Settings – A Writing Prompt from Josh Barkan

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?

 

Tips:

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.

 

[Write On Wednesday] Time Yourself

Today’s exercise is designed to help you see that you CAN write, even when you think you don’t have time. Take 30 minutes today to write a complete story. Here’s how…

Sometimes life gets in the way of writing. We must find ways to work in a time-crunch.

Today’s exercise is designed to help you see that you CAN write, even when you think you don’t have time.
time flies
The Prompt

Write A Story In 30 Minutes

Tips

  • Turn your phone off, mute your email, hang a sign on the door, put on huge silly headphones. Do whatever you need to do, carve out 30 minutes today to Just Write.
  • Use only 30 minutes, start to finish, brainstorming to ‘the end’.
  • Set a stopwatch. Take seven minutes to brainstorm. Think of a character. Give him/her a problem/desire. Pick a reason why solving this problem/achieving this desire causes them extreme heartache/peril (examples: Wesley loves Buttercup but is too poor to woo her. Becoming good for her means risking being murdered by pirates, a prince and a rodent of unusual size. A bookworm’s heart’s desire is simply to read, but his wife thinks its a waste of time so he can’t read at home; and his boss threatens to fire him if he catches him reading at work.)
  • Pick a good opening line that sums up the character and the problem. (“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J.D Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye)
  • You should be at about 10 minutes into your time now. Spend the next 15 minutes getting to the meat of the problem, throwing complications at your character, and having him start to try to resolve them. Fail at least once. (If it’s an interior kind of story, you can let that failure be ‘temptation to give up’)
  • Five minutes to go! At some point in the past 15 minutes your character should have started to tell you how the story should end. Tie up the last challenge you gave them and move immediately to the ending. Two sentences. Don’t worry about connecting the middle to the ending just yet. That’s what rewrites are for. Just write “[connecting stuff]” and move on to the end.
  • There. Didn’t that feel good?

What you have in front of you is likely not a complete short story. It’s a sketchy first draft. But it’s a sketchy first draft that moves. It has an interesting character. It has action. It has a sense that it’s going somewhere, and it has and ending.

Now you have a draft you can rework. Add a few lines to help clarify setting and description for the reader, if it’s that kind of story. Change some of your ‘info dump’ paragraphs to dialogue and move them to earlier/later in the story. Expand or delete details. Figure out your theme and how you can (subtly) strengthen it.

Do this, and I think you’ll have a pretty good story. All from taking 30 minutes to squeeze a little short story writing into your day.