In James Blish’s Surface Tension (which I reviewed recently), the author took the idea of space travel and did something a bit different with it: instead of humans arriving on a new planet and terraforming it to suit themselves, they genetically-engineer versions of humanity that would thrive on the planet.
Now that’s what I call ‘subverting reader expectations’. But it’s still a satisfying story that sticks to the rules of an off-planet adventure story (lots of ‘wonder’ and new environments, inter-personal conflict, conflict with the environment, bad guys, a struggle to unite the ‘good’ forces and to survive. Even a little romance.)
Today’s writing prompt is ripped straight from my 6th Grader’s homework folder, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant.
I’m steeped in (as well as 6th Grade homework) Lisa Cron’s fabulous latest book Story Genius, in which she makes the compelling point that you cannot begin to tell your character’s story until you know about their past.
It’s a delightfully obvious (and surprisingly overlooked) observation that ought to be front and center in every writing class. So here we go.
In the story, a man visits his elderly parents. A chance remark reminds him of an incident in his childhood where he was clearly in the wrong, and someone else suffered.
Without being heavy handed, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie allows her character to reminisce, taking us through a bright moment in a child’s life, before showing the act the man would later regret. There is very little commentary, just lush scene-painting and evocation.
Write a story inspired by one of your regrets
Write this story using a nugget from your own past: an act or words of which you were later ashamed.
Alternatively, combine a story you heard from someone else with the emotions you felt when you did something wrong.
Don’t use this as a vehicle to feel sorry for yourself, now. Rather, use your experiences to conjure up for the reader the feelings, the physical experience of your shame.
Don’t write this autobiographically (unless you really love memoir). Give your feelings to another character.
Consider giving the feelings of shame to a character who is very unlike you, and see how they would react to facing the consequences of their own actions.
Try to not consciously teach the reader a lesson. Instead, explore the experience and let them draw their own conclusions.
Try to evoke the experience of doing something you know to be wrong, getting caught, or getting away with it but regretting it anyway, in ways that a reader might recognize from their own experience (that’s why I suggest focusing on the physical reactions).
If the point of storytelling is to connect with other readers, sometimes its our worst experiences that give us the vivid emotional memories that allow us create a vivid story.
It’s Write On Wednesday Day! (That’s really clumsy. I’m going to have to never do that again!)
The Nov/Dec/Jan holiday season is fast approaching. I know you don’t want to think about it, but if you’re interested in putting out a short story for the holidays, this is actually kind of last minute.
Publications have long lead times for date-specific stories, so if your holiday stories aren’t already written, now’s the time. Magazines and online pubs LOVE themed stories (Christmas stories; New Year issues; Thanksgiving horror stories!).
Or perhaps you’d like to create a story for friends and family to say thanks for all their support (or: na-na-na-na-na-na-you-see-I-wasnt-lying-around-watching-daytime-TV-all-year).
Write a story tied to a Nov/Dec/Jan holiday
You can use this to flesh out characters from a longer work in progress.
You can include characters from your real life.
You can use this as a calling card/thank you note/Christmas letter if you send holiday greetings cards
Don’t feel it has to be a narrative story. One of the delights of the short story form is that it can be much more than that. Consider writing a list of holiday gifts your character has to buy, complete with passive-aggressive commentary; or a series of increasingly frantic tweets from the Thanksgiving dinner table…
Create a compelling character and set them in a ridiculous situation, or a ridiculous character and put them in a banal situation.
Have fun with this. Amuse yourself. Remember, nobody ever has to see this story, so you can be as cruel or as kind as you like!
This month’s theme, here at StoryADay is “Accountability”.
(If you haven’t yet declared your goals for the month, leave a comment in this month’s SWAGr post and tell us what you’re going to do with your writing for the rest of this month)
Today’s writing prompt includes a built-in accountability trigger.
Contact a friend, right now, and tell them that you’re going to write a short story in the next 24 hours. Tell them you’ll send it to them, or at least check in when you’re finished. Then, write 500-750 words about a character you think that friend will love (or love to hate)
Keeping the story super-short gives you a better chance of finishing it
Focusing on your friend (someone you know well) helps you winnow the choices. What will THEY enjoy? (Too much choice is paralyzing. Eliminate every possible character or situation that wouldn’t interest this particular friend. Then start writing)
Remember that a short story revolves around a single moment in which something changes for your character.
The moment can have happened just before the story starts (in which case you’re dealing with the aftermath and the character’s choices about how to deal with it)
The moment can happen at the end, when we know enough about your character to be able to predict how they’ll react (or at least enjoy wondering)
The moment can happen in the middle, in which case you get a chance to show us the before and the after.
With such a short story you don’t have much room for backstory. Write it as bare as you can. You can punch it up with details and dual meanings, as you re-read and re-write it.
This week, make sure you’re reading some writing you really love; writing that inspires you. It’ll help with all your writing, and especially with this writing prompt.
Write a story inspired by, or in-the-style-of a piece of writing you love
Don’t try to impress me. Pick something you really, really love (something that gets you excited) whether or not you think anyone else would respect it. If you love it, pick it (in the immortal words of this century’s new bard: “And love is love is love is love is love is love is love“)
Analyze the heck out of a piece of writing you love, and recreate it with new characters and a new setting. Or just pick a character/author you love and write a loving fanfic tribute.
Don’t worry about making it good. Just try to recapture, for your potential reader, the emotions you felt when reading the piece that inspired you.
It doesn’t have to be a short story. Write anything. Perform something. Just get creative. Focus on the excitement of creating something.
In honor of this month’s theme, here at StoryADay, of Refilling The Well, I’m issuing a very odd writing prompt:
Don’t write/watch/read any stories today
You’re probably a writer because you love stories/reading/storytelling.
Since you decided to become a writer, your ‘work’ is storytelling, and so everything related to stories is now tinged with a different color.
You used to relax by reading a good book, or watching a good show, but now those things make your subconscious go “oy, my character development isn’t as good as this” or “oo, I could do that in my third act…”
You need to find, and indulge in, activities that are completely unrelated to writing/storytelling.
Think about things you used to love to do as a kid (yes, I know, I know. I mean *apart from reading*). Did you like to roller-skate? Dance? Skip? Play tennis? Play piano? Sing? Knit? Paint? Build things? Garden? Hang out with friends? Lip synch?
Pick one and try it. Clear 30 minutes out of your schedule and do something completely unrelated to storytelling.
P. S. Leave a comment to let us know what you picked and whether or not you felt rejuvenated afterwards.
Today’s prompt comes from the Chief Instigator of the DIYMFA program, Gabriela Pereira. Always full of writer-craft goodness, you should definitely be checking out DIYMFA.com, always full of writer-craft goodness, and the wonderful weekly DIYMFA Radio podcast.
Famous Last Words
Most prompts give you a place to start and let you take things from there. Today we’re going to flip the equation. I’m going to give you a last line and you need to write toward it. In other words, your assignment will be to write a piece that leads you to that last line.
The reason this prompt is so useful is that it exercises your brain in a new way. As writers, we’re used to taking a kernel of an idea and running with it, but it’s a totally different proposition to have a fixed ending and finding your way to it.
You may someday find yourself in a situation where you need to use this skill, like if you know your ending but haven’t figured out yet how to get there. This prompt is great practice for doing just that.
Take the last line from your favorite book or choose one from the list below. Now write a short piece that ends with that line.
1. No one has claimed them yet.
2. “Let me tell you about it.”
3. Everything must go.
4. “Make me pretty.”
5. And it was still hot.
These are all last lines from actual books. Can you guess which books they came from? Answers are below.
1) From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
2) Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
3) Feed by M.T. Anderson
4) Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
5) Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
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.