Today’s prompt was inspired by an exercise in Donald Maass’s latest book The Emotional Craft of Fiction. You can find the whole exercise on p.22 of that book.
Write a story featuring two characters in the same location. Pick a detail that only your protagonist would notice and weave it into the story.
Continue reading “[Write On Wednesday] The One Thing They’d Notice”
This is an awesome way to quickly launch (and finish) a new story, any time you have time to write but are short on inspiration. Try it!
Use this story formula to to create an interesting character, give them a desire, kick off some intriguing action and plan the kind of resolution you want.
Once you have that skeleton, you can start filling in colorful details…and soon your creative brain will be demanding you start to write!
A _______ (adjective) ________(noun), who _________(verb) ___________(subject), then _________(related verb) __________(resolution)
- Using these kinds of limits short-circuits your inner editor and makes ‘writing a story’ seem much more manageable. Just take it step by step.
- Make sure you give your character an adjective that implies some desire (e.g. ‘ambitious’ not ‘young’; or ‘contented’ – which implies that their desire is for the status quo to remain unchanged)
- Use the middle set of blanks to kick off the action (use a verb that implies change: “discovers”, “uncovers”, “decides”, “is forced to”, “commits to”, “resists”, “invents”, “journeys”)
- Use the final set of blanks to define what kind of ending you want. Will it be a happy ending? Will it be bittersweet? Will your character achieve their desire or lose it? Will they learn something or not?
- Paint the big picture first (e.g. A “dissatisfied woman”, who “uncovers something about a rival”, then “uses that knowledge to get what she wants”, or “discovers she has everything she needs, all ready”)
- Now add some details and desires. Think about what would be fun/exciting/engaging for you to write about (e.g. “An ambitious mommy-blogger”, who “finds out her biggest rival has been lying on her blog”, then “uses that knowledge to ruin her rival and make her own blog successful”, or “realizes how shallow her ambitions had been and decides to refocus”)
- Next, add even more detail, with desires, needs, colorful details. You don’t have to fill in any details of *how* the resolution comes about, just the overall thrust of it.
- Don’t worry that your story will be formulaic. The originality comes in the details you choose, the characters you create and the situations you dream up for them. You and I could both use my mommy-blogger idea and I guarantee you our stories would be wildly different.
- Try writing different options for each of the sets of blanks. If you don’t love your first ending option, try something different. If your character’s adjective makes her unappealing to you, try a different one.
- Going through this exercise helps keep your story on track. If you know, at the start, how you want the story to end (even if you don’t know the details of how you’ll make that happen), it limits your choices, and lets you choose between three or four sets of action for your character. Knowing whether you want it to be a happy ending or a bitter one, makes it much easier to decide on the types of choices you make (N. B. Neither is inherently better. It all depends on what you enjoy reading/writing and what kind of audience you want to attract).
- Don’t be afraid of this, if you’re a ‘pantser’. This is not a restrictive outline that will constrain your creativity. Rather, it is a set of guideposts that will get you where you want to be (i.e. at the end of a satisfying story).
If you’re intrigued by this, sign up to find out when I release a new mini-course that will take you through this exact process — with examples and resources to help. (Get the StoryADay Creativity Bundle for free, as soon as you sign up.)
How many times have you made a change in your life, only to backslide? Do you ever wonder will happen to a story’s character after the credits have rolled?
The story is over when the character has mastered the challenge. But the story, for your character, is not really over. They live their life, in the shadow of everything that came before.
Write the story of a character’s NEXT struggle, after the ‘happily ever after’
- You could take a character from someone else’s stories, or from a folk tale (write a sequel to Cinderella or Gone Girl)
- You could write the sequel to a story you’ve written in the past
- Questions to ask yourself: what did the character have to overcome to succeed in the original story? What did they desire? How did they suddenly become sure they could win? What has changed, since then? Are they struggling with the same thing, in a new setting? Are they struggling with new issues, as a results of the original win?
- For example: Cinderella was struggling against her step-family, who wanted her to fail. What will life be like for her in the castle? Her new husband presumably wants her to succeed at being Queen. Does she have what it takes? Does everyone in the castle want her to succeed? Is there a big event coming up that she must host? What lessons can she take from her first challenge into this new one? Is she battling feelings of insecurity as well as outside forces?
- In my story The Girl Who Circumnavigated The Globe In An Act Of Her Own Making, my main character’s desire is to communicate; to present herself to the world on her own terms. Within the scope of that one story, she does it. She feels good at the end of the story. She has a plan. But what about when she next goes back to Earth? Will she see her ‘victory’ as something fanciful and worthless? How will she deal with the frustration of being prejudged by everyone all the time, again? I could write that story today.
I’m sitting in Manhattan, about to go to see “Hamilton”. (squeeeee!) I just realized I hadn’t written a prompt for this week so here’s my birthday-treat-inspired prompt:
Write a story we might know (e.g. The story of a Foudning Father) but in an utterly unexpected style (e.g. A hip hop musical about the First Secretary of the Treasury…)
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!)
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.