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.
Today’s prompt, should you choose to use it, involves the creation of an imaginary cargo cult.
A cargo cult is a religious movement usually emerging in tribal or isolated societies after they have had an encounter with an external and technologically advanced society. Usually cargo cults focus on magical thinking and a variety of intricate rituals designed to obtain the material wealth of the advanced culture they encountered.
The term “cargo cult” has caught the imagination of the public and is now used to describe a wide variety of phenomena that involve imitating external properties without the substance. In commerce, for example, successful products often result in “copycat” products that imitate the form but are usually of inferior quality.
Cargo cults exemplify the third law of Arthur C. Clarke: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
See http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Cargo_cult for more info. Your cargo cult can be set anywhere you like – how did it first come into being? Who are its adherents? How has it affected their lifestyles?
Ideas to Explore:
World building – while cargo cults are typically associated with the South Pacific, you can set yours anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be on this planet.
What might the central cargo or technology be? How does it shape the cult’s thinking and behavior? What myths spring up surrounding it? Is it useful, harmful, or merely…decorative?
What sort of conflicts might arise in such a society – between its members or between its members and the outside world?
Think about setting, character motivation, props, and conflict.
Have fun! Be sure to come back and share your story links in the comments.
This morning my sister (visiting me in the US from Scotland) took my son out in the pouring rain to continue their ‘learn to ride your bike’ sessions. She’s leaving today, so it was their last chance. They weren’t going to let a little warm rain stop them. I do wonder, however, what the neighbors thought.
Which leads me to today’s prompt.
Think of a character who needs to do a task. Put that task in an unusual location/setting/timing/condition.
If your character needs to bake a cake because her mother is coming over (and your character, of course, has long-standing, complicated issues with her mother), that’s a story. If she’s trying to bake the cake on a spaceship and it has to be ready before her mother spacewalks over from her passing spaceship, that adds a layer of interesting complexity to the story!
Perhaps your story opens with two characters, like my sister and son, cycling in the driving rain. What could induce them to cycle in these conditions? Where are they going? What is driving them to do this? How do they feel about the journey? Each other? What is the journey a metaphor for? (Grammatically incorrect, but fun to say out loud. Try it!)
What other mundane tasks can you think of? Taking a test. Cleaning a bathroom. Meeting a friend. Now, where can you set these to make them intriguing? Taking a test on the side of a mountain. Cleaning a bathroom in a World War I trench. Meeting a friend in Death Valley.
Dig deeply into the circumstances. Ask why these things are happening where/when they are happening. Why would your character be there, trying to do this thing? Will they persevere? Will they give up? Will they whine? Will they fail? What has driven them to this point? Where would they rather be? Why is this interesting to a reader?
Use two or more voices, or let us see only one side of the conversation.
The ‘letters’ can be email exchanges, text messages, Facebook updates, or imaginary hand-written correspondence from sweethearts separated by war, an ocean, feuding parents…whatever makes sense to you.
Try to introduce some mystery, some misunderstanding, or some desire on the part of one of the participants. Frustrate us, tease us, keep us guessing about how it’s going to turn out.
How did you get on yesterday? Did you post in the comments or the community about your writing? Which proverb or ‘theme’ did you use?
Every story — even the most literary, introspective story — needs action.
Stuff must happen.
Action is the agent of change and your characters must change (even for a moment) or face an opportunity for change, for your story to interest people. “Stuff happening” is what gives you the opportunity to show that opportunity for change.
Write A Story Featuring An Escalating Catalogue Of Disasters
Photo by Barry Skeates http://www.flickr.com/photos/barryskeates/6803420982/
As I woke up, I reached for my alarm clock and heard rather than felt my hand knock the full glass of water all over my bedside table – home to my iPhone, table and priceless childhood copy of A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. So it’s fair to say that I wasn’t in the best mood when my 8 year old declared that no, he simply wasn’t getting up or getting dressed or going to school. After that screaming match my head was pounding so I reached for some ibuprofen, only to scoop down my husband’s blood pressure medicine instead – damned blue-topped bottles! I figured I had time to drop the kids off at school before rushing myself to the ER, but of course, I had forgotten about the half inch of ice on my windscreen….
Ever had one of those days? How about your character?
The essence of story is conflict. Conflict doesn’t have to involve a bad guy. Sometimes the antagonist is simply your character’s bad mood, or the universe, or her lack of preparation.
Write a story that features a character going through a catalogue of disasters
You can start this story at the beginning or the end. They can wake up and start the day off badly, ending up at the wrong end of a loaded gun; or you can start with them strapped into the electric chair, thinking ‘now, how did I get here?’
Likewise, the action can all by mental: you start by offending your cat and end by quitting your job in a blaze of glory, burning bridges as you go.
This story can be humorous or tragic, but make sure your readers are feeling what your character is feeling.
Keep piling on the disasters. Leave us breathless.
Give the reader occasional breaks by pausing for moments of backstory, if you like. See how that feels to you, as a writer. Does it cause the story to slow? Could you, instead, include backstory in conversations or pithy one-line asides.
Make this more immediate by writing in first person.
Or write this in close-third person (no-one else’s thoughts get used, but you’re still writing about your main character as ‘he’ or ‘she’). Remember not to use phrases like “she thought”, “she wondered”, “he looked”. Just tell us a thought. We’re smart enough to figure out that it’s your main character’s thoughts we’re hearing. (e.g. “Well, that wasn’t right” instead of “well, that wasn’t right, she thought”. Much more punch!)
Use this exercise to practice putting action into your stories. It doesn’t have to be ‘running from the law’ action. It can be all psychological (think: Jane Austen), but make sure you can have things happening in your writing at any time.
Last week we talked about writing a story in the moment before a car crash: everything in the story took place during a few seconds in the brain of your main character. This week we’re going to the opposite extreme
Write A Story That Takes Place Over Eons
(or just a really long time)
Obviously, since humans don’t live for eons, you’re going to have to choose something else as the thing that provides continuity in this story: it might be a location on the earth; a multi-generational spaceship crew traveling through unimaginable reaches of space; an alien; a centuries-old mollusk; a tree.
You can write a narrative story if you like, but this might lend itself to some different forms: letters, tweets, journal entries, a string of news articles; a faux-holy book written in different styles in different eras. Have fun with this.
Thing big thoughts. Eons give you a lot of scope to investigate big ideas.
Don’t make the story too long. Big ideas don’t necessarily mean high word count.
Don’t forget to include small details, mundane moments, things your readers can hang their emotions on.
Well, if you’ve ever been in a car crash or any kind of accident, you’ll know exactly what that means: the amygdala (the seat of emotion in your brain) kicks in and calmly starts recording every detail. When you go back over your memories, the moment will seem to have lasted at least 30% longer than it actually could have.
Writing prompt: what if a bunch of glamorous and exciting people came to your podunk hometown?
Does your everyday life seem pretty unglamorous? What about your town?
What if you walked down the street one morning and discovered that a whole bunch of glamorous, exciting people had come to town for a spell?
Write a story about a small town invaded by glamorous/exciting people
The exciting people could be movie or pop stars on a location shoot, or high-profile politicians in town for a rally, or scientists flocking to study an unnatural phenomenon (think: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver), just as long as it upsets the status quo.
Who are they? Why are they there? Who do they meet?
What do the local people think about all this?
What does your main character feel about them at the start of the story? At the end?
Who learns something from this visit? What?
Also, if you have only ever lived somewhere exciting, seeing celebrities at every coffee counter, write instead about someone really ordinary coming into a situation filled with glamour. Ask the same questions as above?
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!
This idea for a story is ripped from the song “Them’s The Vagaries” by Half Man Half Biscuit (thanks, guys!). The narrator says, near the start of the song, “Now we’ve kissed I’ve prepared this list, I thought you ought to know…” and goes on to tell his new love about all his quirks starting with “I’ll not sit backwards on the train” and proceeding down to the most bizarre of pet peeves.
Write a story that begins “Now that we’ve kissed, here are some things you ought to know”
Write this as a monologue or a dialogue, whichever works for you.
This has the potential to be funny or tragic.
Feel free to write this as a list (like the McSweeney’s lists) or as a series of tweets, or as an oral history (which will make it more like a traditional short story in form).
Even if you go with the non-traditional forms (lists etc) there is still a lot of scope for the beginning, middle, end structure.
Only the journey you take your readers on will be emotional, rather than literal (from flippant to poignant; from innocent to creepy…).
Think of the most colorful people you have ever met or the worst date you were ever on. Imagine one of those people writing this.
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?)
Today you’re going to rely on memory to conjure up a vivid setting for your story.
Tell a story set at a country fair
Use all your senses to place us at the fair, right at the start of the story
Paint a picture and include a character walking through that setting, his/her mind set on doing something (winning a prize perhaps? Meeting a particular someone in a particular place?).
Hint that there might be more to their desire than can be simply explained (he wants to be a big shot at the coconut shy; she wants to meet a boy). No, there is a deeper reason they want to do the thing they’re pursuing as we, the reader join them.
After you have squarely painted the fair scene for us, transition away from providing many details of the fair, and instead concentrate more on character.
Don’t forget to bring in something from your setting, near the end, to bring the reader full circle.
Yes, it sounds formulaic, but remember:
It’s only an exercise and
I’ll award a big fluffy panda to anyone who ends up writing something exactly like that of another StoryADay writer, by accident just because you’re using a formula!
I’m reading an autobiography written in the 1830s — when steam travel was the new big thing. The author (a mother of small children) just gave a vivid and opinionated account of a trip she took from Philadelphia to Baltimore. With very few words she conjoured the layout of the carriages and the hot, smoky atmosphere inside — heated as it was by a coal-fired, iron stove in the middle of the carriage (no health and safety, clean air regulations in the 1830s!). She told an amusing story of an encounter with a fellow passenger, while she was at it. I feel like I was ON the train with her.
Tell The Story Of A Journey
Use any transportation technology you can dream up, but include details to allow us to see, feel and perhaps even choke on the atmosphere.
Don’t forget to make something happen, and then resolve it (or leave it unresolved).