The Ugly Duckling – a writing prompt for May 29

Today we continue looking at story structure: this time, with what I call the Ugly Duckling Structure.

The Prompt

Watch the video and write an Ugly Duckling story

Tips

The ‘life-changing moment’ comes in the middle of this story

Balance out every challenge from before that moment, with a similar, but different moment afterwards. Show us how the character (or their circumstances) have changed now.

This story might have to be longer than a Cinderella-type story. Sketch it out, if you don’t have time to do it justice today.

Read this post, which talks more about the Ugly Duckling structure.

Don’t forget to leave a comment or post in the community and tell us how you’re getting on. What have you learned this month, so far?

A Cinderella Story – a writing prompt for May 28, 2017

Today’s prompt is part of a workshop that I give on story structure. (If you’d like me to talk to your group, ask!)

On the go? Listen to this as a podcast.

The Prompt

Write A Story With A Cinderella Story

A Cinderella Story Structure

Cinderella Story Structure

In the story of Cinderella our heroine wants to find happiness. She tries and fails and tries and fails. A lot.

  • She tries to find it by being nice to her sisters and stepmother, but they just treat her terribly.
  • She tries to find it by going to the ball, but she’s not allowed to go.
  • She tries to find it from her fairy godmother. This one almost works, but there are time limits and she fails. When the love-struck prince can’t find her, all is lost.

Eventually, the life-changing moment comes at the end of the story when the prince finds her and Cinderella gets to choose her happy ending.

(In most versions she says yes and marries the prince; in every version, this choice is the first time Cinders has had any power. This is when her life changes.

So, this is where the story ends because the character’s story arc is over: She has her chance to reach her goal, at long last.

(If you want more information, check out this post.)

Non-Traditional Love Story – a writing prompt for May 27, 2017

The Prompt

Write A Non-Traditional Love Story

Tips

  • You could use non-traditional partners for your love story (it doesn’t have to be romantic love; and if it is, it doesn’t have to be between straight, white people).
  • The way you tell the story could be non-traditional (it could be told in a non-narrative form).
  • Here’s my review of The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec by John Chu (with links to the story).

Letters – a writing prompt for May 26, 2017

Today I throw you one of my favorite prompts, because I love reading these kinds of stories.

The Prompt

Write a story in the form of a series of letters

Tips

  • The ‘letters’ can be anything really: letters, journal entries, found documents, Tweets, Facebook updates…
  • The letters can come from only one person — in which case we hear only one side of the story.
  • The letters might come from various sources and in various time periods.
  • You might mix letters with documentary evidence (school report cards, obituaries clipped from a newspaper, a termination document from an employer).
  • Your writing might be in the form of a ‘gospel’ for a new religious or political cult.
  • This might grow to be a bigger project than you can handle in one day…

Prose Sonnet – A writing prompt for May 25, 2017

Today’s prompt sticks with this week’s theme of pushing the form of the short story away from the idea of it as a ‘mini novel’.

Short stories are incredibly versatile and short story readers are willing to work for their thrills. Let’s get to it:

The Prompt

Write a prose sonnet: a story 14 sentences long

Tips

  • Of course, our prose sonnets aren’t going to rhyme or be in any particular rhythm (although you can shoot for that if you like).
  • You can draw inspiration from traditional sonnet forms. For example, it could follow the structure of a Petrarchan sonnet which presents an argument or observation in the first 8 lines (sentences, in this case), then a  turn in the next line. Then you can spend the rest of the story ‘answering’ the question/observation/argument of the start.
  • You could model your story on a Shakespearean sonnet: three groups of four related sentences, and a final two-sentence ending that perhaps turns the story upside down OR reinforces its message.
  • You could go from the specific to the general and end with a universal truth, or set the story up the other way around.
  • One powerful image might be all you need in a story this length: a grandparent with their grandchild, feeding the ducks, for example. Placed at either end of your story (or in the middle), this image might allow you to illustrate a theme on relatable, specific and still universal levels.
  • You could also write a sonnet ‘sequence’, if your story demands more room. That would mean you write groups of ‘scenes’ in 14 sentences each until your story is finished.
  • For more on the form, read this.

 

Hidden Messages – a writing prompt for May 24, 2017

Today’s prompt was, er, prompted by a brief literary feud that flared up recently.

A TV critic took issue with the latest episodes of the BBC’s Sherlock, complaining that our hero was more James Bond than Conan Doyle’s Holmes. The episode’s writer wrote a response in verse, then the critic wrote back with his own poem. BUT, in the last couple of lines of the poem, he pointed out that he had embedded a hidden message in his words (the second letter of the first word of every line spelled it out).

I was so tickled that I’m stealing the idea (which he stole from Conan Doyle, so I don’t feel bad).

The Prompt

Write a story with a hidden message

Tips

  • You could make the first letter of every sentence spell out a message.
  • You could make the first/second/third/last word of every sentence add up to a secret message.
  • You should probably start by writing out your secret message and then figuring out the rest of the words in your story, so it fits!
  • This will force you to break all the normal rules of your process of storytelling. Don’t be afraid. Be bold. At the very least you’ll learn something about your process!

Go!

[Reading Room] To Do by Jennifer Egan

I love this kind of thing. It’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to short stories: this ability to tell a story in the most unexpected of ways.

This week I read a story by Jennifer Egan that looks like a ‘to do’ list. It’s not. Well, not entirely.

13. Renew meds

14. Investigate poisons

a. Flammable

b. Powders

c. Gasses

d. Pills

e. Herbal

f. Chemical

g. Musical

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1. Ask kids

With almost every new item on the list, the reader gets closer to figuring out what is going on.

It’s not just a puzzle though. There’s humor too: that “Renew meds….investigate poisons”! I can almost hear the “Oh, that reminds me…”, which is the way I make “to do” lists (usually without such murderous intent).

This was fun, and reminded me that Jennifer Egan’s most famous novel A Visit From The Goon Squad is, not only a collection of related stories, it contains a section that is a Powerpoint presentation!

Don’t let anyone tell you what you can write, when you’re writing a short story!

Read the story online here

The List – a writing prompt for May 23, 2017

The Prompt

Write a story in the form of a list

Tips

  • You could write
    • a ‘to do’ list,
    • a list of grievances addressed to your character’s boss/children/spouse;
    • a shopping list;
    • a McSweeney’s style list;
    • a list of steps you are advising someone to take,
    • any other type of list you like.
  • The title is hugely important. You might need to write it last. It should perhaps have a double meaning: it might mean one thing to the reader before they read the story and yet peel away a layer once the story is in their brains.
  • Don’t be afraid to let the reader work. Leave things out. Imply much, explain little.
  • Don’t feel the need to wrap this up neatly. Jennifer Egan doesn’t.
  • The twist in this kind of tale, comes because the form betrays the meaning: a list is a utilitarian, ephemeral thing. The more important/dramatic the issue your character takes on in the list, the more impact the story will have (this can be dramatic, funny, ridiculous, dark, or anything else!)

Go!