07 April 2022

#WriteCBC tip and task from Bonnie Garmus

by Katie Smart Events, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Welcome to our April edition of #WriteCBC. I hope you’re ready to be inspired by our latest writing challenge! If you haven’t taken part in a #WriteCBC competition before, we’re excited to welcome you to our writing community – and you can quickly get up to speed by reading this blog with information about how to play. It’s a lot of fun, and you might just win a free place on one of our six-week online writing courses.

This month’s special guest is the brilliant Bonnie Garmus. Bonnie took part in our six-week online Write to the End of Your Novel course before studying on our three-month Writing Your Novel course in London. Shortly after taking the course she was signed by Curtis Brown agent Felicity Blunt. Her debut novel Lessons in Chemistry has sold in 35 languages, and is out now from Transworld, Doubleday in the UK. Apple TV+ is adapting the book into a limited series, with academy-award winning actress Brie Larson attached to executive produce as well as star in the series.

Bonnie’s tip:

Everyone likes likeable characters, but if they’re too likeable, they aren’t believable. Good characters are well-rounded, defined by the things they love as well as things they try to hide – including from you. 

Speaking of well-rounded characters, the lead protagonist of Bonnie’s debut novel Lessons in Chemistry, Elizabeth Zott, is a great example. Elizabeth is a strong-willed scientist, who is often overlooked and undervalued in her role working as part of an all-male research team in the 1960s. When her career progression is halted due to workplace misogyny, Elizabeth reluctantly becomes the host of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six… It’s safe to say she starts teaching more than just cooking to the women of America.

In this extract from Lessons in Chemistry, Elizabeth is in conversation with Calvin Evans in the Hastings Research Cafeteria. It’s loud; they’re being watched by other tables. Her flaw, which she tries not to reveal, is shame. She doesn’t have friends, nor does she know how to make them.

‘Calvin?’ Elizabeth said, gathering her things from the cafeteria table. ‘Are you listening? I said I’m going to a wedding tomorrow. Actually, I’m in the wedding if you can believe that.’ She gave a nervous shrug. ‘So we should probably discuss that acid study tonight if that works.’
‘Who’s getting married?’

‘My friend, Margaret – the Physics secretary? That’s who I’m meeting in fifteen minutes. For a fitting.’

‘Wait. You have a friend?’ He thought Elizabeth only had workmates – fellow scientists who recognized her skills and undermined her results. 
Elizabeth felt a flush of embarrassment. ‘Well yes,’ she said awkwardly. ‘Margaret and I nod to each other in the hallways. We’ve spoken several times at the coffee urn.’

Calvin willed his face to look as if this were a reasonable description of friendship.

‘It’s very last minute. One of her bridesmaids is sick and Margaret says it’s important to have an even ratio of bridesmaids to ushers.’ Although as soon as she said it, she realized what Margaret really needed: a size 6 without weekend plans.

Bonnie’s task:

Write a scene placing your protagonist in an annoying setting – a noisy restaurant; a too-crowded tube; a boring class. Then watch how they react when they think no one’s looking. A flaw or two should come flying out of the woodwork.

Here are a few extra ‘annoying’ setting prompts to help you get started:

  • A lift breaking down
  • The office in a heatwave
  • Late for a train
  • Stuck in traffic

There is no better way to find out what makes somebody tick than seeing how they react under pressure. In most stories we want to root for the protagonist, to see them succeed – even if they are flawed (sometimes it is those very flaws that make us root for them even more passionately). A character must be striking and interesting, but they don’t always have to be likeable. They can be relatable in the mistakes they make, they can even act in ways most people wouldn’t, in ways that are considered immoral. But no matter what type of behaviour they display there must be something in your central characters that attracts the reader’s attention. Even if a character is behaving in an unusual or unlikeable way, we must understand and be intrigued by their motivations for that behaviour.

Here are three key things to think about when building a believable character:

1. Gestures and mannerisms

Every gesture your character makes offers an opportunity to convey their personality and get vital information across to the reader – every habit, every twitch: the way someone avoids the cracks in the pavements; the way they eat a chocolate bar; the way the ends of their sentences turn upward, like a question.

For this #WriteCBC task we want you to show a character in an uncomfortable situation. Think about what mannerisms this might throw up. Perhaps they fiddle with a piece of jewellery when stressed or maybe they have a habit of clearing their throat. These idiosyncratic actions are great opportunities to portray personality and emotion.

2. Dialogue

What better way to show us a character than to give them their own individual voice? Think about the vocabulary they’d use; consider whether they’re shy and monosyllabic or, on the other hand, whether they dominate the conversation. And remember that what’s not said is as important as what is said.

In your mini-scene they might be irritable and speaking loudly, or perhaps they are trying to stay calm and measured in their tone of voice.

3. Interiority

And finally, you can give the reader a better understanding of your protagonist by giving us access to their thoughts, feelings and reflections. This gives you the opportunity to show your character’s take on the events and people you’re writing about, adding another dimension to your story and letting us sit on your character’s shoulder – or, in the case of first person narration, allows us to see everything through their eyes. Take time, though, to get the balance right – too much interiority can slow down the story and make the reader feel they’re being told too much.

For more advice on characterisation, read this handy blog full of insights from our founder Anna Davis: How to show character

Remember to share your mini-scenes by tweeting us (@cbcreative) – we can’t wait to meet your characters!


This month’s winner is… Mark Left @ottobottle

“The tannoy called for more cashiers but nobody came. Queuing shoppers sagged, hopeless, and Ken pulled lint from his coat. Counted the hairs on the man’s collar in front. Saw chocolate bars, shining foil bright on the rack. Inches from his hand. So close to his pocket.”

Mark’s scene is packed with great descriptive writing. You’re left with the impression that the irritation and boredom that Ken is feeling is really clawing at him, as the temptation to reach for the chocolate bar rises!

Congratulations! Mark has won a free place on the six-week creative-writing course of their choice.

Well done to our runners-up!

@SylviaLeatham and @ahumblewriter have both won a £50 discount to be used on the six-week creative writing course of their choice.

Please email cbccourses@curtisbrown.co.uk to claim your prize!

Follow Bonnie on Twitter @BonnieGarmus.

Get your hands on a copy of Lessons in Chemistry.

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