Writing exercise: (20 minutes)
Choose a place that you know well, which you have strong feelings about. Describe that place, first when you are in a happy mood. (10 minutes) Then describe the place when you are in a sad mood. (10 minutes)
What difference did you note?
Writing exercise: (30 minutes)
What is described in a particular setting often depends upon the point of view of the story. Describe a real park you have visited, first in the first person point of view through the eyes of a young man or young woman in love (15 minutes), and then through the eyes of an old widow or widower (15 minutes).
What differences in setting did you notice, even though it was the same park?
The purpose of these exercises is to realize that setting is never neutral. Setting descriptions are subjective. So your setting should always evoke a mood. Think of your setting as another character. The setting should help us feel the mood of the scene you are describing. If there is conflict in the scene, then the setting should be described harshly, in a way that evokes the harshness of the moment. If the scene is a warm scene, with love, then the setting should reveal that warmth.
About Josh Barkan
Josh Barkan is the author of MEXICO. Josh Barkan has won the Lightship International Short Story Prize and been a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the Paterson Fiction Prize, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing has appeared in Esquire. He earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at Harvard, Boston University, and New York University. With his wife, a painter from Mexico, he divides his time between Mexico City and Roanoke, Virginia. For writing advice from Barkan and other top-notch short story writers, download Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing.
You’ve made it! You’ve written stories all month long — whether you’ve written every day, or on and off throughout the month — I congratulate you!
Make sure to come back tomorrow for three things
- The June Serious Writers’ Accountability Group — make your commitment to your writing for next month
- Details about StoryFest — your chance to get your favorite story featured on the front page of StoryADay.org
- The mini-critique group I’m running next week, to help you whip your stories into shape in time for StoryFest.
But before all that: one more story to go:
Write A Story About A Writer
- Feel free to take out your aggressions on me! Feature a writer who turns on their teacher/mentor/professor!
- Channel Stephen King’s “Misery” and feature a stalker.
- Take the reader through all the goys and perils of the writing journey
- Or use the conceit of a writer character to do something that couldn’t really happen in real life.
And after you’re done, write a blog post or a journal entry capturing all you’ve learned about yourself as a writer this month. Resolve to build on your strengths. Keep what you write somewhere safe, so that next time you have a big writing push coming up, you can benefit from all these lessons!
If you share your post online, be sure to send me a link (in the comments below or by email) or tag me on social media!
And don’t forget, StoryFest is coming, June 10-11!
Thank you all for playing along this month. Without you, I wouldn’t be doing any of this.
Today I wrap up the story structure series with a bang.
Write a Hansel & Gretel Structured Story
- The Life-Changing Moment in this story structure, comes at the start.
- The Life-Changing Moment may have happened ‘off-stage’ before the story starts (imagine the story of Hansel and Gretel where the kids are already alone in the woods. That would work, right?)
- Remember to focus on what your character would never, ever choose to do, and how the circumstances are forcing them to face that (for example, Hansel and Gretel would never disobey/mistrust the adults in their life, but life is giving them a pretty clear directive to do just that).
- This story starts with a big moment, and then throw complications at your character. Once you’ve told us enough about the character for us to figure out how they’re going to survive, you can end the story.
- If you’d like to read more about this story structure, check out this post.
Don’t forget to post in the community or leave a comment to tell us how you got on today.
Today we continue looking at story structure: this time, with what I call the Ugly Duckling Structure.
Watch the video and write an Ugly Duckling story
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?
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.
Write A Story With A Cinderella Story
A 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.)
Write A Non-Traditional Love Story
- 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).
Today I throw you one of my favorite prompts, because I love reading these kinds of stories.
Write a story in the form of a series of letters
- 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…
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:
Write a prose sonnet: a story 14 sentences long
- 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.
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).
Write a story with a hidden message
- 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!
Write a story in the form of a list
- 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!)
Today I encourage you to make your prose as purple as you like, in a quest to find out how much description you really need.
Write a story (set in your novel’s world) that makes sensation a priority. Use all five senses.
- Don’t be afraid to write ridiculously floral prose today. You can always dial it back, but it’s fun to find new ways of describing things.
- Don’t worry too much about pacing or characterization. This is an exploration of your world and the sensations a character might experience, walking through it.
- Get outside, if you have to. Listen to things. Smell the world. See what you can feel. Then come back inside and write.
Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!
Today we look at a less tangible aspect of world-building: What makes your society the way it is?
Write a story focusing on an aspect of society that matters to you/your story. How did society get to a place where this is important?
- You’ll probably have to go back into history for this (or ‘history’, if your world is completely made up).
- Think about issues like gender/race/economic/religious norms. How did they get where they are? What made the norms, normal?
- Pick something that matters to you. Don’t try to explain everything, just the thing that makes your blood boil, or that gets you excited.
Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!
Today I invite you to do some world-building, either for a novel in progress or for a story world you’d like to spend more time in, focusing on concrete aspects of the world.
Write a story that focuses on the discovery/invention/ramifications of something that shapes your characters’ physical world.
- Some questions you might ask: Why do we have roads? What invention led us to spend our evenings the way we do? What does your futuristic society have that might need explained? How did those things come about?
- Write a story based on the transition point between a world with those things and the world that came before (think: Marty McFly in Back to the Future arriving at his younger-mom’s house the very day her father hooked up their first TV. Rolling the TV into their dining room that first time, probably affected their family dinners forever!)
Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!
Today’s writing prompt invites you to look back into your characters’ past again.
Imagine the first (significant) meeting between your protagonist and a secondary character
- Again, if you’re not a novelist, imagine this scenario for a short story you’ve written in the past, or for one you’re planning.
- If your novel-in-progress’s protagonist has a best friend, that might be the perfect person to choose here. If they have a ‘frenemy’, this story could shed some light on that relationship. You can even do this with a villain, if they have a history that begins before the novel starts.
- Show us this meeting. Set up some of the dynamics we’ll recognize between the two characters later.
- If your work-in-progress doesn’t have a great candidate for this story, invent one. A friend in the protagonist’s past, that we never meet in the later work, could set her expectations for all future friends (good or bad). Examine that.
- If you need help getting to the emotional heart of the matter, take a look at Donald Maass’s newest book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.
Don’t forget to leave a comment letting us know how you got on, or come on in to the community and do your Victory Dance!
Continuing our week of prompts aimed at creating rich backstory for novelists and short story writers alike, today we create an alternate story for your protagonist.
There is a moment in every story where a protagonist has to make a choice: to take up the challenge of the story or to turn away. Everything else flows from that.
Today, write a story in which your protagonist makes the other choice.
- This will, of course, result in a shorter story than otherwise.
- It will still have fallout. (Think: It’s A Wonderful Life, Sliding Doors etc.)
- Examine that fallout in a story.
Don’t forget to leave a comment, or do your Victory Dance in the community.