Conventional writing wisdom (these days) says that the mark of an amateur writer is to use colorful dialogue tags instead of a simple ‘she said’. Nevertheless, teachers continue to foist alternatives to ‘said’ on our children. Today’s assignment is designed to show you just how ridiculous that can become.
Write a story featuring lots of dialogue. Every time you attribute speech to a person you must use one of the ‘alternatives to said’ from the sheet. (Click to enlarge)
Make sure you rely entirely on the tags to convey the emotion, leaving the dialogue itself bland and without character.
Bonus points for making all your characters sound the same.
Be as ridiculous as you like.
This exercise works particularly well when your subject matter is serious or shocking.
This whole exercise is designed to show you how ridiculous dialogue tags can wreck a serious story.
(Remember, “he said” and “she said” become invisible when you use them well. These tags never will.)
Make sure every single utterance has a tag, whether or not you need one. (e.g. in the case of two people speaking, you can often get away with no tags at all, especially if the conversation is short and the voices are distinct.)
Big News! This prompts for this year’s StoryADay May challenge are now available for pre-order as a Kindle ebook! (More formats forthcoming)
If you’re the type of person who likes to plan ahead, go ahead and pre-order your copy today. It’ll land in your Amazon account on Saturday, April 23, (automatically downloading onto your Kindle or Kindle app on your phone) giving you a week to ponder the prompts before the challenge begins.
Stuffed with all-new prompts—including material from my StoryADay Live workshops on story structure and conflict—and headed up by a section that shares road-tested tips for surviving a month of short story writing!
And now, on to this week’s prompt.
Steal a title from a novel or song
You can tell the story of the song, in short story form
You can write a completely different story, taking the title and coming up with something fresh.
Don’t simply retell the story of someone else’s novel (that’s theft!)
Today I’m challenging you to share your story on the new Anchor App (only available for iOS just now, sorry).
Write A 100 Word Story Containing A Reference To Grandparents
This can be a story about grandparents, or it can have the most tangential reference to grandparents (see my story on Anchor)
Even if you don’t remember your grandparents, the idea of grandparents saturates our culture. I’m sure you can find some way (syrupy or sarcastic) to write about this!
100 word stories (also known as Drabbles) take some finessing, so I’m going to recommend writing something a little longer, then cutting it.
A good way to think about a 100 word story is to have 25 words to set it up, 50 words for the meat of the story and 25 words for the wrap up. It’s not that neat, of course, but the formula is just a ‘way in’.
Dribbles often come across almost like form-less poems. The descriptions and characterization certainly owe more to poetry than to novels.
If you’re new to Anchor, download it from the app store and go through the introductory ‘first wave’ instructions, then just mash the big red button to record your story. You have two minutes, so you might want to fire up a stopwatch. When you’re finished, you can listen to the finished ‘wave’ and then click the ‘next’ arrow to move to a screen where you can give your wave a caption and a hashtag (use #storytelling and #storyaday so that I can find it and listen). Then listen to other people’s stories and hit the ‘reply’ button (you’ll have one minute to reply. When you’re listening, the app will keep playing content until you
If you don’t have Anchor you could always record your story and upload it to your own blog or another audio hosting system.
We’re always being told to write what we know but doesn’t that sound the teensiest bit boring?
Still, unless you have a lot of time for research, mining your own experiences can be useful…if you go about it in the right way.
Write a list of things you know about. Pick one. Give that knowledge to a character.
Dig deep as you make your list. Consider all the arcana of your brain’s storehouses. Don’t discount very, very specific things like “growing up one street across from an elite military academy’s live-fire training grounds, in the 1970s” or “spending vacations in an apartment over my uncle’s store”.
Pick something from the middle of your list. The first will be too obvious and everyday (therefore the story will not excite you) and the last one will be too weird, because you were clutching at straws. That one would require too much research and then your short story would never be written (or would demand to become a novel).
Consider what kind of character you can give this experience to. Will the wnjoy it? Hate it? Grow up to try to hide it only to have it become important (remember Clarice in “The Silence Of The Lambs” trading secrets about her backwoods upbringing to buy Hannibal Lector’s assistance?)
Consider giving your character a sidekick to impress/show off for/frighten/lie to.
What does your character want? How can this specialist knowledge help/hinder in their quest. What would they do/never do? What do they need? Where are they at the start and the end of your story (metaphorically and physically).
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The Prompt: Write A List Of Song Titles You’d Actually Be Interested In Listening To. Write The Story Behind The Song, for one of them.
After you reach a certain age — or stage — of life, it seems like no one writers songs for you any more. You’ve learned a lot of the lessons pop singers seem to be struggling with. Maybe you’re (gasp!) happily married. Maybe the things you struggle with are things other than love and boys and where to go on a Saturday night.
Write A List Of Song Titles You’d Actually Be Interested In Listening To.
Write The Story Of The Character In That Song.
Country music is probably a slightly better role model here than pop. I know there are lots of songs about a more mature kind of love, or about the kind of lifestyle people wish they were living. You could write a wishlist of how your life would look (similar to the country music odes to God, Guns, Mama, Girls and Trucks)
Inspiration for this prompt came from the very wonderful How To Be A Writer by Barbara Baig, which I’ve only just started reading, but which echoes what I’ve been saying here for years (so naturally, I think she’s a genius!)
Not everything you write should be written with a view to showing it to anyone else.
Just as you would practice the piano in private for months or years before hoping to be able to bring any pleasure to a listener, writers must practice their craft too…sometimes in private.
Write A Story That Is You Will Never Show To Anyone
Don’t cheat and tell yourself that something magical is bound to happen and that you’ll end up writing a story so good that you’ll feel compelled to show it to people. Promise you will not show it to anyone and stick to that.
If you’re having trouble coming up with something to write about, dive into your stash of Story Sparks (you have been collecting them, haven’t you?)
If you haven’t been collecting Story Sparks out in the real world, take ten minutes right now and look deep inside yourself. What news story annoyed you this week? Which political candidate do you despise the most? Why? What did you see that was beautiful, recently? What is your strongest memory of your mother? Why? What did summer smell like when you were growing up? Who do you miss? What’s your favorite swear word? What frightened you when you were a child? What frightens you now?
Make a quick list of 30 Story Sparks. (If you don’t know what I mean by story sparks read this article)
I’m not big on regrets. Everything experience contributes to the person we become, so there’s not much point in wishing to change the past.
But everyone has regrets.
And what good is a character in a story without a few regrets?
Write A Story Centering On A Character Wrestling With A Big Regret
Think of a character (do this exercise: adjective noun; e.g. nervous housewife; tired teacher; suicidal businessman; carefree duke)
Give that character one thing in their past that they regret.
Think about how this thing has affected where they are today.
Ask yourself what would this character do if given a chance to act on the regret (to confront the person it concerned, to change the decision they made, to make amends, to take revenge).
Think about the different options open to your character. How does each of them work with the person the character has become in the intervening years? (A rich young man with no responsibilities might swear revenge on the woman who broke his heart. When he meets her again, as an older man who has inherited his wealth and title, does he still want revenge? What will it mean for him if he takes revenge? Is it worth it?)
Decide which course of action your character will take (or not take).
Set them on the road to taking that course of action.
Now start the story. Don’t start with the backstory. Start with them on the road, in the room, in the middle of the fight, in the midst of the heist. You can weave the backstory into the conversations they have during the story.
Are you even moved by an injustice in the world? A news story? A historic event that you feel has stories in it that haven’t been told?
It can be hard to figure out how to write a story that is of the moment, but doesn’t become irrelevant when the news cycle moves on.
Yesterday’s Reading Room post was all about a story just like that and it pointed one way forward: set your story in the moment (in that story’s case, it was during the Occupy Wall St movement), but make the story about more universal issues. The protagonist of “We Was Twins” was not part of the the Occupy movement, but got caught up in it anyway. He was struggling with issues of poverty, life after military service, grief, estrangement…issues that are universal and timeless.
This week I encourage you to try something similar.
Write a story set in a specific time/place in history, but tell the story of specific individuals dealing with issues that are both specific to them, and part of the human condition.
You might write a story about an idealistic twenty-something who goes to help at a refugee camp in Europe only to find that she still gets picked on by people because she can’t stand up for herself.
You might write about someone working on Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, but with an intriguing complications in their personal life.
What if your main character got caught in Winter Storm Jonas on their way to do something life-changing?
You could combine this idea with ‘evergreen’ occasions, like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, the first day of spring. Write a story like this and you can republish it every year, or sell it to a publication that’s looking for holiday stories. Make sure your protagonist has an interesting story to tell, that you can highlight/echo/make poignant with the holiday you choose.
Write a story with two characters: one manipulative and one manipulated
Think about what characteristics you associate with a manipulative person. Are they bossy? Aggressive? Passive Aggressive?
Use the contrast between the two characters to highlight the ‘truth’ of the each character- in their own minds, in each others’ minds, in the reader’s mind.
Have some fun with reader expectations here: allow the reader to think that the brash, bossy character is the manipulator when really it turns out that the seemingly submissive character is the one who gets their own way. Or vice versa.
Consider using an unusual setting for a very domestic dispute (an argument about housework during a car chase) or a domestic setting for an unusual conversation (two people making the bed, discussing the evidence for the the theory of multiverses).
Write a short story with an atmospheric feel set in any of the wintery types of weather that present opportunities to give that additional ingredient of mystery and suspense.
Sat here on a dark, cold, wet morning I thought what a wonderful time of year for a story prompt! Winter offers so many more options to add tension and drama to a scene.
Think of Victorian London, thick, swirling sulphurous fog and the menace of Jack the Ripper.
A cold frosty morning, crunchy grass underfoot. The sound of someone following you, dare you look behind.
Where do the crazy footprints in the deep, crisp snow lead?
A howling gale, is that a ghost I can hear moaning behind the tombstones?
A misty morning on the heather clad moors, Cathy frantically searching for Heathcliffe.
Winter tales don’t have to focus on Christmas or New Year (or any other religious festival), there are so many varied forms of winter weather that you can use to give your story that extra buzz of originality and authenticity.
An atmospheric opening paragraph to a story can give a wonderful sense of foreboding. But don’t forget your character; he, she or it needs to be introduced early and be placed in the middle of the dramatic scene.
And don’t ignore your character’s motivation that is driving them to pursue their dream or chase that thief. Then the reader asks ‘why is he there in the middle of nowhere?’ or ‘what is she doing wearing only a bikini in the middle of a snowstorm?’
Malcolm Richardson has been writing creatively for the last ten years. After a slow start focussing on a novel, which is still only half completed he has concentrated on short stories over the last few years. His recent focus has been entering short stories in competitions. Freshly renewed over the last couple of months, he is now getting grips with his novel with the aim of completing a full first draft early next year. Malcolm is a latecomer to blogging, but his September Story a Day stories can be found here.