One of the best things about plugging into the writing community — online and off—is that you find yourself surrounded by people with creative and innovative ideas that spark your creativity as well as their own.
One such person is Gary Zenker who is, among other things, a writer and a game designer.
This is an awesome way to quickly launch (and finish) a new story, any time you have time to write but are short on inspiration. Try it!
Use this story formula to to create an interesting character, give them a desire, kick off some intriguing action and plan the kind of resolution you want.
Once you have that skeleton, you can start filling in colorful details…and soon your creative brain will be demanding you start to write!
A _______ (adjective) ________(noun), who _________(verb) ___________(subject), then _________(related verb) __________(resolution)
Using these kinds of limits short-circuits your inner editor and makes ‘writing a story’ seem much more manageable. Just take it step by step.
Make sure you give your character an adjective that implies some desire (e.g. ‘ambitious’ not ‘young’; or ‘contented’ – which implies that their desire is for the status quo to remain unchanged)
Use the middle set of blanks to kick off the action (use a verb that implies change: “discovers”, “uncovers”, “decides”, “is forced to”, “commits to”, “resists”, “invents”, “journeys”)
Use the final set of blanks to define what kind of ending you want. Will it be a happy ending? Will it be bittersweet? Will your character achieve their desire or lose it? Will they learn something or not?
Paint the big picture first (e.g. A “dissatisfied woman”, who “uncovers something about a rival”, then “uses that knowledge to get what she wants”, or “discovers she has everything she needs, all ready”)
Now add some details and desires. Think about what would be fun/exciting/engaging for you to write about (e.g. “An ambitious mommy-blogger”, who “finds out her biggest rival has been lying on her blog”, then “uses that knowledge to ruin her rival and make her own blog successful”, or “realizes how shallow her ambitions had been and decides to refocus”)
Next, add even more detail, with desires, needs, colorful details. You don’t have to fill in any details of *how* the resolution comes about, just the overall thrust of it.
Don’t worry that your story will be formulaic. The originality comes in the details you choose, the characters you create and the situations you dream up for them. You and I could both use my mommy-blogger idea and I guarantee you our stories would be wildly different.
Try writing different options for each of the sets of blanks. If you don’t love your first ending option, try something different. If your character’s adjective makes her unappealing to you, try a different one.
Going through this exercise helps keep your story on track. If you know, at the start, how you want the story to end (even if you don’t know the details of how you’ll make that happen), it limits your choices, and lets you choose between three or four sets of action for your character. Knowing whether you want it to be a happy ending or a bitter one, makes it much easier to decide on the types of choices you make (N. B. Neither is inherently better. It all depends on what you enjoy reading/writing and what kind of audience you want to attract).
Don’t be afraid of this, if you’re a ‘pantser’. This is not a restrictive outline that will constrain your creativity. Rather, it is a set of guideposts that will get you where you want to be (i.e. at the end of a satisfying story).
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’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.
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.
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 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!)
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.