“Gormenghast: Revising Your Action Scene"

This lesson plan is adapted from Jeff Vandermeer’s “An Illustrated Guide to Writing Scenes and Stories” – published in Electric Literature on August 25, 2016. You can read the original article here.

You can buy Jeff’s brilliant book, “Wonderbook (Revised and Expanded): The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction “ here.


TEACHER’S GUIDE TO “GORMENGHAST: REVISING YOUR ACTION SCENE”

Materials Needed:

  • Writing utensils

  • Unlined/lined paper

  • Print outs of “Gormenghast: Revising your Action Scene” for every student

  • Optional: projector

Age Group: Grade 7+

Original image by Jeff VanderMeer, borrowed from Electric Literature.

Original image by Jeff VanderMeer, borrowed from Electric Literature.

Provide students with a printed out copy of the above “Flay vs. Cook: Blood at Midnight” image or use a projector to show the image to the class.

Discussion

Review and discuss “Flay vs. Cook: Blood at Midnight” image (above). Open the discussion to students, inviting them to come up with a class narration of the image, or write their own. After the students have written their own version either alone or together as a class, the instructor will walk the students through the following breakdown of the image:

  1. First Stalk

    Flay (red guy) knows that Cook (purple guy) is planning to kill him. Flay has been stalking Cook as Cook goes about his daily business. When he sees Cook go upstairs toward Flay’s quarters with a cleaver, he knows that it is time to put his plan into action.

  2. First “Kill”

    Flay has prepared a fake Flay in his bed. When Cook goes to kill Flay, he is unable to do so because it’s a dummy.

  3. First Sighting

    There’s a flash of lightning and Cook actually sees Flay behind him just as Flay is about to stab Cook.

  4. The Chase

    There’s a chance sequence up what seems to be endless staircases. While this could be boring, the author uses this time to recap the incredibly convoluted relationship between Flay and Cook. You learn something new about them and therefore become more invested in the outcome of their battle.

  5. Confrontation in the Hall of Spiders

    The chase comes to an end in a fascinating location, The Hall of Spiders, which will be the setting for the final fight. You learn that Flay has lured Cook here on purpose, but you do not yet learn why.

  6. Complications

    Normally, Cook would be much better suited to kill Flay than Flay is for killing Cook. During the fight, Cook gets a spider in his eye. Cook blindly swings his cleaver, and gets it caught in the wall.

  7. Fatal Denouement

    Flay takes advantage of Cook’s weakness, gets the upper hand, and kills Cook.

Activity

After discussion, move onto the “Gormenghast: Revising Your Action Scene” handout; if already distributed, have students flip it over to the text side. Walk students through the following instructions:

Directions: You’ve written your own version of the Gormenghast scene, or you’ve brought your own action scene to revise. Now that you have material to work with, you will rewrite it using Jeff Vandermeer’s formula, outlined below:

Step One: Isolate and Annotate

Take your short story and isolate the scene with most action in it, then make a list of every action that occurs in the scene. Add some context, “almost as if footnoting or layering in annotations, about the emotional resonance that is brought from prior scenes or events not dramatized in the story. If you don’t know, make something up. Why does this action have significance? What on the page leaves a ghost of its presence in your scene? You’ll likely wind up with melodrama from thinking of too much, and have to scale back, but that’s just part of the process.

 Step Two: Diagram and Reconstruct

Then, draw diagrams of the characters and their setting, thinking hard about where they should be standing and where the light is and where it isn’t. Once you’ve done that, you should rewrite the scene keeping both the emotional context and the physical context in mind.

Before the end of the session, take time to discuss the take home assignments. Students who finish early can move on directly to take home assignments. If you’re not interested in take home assignments, present them as additional writing prompts that students can try on their own.

TAKE HOME ASSIGNMENTS (FROM VANDERMEER):

Re-cut a problem scene in your story by removing the first paragraph and the last paragraph, rewriting the remaining text to include any context lost, deleting anything in the middle no longer relevant, and adding more suggested by the cuts.

Re-map the beats and progressions of the Gormenghast scene in the context of a dinner party. This requires you to translate action into less physical acts—the jabs and reposts of conversation, perhaps. Think about clues about where everyone’s coming from in that moment, like where they immediately came from, for example. If some guy’s coming immediately from a crappy day at work, that guy’s totally different than the day when he didn’t have to come from work at all like the weekend. What is their immediate emotional state? Then, ask yourself, who knows each other already? What is the history between them? How’s that going to possibly create conversation, conflict, or whatever else. Before writing, be sure to identify who might have come to the dinner party with a premeditated agenda too.