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?
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.
Today I wrap up the story structure series with a bang.
Write a Hansel & Gretel Structured Story
- The Life-Changing Moment in this story structure, comes at the start.
- The Life-Changing Moment may have happened ‘off-stage’ before the story starts (imagine the story of Hansel and Gretel where the kids are already alone in the woods. That would work, right?)
- Remember to focus on what your character would never, ever choose to do, and how the circumstances are forcing them to face that (for example, Hansel and Gretel would never disobey/mistrust the adults in their life, but life is giving them a pretty clear directive to do just that).
- This story starts with a big moment, and then throw complications at your character. Once you’ve told us enough about the character for us to figure out how they’re going to survive, you can end the story.
- If you’d like to read more about this story structure, check out this post.
Don’t forget to post in the community or leave a comment to tell us how you got on today.
Today we continue looking at story structure: this time, with what I call the Ugly Duckling Structure.
Watch the video and write an Ugly Duckling story
The ‘life-changing moment’ comes in the middle of this story
Balance out every challenge from before that moment, with a similar, but different moment afterwards. Show us how the character (or their circumstances) have changed now.
This story might have to be longer than a Cinderella-type story. Sketch it out, if you don’t have time to do it justice today.
Read this post, which talks more about the Ugly Duckling structure.
Don’t forget to leave a comment or post in the community and tell us how you’re getting on. What have you learned this month, so far?
Write A Non-Traditional Love Story
- You could use non-traditional partners for your love story (it doesn’t have to be romantic love; and if it is, it doesn’t have to be between straight, white people).
- The way you tell the story could be non-traditional (it could be told in a non-narrative form).
- Here’s my review of The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec by John Chu (with links to the story).
Today I throw you one of my favorite prompts, because I love reading these kinds of stories.
Write a story in the form of a series of letters
- The ‘letters’ can be anything really: letters, journal entries, found documents, Tweets, Facebook updates…
- The letters can come from only one person — in which case we hear only one side of the story.
- The letters might come from various sources and in various time periods.
- You might mix letters with documentary evidence (school report cards, obituaries clipped from a newspaper, a termination document from an employer).
- Your writing might be in the form of a ‘gospel’ for a new religious or political cult.
- This might grow to be a bigger project than you can handle in one day…
Today’s prompt sticks with this week’s theme of pushing the form of the short story away from the idea of it as a ‘mini novel’.
Short stories are incredibly versatile and short story readers are willing to work for their thrills. Let’s get to it:
Write a prose sonnet: a story 14 sentences long
- Of course, our prose sonnets aren’t going to rhyme or be in any particular rhythm (although you can shoot for that if you like).
- You can draw inspiration from traditional sonnet forms. For example, it could follow the structure of a Petrarchan sonnet which presents an argument or observation in the first 8 lines (sentences, in this case), then a turn in the next line. Then you can spend the rest of the story ‘answering’ the question/observation/argument of the start.
- You could model your story on a Shakespearean sonnet: three groups of four related sentences, and a final two-sentence ending that perhaps turns the story upside down OR reinforces its message.
- You could go from the specific to the general and end with a universal truth, or set the story up the other way around.
- One powerful image might be all you need in a story this length: a grandparent with their grandchild, feeding the ducks, for example. Placed at either end of your story (or in the middle), this image might allow you to illustrate a theme on relatable, specific and still universal levels.
- You could also write a sonnet ‘sequence’, if your story demands more room. That would mean you write groups of ‘scenes’ in 14 sentences each until your story is finished.
- For more on the form, read this.
Write a story in the form of a list
- You could write
- a ‘to do’ list,
- a list of grievances addressed to your character’s boss/children/spouse;
- a shopping list;
- a McSweeney’s style list;
- a list of steps you are advising someone to take,
- any other type of list you like.
- The title is hugely important. You might need to write it last. It should perhaps have a double meaning: it might mean one thing to the reader before they read the story and yet peel away a layer once the story is in their brains.
- Don’t be afraid to let the reader work. Leave things out. Imply much, explain little.
- Don’t feel the need to wrap this up neatly. Jennifer Egan doesn’t.
- The twist in this kind of tale, comes because the form betrays the meaning: a list is a utilitarian, ephemeral thing. The more important/dramatic the issue your character takes on in the list, the more impact the story will have (this can be dramatic, funny, ridiculous, dark, or anything else!)
Today I encourage you to make your prose as purple as you like, in a quest to find out how much description you really need.
Write a story (set in your novel’s world) that makes sensation a priority. Use all five senses.
- Don’t be afraid to write ridiculously floral prose today. You can always dial it back, but it’s fun to find new ways of describing things.
- Don’t worry too much about pacing or characterization. This is an exploration of your world and the sensations a character might experience, walking through it.
- Get outside, if you have to. Listen to things. Smell the world. See what you can feel. Then come back inside and write.
Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!
Today we look at a less tangible aspect of world-building: What makes your society the way it is?
Write a story focusing on an aspect of society that matters to you/your story. How did society get to a place where this is important?
- You’ll probably have to go back into history for this (or ‘history’, if your world is completely made up).
- Think about issues like gender/race/economic/religious norms. How did they get where they are? What made the norms, normal?
- Pick something that matters to you. Don’t try to explain everything, just the thing that makes your blood boil, or that gets you excited.
Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!
Today I invite you to do some world-building, either for a novel in progress or for a story world you’d like to spend more time in, focusing on concrete aspects of the world.
Write a story that focuses on the discovery/invention/ramifications of something that shapes your characters’ physical world.
- Some questions you might ask: Why do we have roads? What invention led us to spend our evenings the way we do? What does your futuristic society have that might need explained? How did those things come about?
- Write a story based on the transition point between a world with those things and the world that came before (think: Marty McFly in Back to the Future arriving at his younger-mom’s house the very day her father hooked up their first TV. Rolling the TV into their dining room that first time, probably affected their family dinners forever!)
Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!
Today’s writing prompt invites you to look back into your characters’ past again.
Imagine the first (significant) meeting between your protagonist and a secondary character
- Again, if you’re not a novelist, imagine this scenario for a short story you’ve written in the past, or for one you’re planning.
- If your novel-in-progress’s protagonist has a best friend, that might be the perfect person to choose here. If they have a ‘frenemy’, this story could shed some light on that relationship. You can even do this with a villain, if they have a history that begins before the novel starts.
- Show us this meeting. Set up some of the dynamics we’ll recognize between the two characters later.
- If your work-in-progress doesn’t have a great candidate for this story, invent one. A friend in the protagonist’s past, that we never meet in the later work, could set her expectations for all future friends (good or bad). Examine that.
- If you need help getting to the emotional heart of the matter, take a look at Donald Maass’s newest book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.
Don’t forget to leave a comment letting us know how you got on, or come on in to the community and do your Victory Dance!
Continuing our series of prompts to help novelists as well as short story writers, today I encourage you to move forward a little in your protagonist’s timeline, but still stay before the main story.
Write a story about the days leading up to the beginning of your novel, or your story’s big incident. Alternatively, write a journal of those days from your protagonist’s point of view.
- Use this story to ‘brain dump’ all the stuff that your reader doesn’t want to wade through before they get to the jumping-off-point for your story.
- You can use this knowledge to season the story later, with a light hand.
- Remember, you can recycle these stories are freebies and giveaways to help you promote your novel and build your audience.
Don’t forget to leave a comment to let us know how you got on, or post in The Victory Dance
This week I’m focusing on prompts that novelists can use. If you’re novelist, I don’t want you to feel like you’re wasting your time here at StoryADay May. While short story writers can easily use these prompts, too, you novelists will find much in them that enriches your work-in-progress.
Let’s dive in:
Write a story that investigates a turning point in your protagonist’s past.
- Every interesting character has an internal struggle fighting with (or complementing) the external struggle of the plot. It usually stems from a character flaw/defect/protection mechanism they’ve been building for years. Use this prompt to write a story that captures the beginning of that character development.
- If you don’t have a novel or work in progress, investigate a character from an earlier story you’ve written (or one you hope to write).
Lisa Cron’s Story Genius (referenced in the video) can be found here or requested through your local indie bookstore.
Today I encourage you to take a second look at a story you’ve written before.
Take a story you’ve written before and write it again from a different point of view.
You can rewrite the events of the story, as viewed by someone else.
You could choose to use the original story as a jumping-off point, that simply informs your knowledge of this formerly-secondary character.
Feel free to write the story in a completely different form (if the first one was a series of letters, you could write this one in a more narrative form.
Today’s prompt comes from another wonderful writer from my local network.
I had a nightmare last night. I woke up and started writing….
About Maria Hazen Lewis
Maria Hazen Lewis writes women’s fiction in Pennsylvania.