Day 1- Expand, Narrow, Explode the Frame by Rachel Swearingen

StoryADay prompt cover
Write a story using this helpful structure from Rachel Swearingen

The Prompt

Expand, Narrow, Explode the Frame

Write a scene in which a character is looking for something or someone that has been lost. Use all the senses to describe the setting. Give us a sense of the body and include the following “moves” in any order:

1. Allow the details of the scene to feel close, contained, even constricting.
2. Describe the thing that has been lost, a brief memory perhaps that has been triggered by its loss.
3. Look down. Zoom in on something very small.
4. Bring in a distant sound.
5. Draw attention to an opening of some sort, a window, a door, a hole in the wall or in a dense wood or in a thick covering of clouds, for example.
6. Can your character see or sense what is beyond that opening?
7. Allow your character to climb down or up or into for to a new vantage point.
8. Is your character alone? Invite a stranger to the scene. What happens now?

Rachel Swearingen

Rachel Swearingen is the author of “How to Walk on Water and other short stories” which received the New American Press Fiction Prize. Find out more at RachelSwearingen.com

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76 thoughts on “Day 1- Expand, Narrow, Explode the Frame by Rachel Swearingen”

  1. This one was SO FUN to write! My protagonist loses her keys and spends nearly half an hour looking for them. My sister couldn’t stop laughing when I read the story aloud. I ended the scene with another crisis, which will lead to more of my story.

  2. Day one done.
    Loved the prompt and where it took me.

    A golfer’s neck chain snaps as he stoops to look for his ball in the rough. He searches frantically. The ball can be replaced. The pendant on the chain? Never.

  3. As usual, once I got to writing I actually wrote. Thinking about writing is often so much harder than writing.
    In the messy middle I thought about giving up, but by pushing through I managed to get out a 1200 word story. I realized I didn’t need to love or even like it, I just needed to finish it. It got kind of sentimental for me. I’m not finding much that’s magical or sparkling in my writing these days. I want to push through and find those sparks of delight again, both in the work and in the product.

  4. This prompt took me to unexpectedly dark places and I have a love/hate relationship with some of the phrases I turned. It was a decent exercise. I may revisit the prompt again, sometime, to try a different approach.

  5. I should have left my comment at the end yesterday, but I forgot. I had a blast writing this story. I had just texted a friend and her husband, who are traveling in an RV same as me, to ask if she arrived to her destination. She said that what should have been a 4 hour day, turned into 9 hours because the GPS gave the wrong directions, twice that day. Both times they struggled to turn their 70 feet of RV and truck around. I had a similar experience once when I turned down the wrong road and found myself driving down a dirt road to no where, struggling to find a place to turn my 50 feet of RV and truck around. I know first hand the frustration, the fear, the lostness, the dilemma, so I wrote a story about a couple driving a huge motorhome and towing a vehicle. Their GPS was supposed to lead them to an RV park, but instead took them to a narrow country road, surrounded by nothing but cows and countryside.
    I wrote it entirely of dialogue, with every other paragraph he said, then the next paragraph she said, back and forth. It was a very fun story to write. After I edit, I may submit it to some RV magazines. Maybe it’ll get published? Would be my first!

  6. Hi,
    Doing my happy dance here now ! Really enjoyed yesterdays promp, and sat down for writing <3 Got something written 🙂

  7. Got my story finished at about 11:40pm. A pair of candles connect a couple across space as the one who chose to remain behind on an alien world considers the effects of that choice on them both.

    Lightly revised (it will eventually be better – I feel it ends a bit too abruptly) and posted to Archive of Our Own. 867 words tonight….

    And then I spent an hour or so doing some research for my Day Two story!

  8. I’m writing my update today, since like Neha, it was late in the night by the time I finished writing to yesterday’s prompt🙂 I really enjoyed the prompt and got a short outline done. Didn’t have time to finish the entire story and plump it up but I’m glad I got in about 500 words last night.

    Thinking about today’s prompt now. Planning to write it once my day job day is over 🙂

  9. May 1 2023

    She tugs at the collar of her tennis polo, her throat itchy and tight, sweat beading down her face. She looks around, frantic frustration rising in her chest, but she keeps a calm exterior.

    There are so many people crammed into the park for the competition today. She stares carefully into the happy mob of people, trying to pick out his curly brown hair.

    She couldn’t just stand there. She didn’t care about winning that much. To her opponent’s surprise, she walks off the court, drops her racket carelessly, and jogs through the thick line of spectators.

    She passes jolly toddlers on the playground, stay-at-home moms chatting about the latest recipes. It feels like a big joke. She searches the faces of each child she passes by, but finds nothing at all.

    Suddenly, a sickness drops inside her stomach. It was a zebra finger puppet, laying on the ground. It was like it was only her and that finger puppet in existence. Everything else blurred behind them, disappeared.

    He would never leave this behind, she thinks, the chaos under her skin escalating with every ticking second.

    She climbs up onto the nearest park bench to see if she can get a better view past the playground. A loud sports car revs up somewhere nearby, startling her, almost causing her to slip from her vantage point.

    Then, she notices a small opening in the wood that lines the property. It seems to her the perfect size for a small child, and she gulps down her anxious theories about what she might find upon inspection of the site.

    She runs toward the opening, catches herself before falling from the momentum. Her fears come to life in the form of unmistakable brown curls accompanied by empty eyes, an inanimate clump of what used to be Andy.

    She is thrashing, she is screaming, and she is hitting someone. As her view becomes clearer, she realizes she is assaulting a nurse. Her eyes focus in on her surroundings, and she understands she has been dreaming again, still in the same place she has been for the last 4 years, waiting patiently in the asylum for her chance to escape and join her beautiful boy.

  10. Interesting prompt! I wrote an 1126-word sci-fi story and am pretty happy with how it turned out.

  11. Thank you for that excellent prompt. It was a very effective structure that got the narrative and the story going so well for me 🙂

  12. I woke up this morning with an idea that fit into the short story framework, so I went with that today. I got 874 words and a definite beginning, middle and end. It was hard not to critique as I went because, to use Peyton’s word, it was rubbish, but finishing was a huge victory for someone like me who can never bring it to a close. I’m saving this prompt, though. I love Bob’s idea of losing your keys (and your mind); perhaps something clever like that will occur to me for later use.

  13. I wrote a lovely flash fiction about a woman inadvertently calling up a genie. Really fun!

  14. Interesting first prompt! At first, I was intimidated by all the steps, but it didn’t take too long to come up with an idea for it. I wrote a sci-fi story of 1126 words. Pretty happy with it, though of course, it’s far from perfect.

    Looking forward to seeing what you’ve got in store for us tomorrow! 😄

  15. Day one is in the books! I wrote a lengthy paragraph about a woman looking for an abandoned house beyond the dense wood.

  16. Such fun! I wasn’t sure about the prompt. But then just went with it. Always love to see what bubbles up from one’s soul. Not sure how many words as I long handed it. In brief, story about young woman who inherits her grandmother’s house. Recalls playing with jewelry years ago from a jewelry box that contains a key. Discovers this key to open an attic door she was never allowed to enter. And that’s a story for another day LOL.

    1. Nicely done, and now you have an idea waiting in the wings!

      I applaud your openness to working with the prompt even though you weren’t sure about it.

  17. Dashed off a 100-word story just as a precaution, then did 900 words from the prompt, with a beginning a middle and an end. Claiming a Day One win.

  18. 1412 words today that can be shortened by quite a bit. Not sure about the middle, but it will crystallize in the re-write. My story is about a lost pendant and the person on the path tries to help locate it. Only, the pendant had been stolen, and he had fashioned it as a special order, so was very familiar with it. I wanted to try for an unreliable narrator.

  19. Mission accomplished! I banged out approximately 400 words related to the prompt that vaguely resemble a story. Since I’ve barely written anything creative in the past 2 years, I’m totally counting it.

  20. Day one done!! So proud of myself. I wrote about a wife loosing her husband. She’s trying to find the her way out of loneliness. I don’t know how many words because I hand wrote this. I did not get a chance to count. Looking forward to tomorrow’s prompt. I’ll be writing it while at the mechanic.

  21. Had a lot of fun with this wonderful prompt! Below is my sketch that feels as though it is very nearly a whole story.

    The meeting finally ended at quarter to one in the morning. As she made her way to the ladies’ room, Sarah wondered yet again how people could go on and on about the same ridiculous things, like whether adding lights to an ill-lit neighborhood would increase light pollution, for six and seven hours at a time. But the money for this temp job was good, so she travelled several times a week to different towns to record the meetings which she would then take home and transcribe. Added to her daytime job’s income, she was beginning to be able to afford to add to her apartment’s furnishings.
    She was just finishing washing her hands when the lights went out.
    “Dammit,” she said, suddenly disoriented and fumbling for the door. They must have thought everyone had left the building.
    She found the door and yanked it open to discover there were no lights in the hall either except a single dim bulb at one end of the hall. It was a huge, old building erected before the age of EXIT signs, currently being used by the town council because asbestos had been found in their own ancient building and they’d picked this place as their temporary quarters while repairs were made.
    A loud clanking came from somewhere below that made her jump and hurry faster toward the light bulb. Once there, she tried the doors on either side of the hall, but neither opened.
    Starting to get afraid, she pulled out her phone and turned on its flashlight. With its light, the hall seemed to lengthen and objects cast shadows in her path.
    Oh, for heaven’s sake, get a grip. She made her way back the way she’d come, trying every door she saw. At the other end of the hall the door on the left opened to a set of stairs. They were metal and had spaces between them like the ones she and her sisters had scared each other on as children, hiding beneath to grab the ankle of whoever descended.
    She hesitated, skin crawling. She hadn’t come up these stairs on the way in, she was sure of that. Those had been wood and solid. She wished her flashlight beam was wider. And stronger. She wished she’d been paying more attention. She’d been in a rush and simply followed the smell of coffee to the meeting room. And she wished for the millionth time that Siri was capable of directing people around buildings’ interiors. She had to count the pews of the way to communion at church to find her way back to her pew.
    Oh, come on! How old are we now? Just do it. Sarah gripped the right handrail firmly and began descending. If something grabs me….
    She moved as quickly as she dared. The steps were slippery and the thought of falling and either hurting or killing herself was almost enough to counter the feeling that any second she’d feel a hand clamp around her ankle. She became aware of a smell beneath the mustiness of dust and disuse. It reminded her of WD-40. Oh, my God. Did someone deliberately grease these stairs?
    She jumped to the floor three stairs from the bottom, d and shoved her shoulder against the door as she twisted the handle. For a second it didn’t budge but then opened so firmly and quickly that it was yanked out of her hand, and she yelped involuntarily. A large man stood it the doorway.
    “Christ, I thought I was about to meet the ghost that’s had everyone quitting for the last ten years,” he said, wiping his brow.
    “The lights went out before I was finished, and I couldn’t find the exit,” Sarah explained, wondering if she were making another mistake telling him.
    “Easy to do in this place,” the man said. “Just follow me.”

    1. Wow! I felt like watching a movie and that anything might happen after that ending.

  22. Wow, that was a great prompt! I wrote an 840 word story about a young woman who had recently lost her mother, going on a camping trip for some peace and quiet, but losing her cat while camping, but finding comfort from an older woman at the campsite who had lost her son. It was so easy to write for a CHANGE! So happy.

  23. Ok…this was so bad, it was good! I’m joking, but not really. It felt lumbering, stilted, and a bunch of other awkward words, but it also felt really good. What a fantastic prompt! I love the idea of narrowing in and expanding out, pulling the reader along, but I don’t feel I executed it very well. I can’t wait until I get to the point (if ever?!) where I’m as clever on the page as I am in my own mind. 😉
    I used this prompt to flesh out a character who is part of a larger story. I’d like to actually finish a story in one day, based on one of these prompts. Here’s hoping!

  24. I am looking forward to my second Story a Day May. Wrote 672 words. Today’s prompt worked perfectly for a longer piece’s opening scene. It helped me understand my character better.

  25. Traveling, so I got a later start than I like. It ain’t pretty, but it’s done ✔️ Terrific prompt! I used it to draft a scene from a longer WIP.

  26. This probably isn’t a story, scene or narrative. Maybe it’s a monologue or even a prose poem. But if you read closely you’ll see it follows the prompt pretty closely. Here goes:

    I know what it’s like to lose oneself, to give yourself away just because. People look and wonder whatever happened to the you they think you were. But you’re no longer there to answer. You’re on your way to where you feel you’re supposed to be or so wish to be that you’ll drop pieces of yourself and pick up new ones as you move toward why you changed. You look down and notice your clothes may be different, tighter, looser, even your shoes have changed to walk this walk. What’s that sound? A voice, a siren’s capricious song you choose to follow between the rocks you don’t care could send you to the bottom? You know, of course, once you follow that sound and pass through this challenge, you can never go back from where you came, since you won’t be that You anymore. And once through, you look back and wonder if you’ve made the right decision, standing there upon that rocky gateway to your new known unknown. Then there they are, with the reason you braved and bartered, stumbled and scrambled, lost and gave away pieces of the puzzle You are. Or were. And you’re pretty sure they can fill in missing pieces. You hope they can. Because the journey changed you more than you thought you’d change yourself, just to be where you are, who you are. Yeah, I know what it’s like and I’d do it again tomorrow. I’ve got nothing left to lose.

      1. Thank you, Julie. Maybe by June I’ll be writing actual stories. See you tomorrow! ~ jh

  27. Maybe I missed the point of this challenge. I did not use the prompt at all. I did write a short story; shorter than all of yours it seems. But I purposedly sat down and wrote. That’s what I thought this May challenge was really about. So I’m calling Day 1, a win.

      The prompts are here in case you’re drawing a blank, but you should write whatever you want!
      Congrats on the win!

  28. 875 words in around 30 minutes, and that’s a completed shortstory. I normally write more words than this, but I am glad that I did this with a framework, as I used better words, and as a result, I used less of them.

    1. Fantastic! Well done, and what a lovely insight to realize that when we’re using ‘better’ words, we can use fewer!

      For myself, my words were messy and inelegant today, but I’m still doing my Victory Dance 😉

  29. Its 11.43 pm here.

    I managed a 906 word story outline with approx scene beats before the day finished! 🙂 Pushing sleep away for an hour hasn’t felt this good in a while.

    Looking forward to tomorrow.

    1. Sorry about the lack of sleep, but maybe this kind of energy is what you needed anyway, eh? 😉

  30. Ugh, felt like I was all over the place with this one, but glad I stuck with it and finished about a full page. Maybe got one or two good sentences in there. Good luck to everyone!

    1. Being able to keep going even when it’s not going smoothly is an essential skill. Congrats on getting to grips with that one 😉

  31. Oh, Julie — That was a cleansing and restorative prompt. I wrote a very rare memoir piece that began: “It wasn’t a chore. It was a labor of love.”
    “Lost Things” has been a tentative title in my mind for some time, and this exploration really helped me get to the root of what it is about lost possessions that feels so poignant to me and so important to explore in fiction across several genres.
    If this is day 1, I can’t imagine what the other days will bring!
    I’m excited for the challenge. Thank you for sharing this opportunity with all of us.

    1. Fantastic, Cara. You’re not the first one to say that this particular prompt tapped into something that was waiting inside them. Thank YOU for creating the space and focus to honor it.

  32. Well, I’m used to writing flash, so the *length* seemed just fine to me.

    As y’all been saying, it’s very freeing not to have to polish. I also feel as if Rachel’s prompt did all the work that I hate, and left me with the fun bits of writing.

    As a newbie looking at the checklist, what does “Gathering Story Sparks” mean?

    1. I agree about the structure o this prompt freeing us up for the fun bits (and I say that as someone with a deep mistrust of outlines).
      Gathering Story Sparks is my term for walking around with a pen/notebook/notes app in your pocket, looking for things in the world that make you go “hmmm”. For example: the exact colors and shape of that dandelion you just noticed in the lawn; an overheard phrase; the way that woman pushed her hair off her face. Just snippets. Not story ideas, but things that might spark a story–or spark it up.
      I recommend people make a point of trying to capture three a day, as a discipline/exercise to both power up their StoryADay challenge and to wake up their creative brain. It gets good feedback…

  33. Day 1 is in the books–796 rambling words titled “The Shelter.” It was the end of the world, but I think my character was just looking for the end of the story.

  34. [My apologies as I didn’t have time to go through the prompt adequately, shifting from Bagnan to Kolkata and back, I had a lot of running around to do in the last couple of days. So, if my story is not what it is supposed to be -yes, my sincerest apologies. Here is my story.]
    The Call of HAZARDUARI for a Glimpse of Begum Meher Jahan :

    I felt drained of my strength as I neared the edge of the forest. What if I had made a mistake? What if the dream was all but a work of my incredulous imagination? What if the building I had been searching for, didn’t exist in reality at all?
    I had never felt so defeated before. I sat under an ancient oak with roots sticking out and joining with the branches hanging low above.
    It was foolish of me to have trusted a dream or what looked like a dream to have come this far. In it, I was in front of a three-storied palatial building with not one but at least a hundred huge front doors all around, coloured dark green. A monument of history built during the time of a great Nawab. There were some steps in front leading upto the massive structure.

    In the complete hush of the deep, bushy forest I was tired from having to grope for a way out for long. Just then something crawled up my neck right behind my left ear, making me plunge back on my feet. I stuck out my left hand and brushed that scarry little monster away. I must have cleared a whole lot of distance afterwards when I stood transfixed realising that the trail had ended abruptly. And I was looking in front straight at the golden Sun on the descent in the eastern horizon. But what surprised me even more was the facade of an amazing fortress that towered majestically right in front of me, not even hundred feet away, across what might have been a massive courtyard once!
    Hazarduari! The magical Palace of the Nawabs of Bengal. What had been intriguing me since the dream, was the room used as the harem where a couple of the Begums (wives of the Nawabs) stayed.

    I didn’t even know when I had broken into a run. I dashed across the concrete courtyard, up the steps, till I was standing on the well-designed entranceway with sky-scaping towers touching the ceiling. I halted then and looked around. God! There was not one door but at least a few scores on either side of the main door!
    I sauntered across the passageway towards the main gate. The mahogany door looked exactly the same as I had seen it in my dream. So, it was not a figment of my imagination. As I raised my hand, the door opened automatically exposing a butler inside, stylishly dressed in white and red, who looked askance at me. Having pushed him away, I galloped, with a trembling heart, towards the south wing for the underground passage. This was the secret passage that the Begums from the harem, used to get to the river bank for a bath.
    I heard someone screeching from behind precisely then.
    Next moment was like reliving a scene from the past.

    There were two rows of semi-clad ladies with a spectacular lady in the middle. Bereft of any jewellery with sandlewood paste and haldi (turmarine) applied all over her body, she smelled divine even from above where I was standing like a statue. And her eyes! What about her eyes? They were a pair of black doe eyes not seen in a human form! I would never forget how exquisite Begum Mehar Jahan looked with that garland of bell flowers tied around her bun. I never imagined that somebody could be looking so divine…….

    They kept walking along the passageway towards the south. Craning my head down a little, I realised that I had missed them. I was looking left and right in order to get hold of something to get down to the underground passage. Only then did I notice the narrow opening that led down to the earthen stairs to the majestic Bhagirathi flowing outside of the palace.

    “Excuse me, Sir. I hope you are aware of the consequences of your action. This place, by a Government decree, is soon to be turned into a museum. Any intrusion on the part of any visitor is bound to be punishable by law …”
    It was the Sentry speaking to me, having caught up with me and holding me by the hand.
    “Museum! What the hell do you …?” I stopped in the middle of my query.
    The glimpse of the Bhagirathi river that I could see clearly through the opening then made one thing clear. The river around the area had long dried up due to neglect and over-usage.

    Only a chilly wind was heard rustling in from that riverside, making me feel jittery all on a sudden.

    The end

  35. I’ve been spending the last few weeks with a pocket notebook everywhere I’ve gone trying to think of story ideas. This was helpful!

  36. This is a very cool coincidence! I got an idea and did my writing this morning before looking at the prompt, and it turns out that the idea that came to me fits the prompt just about perfectly??

    It was about someone losing a treasured pair of dice (that they made with their parent who is now on an interstellar voyage of indeterminate length) and ill-advisedly climbing down into a ravine to get them and getting stuck and having a change of perspective while they wait for rescue, looking at the stars through the little sliver in the ceiling.

    It’s a very rough and short draft, missing all kinds of things, including the sensory details called for in the prompt, so I’m looking forward to coming back to this and applying more of the prompt to it. Hopefully this evening, but if not, possibly in June…

    This is my second year taking a stab at StoryADay, last year I made it about halfway and had a great time! I’m hoping to go all the way through this year by embracing the messiness <3 Thank you Julie and everyone for doing this thing!

    1. ‘rough and short draft, missing all kinds of things, including the sensory details’ sounds a lot like my experience today, but WE WROTE!
      I’ll take your coincidence as a good omen 😉

  37. No idea how many words I wrote because for some reason, I’ve decided to write longhand… But I finished with something vaguely story-like and I do really like the ideas. Decent start, yay!

    1. Me too. It was about four pages in my notebook, but I can’t be bothered counting words today. I’m too busy celebrating!

  38. I agree I am a little rusty at prompts too and what I wrote was terrible but I think it had outer positive impact. I did not care so much about perceived petty problems at work because I thought about writing. Even if the feeling of freedom from this misery lasted only a minute. It was worth it.

    1. And that is quite the testimonial. This is why we must write!

      Keep up the good work, Carey!

  39. Oh wow, this was such a great structure for keeping my story moving.
    And also wow, I’m rusty at writing to prompts LOL
    SUCH an effort to keep moving and allow myself to write something that was riddled with ‘telling, not showing’ and cliches, just so I could keep moving because I loved this character and wanted to find out what she would do when she found herself in that new vantage point.
    This is not (yet) a GOOD story, but it is a story with a character I loved. Looking forward to coming back to it next month to see if there’s anything there…

    On a personal note: how fun to be writing this way again! I feel fantastic!

    I”ve committed to writing first thing in the day (I’m fortunate to be able to set my own schedule these days) and NOT do StoryADay admin or other work until after I’ve written. Let’s see how that goes… LOL

    Sending luck and creative pixie dust to you all on my favorite day of the year! Happy May!

  40. 901 words. I wrote a beginning, two endings and got caught up in the mucky middle.
    It was sooooo much fun.

  41. Finished my first story! 479 words of someone looking for something, though they can’t remember quite what it is, only that they *need* to find it because the loss of it is keeping them trapped there. I think this may be the beginning of a longer story.

    1. That sounds intriguing.
      And I apologize in advance for all the new projects you’re going to start this month 😉

  42. 1 down, 30 to go.

    It’s 1500 words of yadda yadda yadda about losing my mind while searching for my keys, but it has a beginning, a middle and solid end. The prompt helped me flesh out/ficitionalize some of the details, which was a lot of fun.

    I struggle to give myself permission to say “it’s finished,” but it is more of a messy first draft than a zero draft, and so, it is … dare I say “done”.

    1. Well done for allowing it to be ‘finished’, Bob!

      What a great idea to fictionalize something as relatable as losing your keys (or is that just me?)

      Keep up the good work!

  43. Starting Story a Day for May 2023. I tried this last year It was a lot of fun and I actually produced about five short stories. Four are still being revised, but one was published. Wishing everyone enjoyment and success.

    1. Well, I think that definitely deserves a Victory Dance.
      Wishing you at least as much success this year!

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