Real Time Short Stories

Why Your Characters Need To Take A Tea-Break

Posted on: July 8, 2011

I met with some writers yesterday. There is probably a dubious statistic – much like the one I heard when on a coach passing through Luxemburg in the 80s, that there was one restaurant for every four Luxemburgers and one brothel for every five; you wonder if the dishes ever get done – about the number of novels-in-progress per capita across the population of Liverpool. It’s a city of storytellers and the Windows Project monthly Writing Advice Desk in Larkhill Library gives some of them the opportunity to tell the story of the book they’re writing to a professional and gain some guidance. Also, as one gentleman pointed out, writing can be a lonely business so it’s good to have the chance to get out and make some human contact.

Yes, but if it’s lonely for you, sitting there in your café, wishing you’d gone for something more substantial than a macchiato, or at your computer with the world’s dramas playing out beneath your fingertips – – with a cast of characters of such oddball diversity it makes Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 look like an episode of Button Moon, think for a moment about the characters for whom you have responsibility and over whom you have authorial control. There they are, straining every unobserved sinew to act out the fabulous ideas you’ve constructed, to break free from the overbearing influence of the friend or former acquaintance who inspired them in the first place, to throw off the burden of expectation placed on them by that high-powered first chapter or opening paragraph – and what do they get back from you? Plot, plot, and more plot. They get angry, they get sad, they get tough and they get going but, increasingly, it seems you don’t get them. Writers will often find themselves with – or fail to notice they’ve created – a pivotal character who just carries out the necessary functions of the current scene in order to get to the next one, without ever seeming to come alive. Your character needs downtime, space to breathe. You need to give this character a tea-break.

The Cup of Tea Exercise is one I give to students ostensibly to drill them in the skills of 3rd person objective narrative. If you click on the link to the Wikipedia entry on this narrative voice, you’ll see mention of it as a “camera lens” approach. It’s therefore relevant as we start to consider the synergy between short stories and film. In either medium, it’s the principle of show-don’t-tell writ large. If you can describe a scene and track the action, allowing the narrative to be experienced mimetically – as it’s happening to the character(s) – you can tell any story with intensity, clarity and coherence. The exercise is flagged up as a way for students to appreciate detail (an element touched upon here). Notice, for example, how unadorned with character motivation is this line from Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog:

On the table was a watermelon. Gurov cut himself a slice from it and began slowly eating it. At least half an hour passed in silence.

Yet this could be the most celebrated moment in the last 200 years of short story writing. This is the anti-“Reader, I married him.” This is, “Reader, he shagged her, cut himself a slice of fruit and then realised he’d lost interest in both.” The line tells us all this without spelling out any of it. Understanding why this precise piece of imagery works is easy: understanding how to make your characters so real to the reader that their unconscious gestures and acts will be interpreted as contributory factors in the narrative is, as many of my students discover, not so easy. It’s essential in a short story to get this type of detail right but it’s important to consider when working on your novel as well. Simply this – listen to your reader: If I don’t care about the character when he or she is making a cup of tea, I’m not going to care when s/he’s saving the world.

It’s this aspect of characterisation that is the true source of the Cup of Tea exercise and here, in the most concise terms possible, is what it involves:

Your task is to get to know your character better by having him or her make a cup of tea. The action starts with filling the kettle (or equivalent) and ends with taking the first sip. What happens in between is governed by the following –
We must never read the character’s thoughts. We can only view his or her actions.
– No back-story is allowed in the form of narrative that addresses the reader. You must not directly explain the context for anything you present in the passage. This includes not giving a separate introduction to your passage to explain who your character is meant to be. It should all come out in the process of making the tea.
– No speech or dialogue is permitted that deals with anything that is happening outside the making of the tea. So, if there is another character present, comments or action between the two can only relate to the process of making the tea. Ideally, the character should be alone or any other characters should be very much in the background.
– The character should not do anything that reveals his/her back-story that takes place away from the making of the tea. The information we receive about your character should be gleaned entirely from the manner in which the tea is made. So the character can’t, say, leave the tea to brew and pick up a letter/gun/gift that will tell us more about his/her life. But if a gun is moved to get to the sugar, for example, you’re fine.
– Description is therefore paramount. The approach to making the tea and the tea-making facilities; the physical appearance of the character; the room in which the action takes place; even sounds and smells if they can be put across via the outward demeanour and behaviour of the character – all these are acceptable as details to include. But remember not to tell too much: if you character has a scar, then s/he has a scar – leave it to us to interpret where this scar might have come from.
– Coffee/cocoa are allowed, but the act of making the drink has to be a process involving a number of different stages. No opening of Coke tins.

What often shocks students is how much subjectivity there is in their writing voices. And why shouldn’t that be the case, since most of us come to the idea of writing as a means of expressing our personal intellectual, emotional and imaginative thoughts? Yet it’s exactly this part of the process that should help you understand that writing isn’t that lonely after all. There are others involved – and they in turn depend on you. Just try to give them a break from time to time.

This isn’t an invitation to bombard me with passages of writing, but if you do have a go at the Cup of Tea exercise, let us know how you got on. And don’t forget to keep checking the Twitter feed in the sidebar for Real Time miniatures, news and random witterings.

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2 Responses to "Why Your Characters Need To Take A Tea-Break"

[…] impact on short fiction (most tellingly, on Raymond Carver) that has followed ever since. The “cup of tea exercise” I brought you recently and my earlier strictures against writing “rowlingly” stem from […]

[…] C is for Cup of Tea We’ve been here before: If I don’t care about the character when he or she is making a cup of tea, I’m not going to care… […]

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