This is a great list of plot twists to avoid, found in the Writers’ Guidelines for an Australian magazine.
(The rest of the guidelines are good, too. I like the bit where they point out that too many characters and a story gets confusing. They recommend topping out at four.)
Although, it has to be said, the thrawn and perverse side of me is very tempted to write a series of stories in which one or all of these things happen, just to see if I could have fun with them. (Hey, the poison one worked for The Princess Bride…)
Following up on the recent theme of emotional writing prompts, here’s one that’s good for a laugh.
Write A Story That Features Laughter
Laughter can be cleansing, hysterical (in a bad way), nervous, comradely, cruel. Pick one, or cram as many as possible into one story.
Think about the physicality of laughter at the moment it happens.
Think about the emotions the memory of the laughter (happy or cruel) elicits later.
Use the moment of laughter as a plot device. It is the start or the end of something. It is some place/time/state your character wants to get back to or escape from.
If you’re showing laughter-following-a-joke, take a tip from Joss Whedon’s Firefly. He has a couple of scenes where he skips the joke and cuts straight to the characters laughing uproariously at whatever was said just off camera. That saves the audience from having to analyze the joke (“was it really that funny?”) and allows them to watch how the laughing characters react and interact. It allows for the sense of catharsis from the laughter without having to share the writer’s sense of humor. (Watch for the dinner scene in the episode Out Of Gas, around the 5:00 min mark).
Continuing a trend from last week and the week before, here’s another prompt that leads you into plot via your main character’s emotion.
Write A Story That Features Anger
You can start your story with an angry outburst then spend the rest of it unpacking what prompted the rage, or exploring the consequences of one person’s rage for all the characters around them.
You can build up to a big, angry finish — showing your character giving in to something they’ve been fighting all the way through the story.
Think about how you have experienced anger in your own life — both in yourself and observing it in others.
Try to get inside the head of someone who has a very different ‘anger vector’ than yourself. (If you’re a ‘push me for weeks until I explode’ person, think about writing a character who is a ‘rage and forget it’ sort).
Remember there is such a thing as righteous anger.
To avoid the story becoming too intense, use the concept of the opposite emotion to show that your character(s) is/are capable of other emotions too. (What is the opposite of anger? Depends on the type of anger, doesn’t it? It might be charm, or humor, or kindness, or gentleness.
How can you tell a story that includes one character containing two opposing attributes. Think about what a character like that wants and go from there).
What kind of language will you use? Animal metaphors? Short, choppy sentences? Dialogue? How will you avoid clichés?
Write A Story In Which A Character Experiences Joy
Continuing on from last week’s prompt about a character experiencing an emotion, this week we’re focusing on Joy.
Write A Story In Which A Character Experiences Joy
How to define ‘joy’? I’m going with ‘a momentary experience of intense happiness’, though CS Lewis famously mixed that feeling of happiness with one of ‘longing’ in his definition of joy.
The main character does not have to be the character experiencing the moment of joy. They can be an observer.
How do the characters observing the joy-filled character’s behavior react? Do they reflect the joy? Do they feel bereft because they lack it? Do they envy the other person? Do they show that directly by being sad, or do they bury it and act like a jerk?
Will the joyful moment happen at the beginning of your story and kick off all the events that follow? Will the character be sustained by the fleeting sensation or spend a miserable existence in a futile attempt to recapture it?
Will you build up to the moment of joy at the end of your story (huge climax? Happy ending?)
What does it actually feel like to experience (or witness) joy?
What kind of a character could really use a little joy, and how can you put them in a situation where they experience it? Do they deserve it? Does that matter?
Spend some time with a blank sheet of paper, before you write. After you decide on your character and their need, jot down 15 scenarios that could grow from that desire. (Writing 15 different scenarios means that you’ll blast through the obvious storylines straight away, then you’ll get to the weird and interesting ones that will make your story sing. Keep going until you have 15 even though the last three will probably be truly terrible.) Pick the one that interests you most, then start writing.
Make the desire all-consuming (for this instance, the duration of this story). Focus on this moment in the character’s life. Mine it for details, humor, horror, whatever you can get out of it.
Don’t forget to comment below to tell us how your writing went (or share an excerpt, or link to your story on another blog) or join us in the community and do your Victory Dance.
[Ooo, I’m particularly excited about this one. This is a challenging prompt but one that should yield some great stories, since character and conflict are at the heart of the story – JD]
The Energy of Passions & Obsessions
You become what you think about all day long. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
Passions and obsessions are great starting points for stories. So what if a character has a passion or obsession but the character has extreme difficulty fulfilling that dream. For example, a character could have an extreme passion with exotic birdwatching, but he can’t fulfill his greatest wish because he is a poor child living in a big city. What does the character do to fulfill his obsession? What happens to the character when he can’t? What does the fulfillment of the obsession or passion mean to the character?
Write a story in which the main character acts on something that really irritates YOU
“Don’t you just wish…”
Have you ever said those words when something has really, REALLY irritated you?
Imagine what would happen if you followed through on all those little revenge-daydreams you have after someone scratches your car/talks incessantly on their phone in the library/dogears the corners of Volume 4 of your collectable edition of The Sandman 10 Volume Slipcase Set…
Write A Revenge-Fantasy Story
Pick something that really irritates you and write about a character who actually DOES the things you can only dream of doing (as a respectable member of a mostly-functional society).
Read the opening chapters of Rest You Merry by Charlotte McLeod. It starts when mild-mannered professor Peter Shandy finally snaps after being pressured to decorate his home for the annual college Christmas ‘Illuminations’. It’s deliciously hilarious.
Pick something that really gets under your own skin, the more mundane the better. (It will allow you to be more creative in your revenge!)
Show us the moment when your character snaps. Give us the physical and mental fugue-state breaking point. Remember not to tell us “he was so angry he couldn’t speak”, but to instead describe the pounding in his veins, the way his tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth. Slow down time with the details, then let ’er rip!
Today I want you to take your character, and their desire and cripple them not once, but twice. Of course you get to reward them with a little win in the middle.
Give your character a goal, frustrate them, let them make some progress but let it come at a cost.
Think about Star Wars, the great story-outliner’s tool: Luke wants to get off this boring little planet but his aim is frustrated by obligations and lack of opportunity. When his family is murdered he finally acts. His next aim is to find and rescue the sexy princess (spoiler alert: Ew!). Problem: she’s on the most heavily defended, most technologically advanced ship in the fleet of the all-powerful empire. Somehow he succeeds. Yay! BUT, oh no, they sacrifice Obi-Wan, his mentor, at the same time. Now Luke has a new mission: overthrow the empire. Fail, Strive, Succeed but at a cost, pursue next part of his ‘want’. [Check out this Narrative Map of the Hero’s Journey]
Put your character in an impossible situation. Let him dig his way out only to fall into a new pit. Only this time he knows a bit more about himself and what it’ll take to climb out. (Friends? A rope? Strong hands?) Let the character use what they learned in the first part of the middle, to achieve what they need to do next.
It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom or drama. If you’re writing humor you can still do this. Frustration is funny. Even throwing in a moment of tragedy is acceptable in comic writing. In fact, if you’re making your reader laugh until 2/3 of the way through the story, they won’t even notice the knife in your hand until you’re sliding it between their ribs. Bam! Will that pack an emotional punch?! (Sitcoms do this from time to time. Aren’t you surprised to find yourself suddenly sobbing during your favorite 30 minute comedy?)
Continuing this week’s theme of POV prompts, here is today’s prompt:
Write a story from the Third Person, Omniscient perspective
This is the perspective you know from all the great writers (Dickens, Tolstoy, Pratchett…): the author can say anything, pop inside any (or all) character’s heads, travel backwards and forwards in time, insert herself and her own commentary onto the page.
Have some fun with this. Take a scene and tell it from one character’s perspective, then leap into another character’s head and give their read on the situation.
Remember to show the first character’s continuing physical behavior from where the second character is standing after switch to their perspective. Your reader will know how the first character’s behavior reflects his thoughts. Will the second character understand or misconstrue?
Try out your authorial prerogatives and make a comment about what’s going on (think of that moment when a TV character turns to the camera and talks directly to us, the audience). What does this do to the story? Do you like it?
This can get quite complicated (which is why it works so well for novels). Don’t worry about writing a complete, polished story today. Just play with the POV and see what options are available to you.
This time, let’s come out of our own heads and get inside someone else’s.
Write a story in the Third Person, Limited perspective
Third person limited is a lot like first person except you’re not writing “I”. By that I mean you can only show the thoughts of one person.
A good way to remember not to show other characters’ thoughts is to imagine your story as a TV show or movie. All characters apart from the one whose point of view you’re following, must walk across the screen, being observed by him (or her)
Try not to use ‘he thought’, or ‘she felt’, or ‘he wondered’. Take a look at this writing advice (allegedly by Chuck Palahniuk) which has some great examples of how to avoid this trap — and why it’s so much more effective when you do
Today we’re concentrating on a character: in particular the kind of person who would have been known to me, when I was a child, as “a little old lady”.
Write a story featuring a little old lady
Remember, in the days before hair dye and facial peels and gym memberships and HRT—in the days of hard physical labor from dawn to dusk—being a ‘little old lady’ could start at any age from your mid-forties! Those days were NOT that long ago…
One of the best pieces of advice I received for writing short stories was to make your character want something. Once your character wants something you have a structure for the whole story: put obstacles in their way and see how they react.
Create a character who wants something really badly, then thwart them at every turn.
This story can be realistic, or high-fantasy; historical or far-future; tragic or comic. The strength of this prompt is that it focuses on character. No matter where you set it, you can make it realistic by having your character react to being thwarted in a way that feels familiar to your reader.
You get to decide whether your character gets what they want at the end or not.
Read Fight City (An Irish Jimmy Gallagher Novelette) by last week’s guest prompter James Scott Bell for a really fun example of how you can spin out this kind of ‘thwartage’ for a whole novella (it’s only $0.99 but you may also borrow it for free under Kindle lending plan).
Here’s a short-short story from Mary Robinette Kowal that demonstrates how a simple ‘want’ can sustain a whole story and help create rounded characters out of somewhat surprising source-material. (I highly recommend the Writing Excuses podcast that Mary co-presents with Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells and Howard Tayler. It doesn’t often focus on the short story, but it is always inspiring and only 15 minutes long.)
Continuing on from yesterday’s theme of giving you an element of the story you must use, today I’m giving you a character. I’m seeding some hints about this character into the prompt and you should take them where ever they lead you.
Sam Chase has just left a meeting with the big boss. Sam has been offered a dream position — or at least a position that would have been a dream if it had been dangled out there two years ago. But lately, Sam has been beginning to understand that there’s more to life than ambition, career, advancement, the trappings of success. Oh let’s be honest: it’s been coming on ever since last summer. If the only constant is change, Sam thinks, I’m a walking illustration.
Write Sam’s story.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I was very careful to use no pronouns in that blurb about Sam. Sam can be male or female, at your whim.
Will you explain what happened “last summer” or keep it mysterious? If you do explain it, will your story start there? End there? Mention it as a big reveal at the climax?
What will Sam choose? Just because we’re tapped on the shoulder by our better angels, doesn’t mean we always make the right choice. But then again, sometimes we do. What will YOUR Sam do?