trying to say!” And now using her storyboard, everyone can understand the complexity of her story.
All students participate in the “re-seeing” process and offer ideas for strengthening the narrative arc and characterization. Authors take photos of the whiteboard with their cell phones and leave class with a blueprint for revision.
Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and an MA in History from William Paterson University, where she teaches creative writing, composition, and history. Her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Paterson Literary Review, Tiferet, Lilith, Peregrine, and other literary journals.