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Exercise: Child's play

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Valerie Nell
Posted on: September 29, 2002
Reposted on: November 1, 2003
Reposted on: March 6, 2005
Reposted on: April 30, 2006

In writing we create worlds inhabited by characters - characters that vary in age, class, nationality, creed and much else besides. A good writer makes readers share directly in the experience of his/her characters by showing them the world *through* a given character's eyes. This is what we mean when we talk about a certain character's point of view (POV). It should be believable, distinctive, and consistently sustained for that character throughout the story.

Children present a particular challenge as POV characters. They are different enough from adults to merit special attention to their "voice" in a story.

Their perception of the world differs greatly from ours. Their imaginations are always active. Their senses allow everything in. They haven't developed the intellectual filters that adults have.

They're less concerned with social niceties. They often cut straight to the bone.

In many ways, they are "freer" than we are. The world is their oyster, and they are at the centre of it.

The world probably also feels very large: things do seem bigger when you're little.

Lastly, children see things in more concrete terms than adults do. They are more concerned with objects and events than with abstract ideas. (Five years appears to be a landmark age at which all the fundamental tools for using language are in place. For these first five years, development proceeds very fast. After that, it's more just a question of increasing sophistication and enlarging vocabulary - building on what is already there.

For those who are interested, the stages of language development *up to* age five can be found at the URL's below:


And here are some examples from published works of fiction. Note that these children are all well over the age of five:-

   From "Angela's Ashes", by Frank McCourt:

We ran to the church. My mother panted along behind with
Michael in her arms. We arrived at the church just in time
to see the last of the boys leaving the altar rail where
the priest stood with the chalice and the host, glaring
at me. Then he placed on my tongue the wafer, the body and
blood of Jesus. At last, at last.
It's on my tongue. I draw it back.
It stuck.
I had God glued to the roof of my mouth.

Out of the mouths of babes! This has the irreverence, the vitality, the no-nonsense approach to language, and the tumbling out of words and impressions straight from the gut, that I can imagine an energetic young boy having.


   From "Confusion", by Elizabeth Jane Howard:

Neville leaned over and put his hand gingerly on the
old man's forehead.
The skin felt cold. "I'd better try and feel his pulse,"
he said, trying to sound calm, but his voice was shaking.
But Mr.Wren's wrist was cold as well, and when Neville
let it go, it dropped back onto the bed so quickly that it
almost made him start. Tears rushed to his eyes.
"He must be dead," he said.
"Oh, poor Mr. Wren. He much have died awfully suddenly if
he didn't even have time to shut his eyes." Lydia was crying,
which he was glad of because it stopped him.
"I think we ought to say a prayer for him. I think the
people who find people who are dead ought to do something
like that."
"Well, *you* can stay and pray if you like. I'm going to
find Aunt Rach."
"Oh no, I don't think I will," Lydia said hastily. "I'll
come with you and pray on the way."

The effect of youthful candour here is achieved almost solely by dialogue.



In 300 words or less, write a scene, a description, or a story from a child's POV - where you both see the world, and express your perceptions, in a way which is convincingly childlike. Try to keep the focus on *how* you present the content, rather than on merely story line alone. Try to give a sense of the child's individual personality, and the things that occupy his/her attention. For the purposes of this exercise, we will create an age limit of between five and thirteen.

When critiquing a submission, highlight good use of childlike language and viewpoint, and moments where your understanding of the child's unique experience of the world felt particularly rich, and - most important - credible.

Have fun with it. Now your chance to be a kid again!

Valerie Nell's wrap-up
Posted on: October 7, 2002

Thank you very much to Admin for helping with the development of this exercise, and for the opportunity of presenting it to the list. I certainly learnt a great deal.

It was a productive week for submissions and crits, and the subs varied widely. Some came down very firmly on the side of being a child; others showed a mixture of styles, with childlike moments interspersed with a slightly more adult approach. I think we all learnt a bit about point of view (POV), and how slippery it can be. The most important thing I learnt is that if you write anything that could be viewed as subjective thoughts coming straight out of a character's mind, then you can't at the same time expect the reader to think that those thoughts belong to anyone else. We had the odd moment where thoughts seemed to emanate from the child, and yet were rather too adult for it.

We also learnt that it is nonetheless possible to take a looser approach - to stay close to the child's POV, but at the same time have that position interpreted by a narrator. However, it emerged that if you do assume a very definite voice at the outset (like the simplistic language of a four-year-old) then suddenly departing from that voice will seem like a wrench to the reader, and you will lose believability. The younger the child, the more difficult it becomes to occupy any sort of middle ground.

Some subs gave just a slice of life; others were more ambitious and told a full story. We saw ages ranging from four or five, to preteen. We met tomboys, abused children, naughty children, bored children and a great many charming children. But whatever the approach, all the subs captured an essential childishness - the ingenuousness and candour, and the heightened sensory awareness, that seem to be such an important part of being young.

Well done to everyone who participated!


Grace Skibicki's wrap-up
Posted on: Mon, 14 Mar 2005

Some very good writing this past week. I know it isn't easy to find the child's voice. It can be a struggle.

I found the submissions presented some unique stories told from a child's perspective and in a child's voice. Some were able to stand alone as a completed short short, others could be part of a larger piece of writing. All of the submissions were very interesting to read. A good diversity of ideas and execution.

Occasionally the adult voice crept in, but in most cases, disappeared quickly as the child's voice gained dominance, again.

I learned it isn't easy to find that child's voice,the adult wanted to take over, edit, 'improve' what the child was saying. The minute I let that happen, the charm and innocence of the child's voice was lost and the focus of the paragraph changed.

I feel the submissions were well executed.


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