Sylvia Bishop – Writing Junior Fiction: The Power of Playing Games.

Today, I am handing control of my blog over to author, Sylvia Bishop. She’s written a brilliantly useful piece about the power of playing games in junior fiction – full of tips and ideas for writers and teachers alike!

There seems to be a widespread fear of funny writing. When it comes to character, setting, or plot, people (rightly) believe they can learn; but I’ve lost count of the number of times that people have told me they ‘can’t’ write funny.

Lies! There are tools for humour, just like anything else. In improvised comedy (which is what it sounds like – making things up on stage – made famous in the UK by Whose Line Is It Anyway?), you learn that the quickest route is not to try and make jokes, but to ‘play games’. A game is anything that happens more than once. When Pooh and Piglet walk around the copse again and again and again, watching their own footprints and believing themselves to be following an ever-growing pack of fierce animals, they are playing one long game. (But – because Milne is a genius – the text is laced with plenty of smaller games along the way.)

I recruit the power of repetition whenever a chapter drags, or a background character needs to be woven into a scene, or a crowd scene is unwieldy, or a time jump needs to be glossed over… it’s an endlessly useful tool to have in the belt!

Take an example from my newest book, 44 Tiny Acrobats. Our hero, Betsy, has been caught sitting in the kitchen sink by her mother after climbing in through a window, and must quickly explain herself:

She couldn’t think of any good games involving sinks. She looked at the draining board for inspiration, and heard herself say, “Washing-up. I’m … pretending to be a spoon.”

I was in a silly mood, so I decided to keep repeating the spoon thing. She is stuck there explaining herself to Grandad next:

Luckily, Bella was used to her daughter having strange ideas. She just laughed, and kissed her forehead. But, when she had gone to hang up her coat, Grandad raised his eyebrows at Betsy.

Betsy did her best impression of an innocent spoon, but she felt terrible.

“B,” said Grandad, “do spoons normally wear coats and shoes?”

… and then her father. Often, it feels natural to escalate the absurdity on the third play of a game:

Betsy was saved from answering this by the arrival of Bertram. “Hello! What’s going on here then?”

“Playing washing-up,” said Betsy miserably.

“She’s a spoon,” explained Grandad, giving Betsy a Look.

“Aha.” Bertram thought about this, then got up on the draining board, and did his earnest best to be spoon-like. He got quite into it. Betsy was stuck playing washing-up for another hour and a half, while her father experimented with being a salad bowl, a bread knife and a cheese grater. But at least it saved her from Grandad’s questions, and her own thoughts.

And if you’re not bored of your game by then, you can bring it back in later! In my case, once at the end of the chapter:

She tried counting sheep. She tried pretending to be a spoon. She didn’t sleep for a long time.

… and once more for luck, later in the book:

The mice were all very busy cleaning their paws and playing with their tails and so on. One looked suspiciously like it was pretending to be a spoon. Anyway, they didn’t answer her.

None of these lines are jokes, as such. But the more the spoon thing keeps happening, the sillier it gets. The nice thing about games, as a form of humour, is that they feel like fuzzy in-jokes with our friends – they have that mad, escalating, ‘you had to be there’ quality.

In my upcoming workshop on the power of games, I look in more detail at how to ‘play’ with skill, and the effects that can be produced. Come and join me, and add some humour to your toolbelt!

And as a postscript, I’ve been thinking: I’m a big advocate of funny texts for children’s reading, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to teach these tools to children for their own writing, too? How often do we encourage them to write what they so often do best and love most: humour? Game is a simple, delightful concept – maybe it’s something for the school classroom, too…

**At time of publishing, there’s just one ticket left for Sylvia’s workshop on Junior Fiction: The Power of Playing Games! If you miss it, do hit the wait list button: she’ll run another if there’s interest. And you can always sign up for the rerun of her sold-out Character workshop, on 27th February. Details for all workshops can be found at www.speakeasy.com/speaker/sylvia-bishop**

44 Tiny Acrobats is for sale at the wonderful Bookwagon, along with the prequel, 44 Tiny Secrets! www.bookwagon.co.uk


Right, that’s it people – you’ve been told. You CAN write funny. Just start with playing games! Huge thanks to Sylvia Bishop for sharing her words of wisdom. Please do take a look at her wonderful workshops or treat yourself to one of her books – I love them! Perhaps 44 Tiny Secrets might tickle your fancy?

Library Girl.

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