Today’s prompt is all about a misunderstanding, and comes to us from the writer Wayne Anthony Conaway.
Write A Story In Which One Character Misunderstands Another, With Far-Reaching Consequences
Today’s prompt focuses on misapprehension – that is, interpreting something incorrectly. Too often, in fiction, every character communicates perfectly. That’s not the way it happens in real life.
Example: award-winning author Harlan Ellison once misheard a conversation at a party. He overheard a woman say, “”Jeffy is fine. He’s always fine.”” What Ellison actually heard was “”He’s always FIVE.”” That inspired the story “”Jefty Is Five,”” about a boy who never grows up.
Alternately, the misapprehension could be visual.
True story: when I graduated college, I moved to a southern town – one of those places where anti-intellectualism seemed to be the prevailing attitude. I met lots of girls there, but I was looking for an intellectual girlfriend. One day, while sitting in dingy waiting room, I saw a pretty girl outside. To my amazement, she wore a tee-shirt with the letters “”SPQR”” on it. SPQR stood for – in Latin – “”The Senate and the People of Rome.”” What kind of woman wore a tee-shirt that referenced Ancient Rome? I had to meet her! I rushed outside, saw the girl…and discovered that her shirt didn’t say “”SPQR.”” It said “”SPORT.”” The final letter was hadn’t been visible from where I sat! (I was so disappointed, I didn’t even speak to her.)
So that’s your prompt: misapprehension, either verbal or visual.
About Wayne Anthony Conaway
Born in Philadelphia, PA, Tony Conaway has written and ghostwritten everything from blogs to books. He has cowritten non-fiction books published by McGraw-Hill, Macmillan and Prentice Hall. His fiction has been published in eight anthologies and numerous publications, including Blue Lake Review, Danse Macabre, Rind Literary Magazine, qarrtsiluni, The Rusty Nail and Typehouse Literary Magazine.
Last night my local writing group held a Reading Night. It was a wonderful thing.
For one thing the participants got to read their stories to an appreciative audience who simply wanted to have fun (as opposed to sending their story to an editor or a critique partner who is looking for things to reject).
And for another, there were some experienced performers in the group, who gave feedback and tips on the actual performance part of the reading. Invaluable stuff.
Reading your work is something you’ll be called upon to do as published author, so practice the skill (very different from writing!) as often as you can!
Last night’s reading prompted this, er prompt, because so many of the characters came alive when they had a distinctive voice, a distinctive patois. One story featured a rising politician, who used all the kinds of phrases you might expect of a rising sleazebag politician.
Another story featured a 1968 California Happening dude, who talked just like you would expect (expertly performed by a man who looked the right age to have been there.)
These stories, more than all the others, stuck with me because of the authenticity of the character’s voice. And that’s what I want you to practice this week.
Give Your Character A Distinctive Voice
Make your character have a job or a background with a specific set of jargon (for example: a stock broker would sound very different from a tuned-in, turned-on dude from 1968 Haight-Ashbury)
Get them into conversation with another character as soon as possible and see if you can keep their voices so distinct that you rarely have to write ‘he said’.
Concentrate on the rhythms of speech and the special phrases or jargon your character might use.
How would your character deliver their lines? Tentatively? With lots of preamble? Stridently? Rather than using these adverbs, let your characters use words that capture the content of their character
If you need more inspiration watch a supercut of Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin and try to capture that kind of vigor in the words you put in the characters’ mouths! (But set a timer, so you don’t end up disappearing down a YouTube rabbit hole…)
Extra! Extra! A fabulous new collection of 100 word stories has just hit the shelves. It’s called Nothing Short Of 100 and it comes from Grant Faulkner (also the head honcho at NaNoWriMo), Lynn Mundell and Beret Olson, all of 100WordStory.org
You can write this in play format if you like, using each speaker’s name at the beginning of the line, but I would discourage you from using stage directions.
Try to convey everything from emotion to movement the setting in the characters’ words alone.
If you’re not using play formatting, limit the story to a dialogue between two characters, to keep things straightforward.
You could use the two characters you’ve been working on for the past two days since you already have their voices and a sense of who they are. Put them in a room together and see what happens!
As well as conveying setting, emotion and movement through words, concentrate on making each speaker sound different. If one is witty and speaks in one-liners, let the other be long-winded and speak in complex phrases with sub-clauses.
You can vary these rhythms throughout the story for each character. On character could start relaxed — using relaxed language rhythms — and become gradually more upset — using short choppy language, while the other one goes the other way. Or you could let one character go through a bell curve of these rhythms: starting upset, getting more relaxed, getting upset again; or vice versa.
A good way into a story like this is to have two characters discussing something, having an argument, or needing to reach a decision about something. Each should have a slightly opposing view. It can be more powerful emotionally if the two characters actually like each other and want there to be no conflicts between them.
You can resolve the story, or one character can storm off leaving everyone shouting “Where you going?” It’s entirely up to you.
Leave a comment to let us know how this went. Was it easy? Did it feel almost-impossible? Did your dialogue sound realistic?
Conventional writing wisdom (these days) says that the mark of an amateur writer is to use colorful dialogue tags instead of a simple ‘she said’. Nevertheless, teachers continue to foist alternatives to ‘said’ on our children. Today’s assignment is designed to show you just how ridiculous that can become.
Write a story featuring lots of dialogue. Every time you attribute speech to a person you must use one of the ‘alternatives to said’ from the sheet. (Click to enlarge)
Make sure you rely entirely on the tags to convey the emotion, leaving the dialogue itself bland and without character.
Bonus points for making all your characters sound the same.
Be as ridiculous as you like.
This exercise works particularly well when your subject matter is serious or shocking.
This whole exercise is designed to show you how ridiculous dialogue tags can wreck a serious story.
(Remember, “he said” and “she said” become invisible when you use them well. These tags never will.)
Make sure every single utterance has a tag, whether or not you need one. (e.g. in the case of two people speaking, you can often get away with no tags at all, especially if the conversation is short and the voices are distinct.)
Gripping, realistic dialogue can bring a story and its characters to life. Writing great dialogue, however, takes practice.
Write A Story Told Almost Completely In Dialogue
Remember that how we speak (what we say and what we don’t say) is heavily influenced by how we’re feeling — what kind of day we’re having; how we feel about what we’re saying; how we feel about who we’re saying it to.
Use emotions to dictate word choice, length of sentence (if you’re breathless because the object of your affection is actually talking to you, your sentences are going to be fragmentary. If you’re talking about a your life’s work, you’re going to use big words and jargon and hardly pause for breath).
Remember that no-one really talks like they do in plays: no-one listens carefully and answers appropriately, and no-one tells the whole truth.
You can use play format to write this (” STAN: I can’t believe you said that! / MOLLY [walking away]: Believe it, bub.”).
You can write this is a more traditionally narrative way (“I can’t believe you said that!” / “Believe it, bub” / “Come back, please! Honey?”)
You can include dialogue tags and ‘stage directions’ if you feel you need them. This can be helpful if more than two people are talking. (“‘I can’t believe you said that!’ / ‘Believe it, bub,’ Molly said. / ‘You are so screwed, bro.’ Dan shook his head as he watched his friend’s wife walk away, her head held high. ‘I think she means it this time.’ “)
Don’t go crazy with the dialogue tags (…she cheered; she exulted… “She said” is usually fine). And watch your adjectives, unless you’re writing a Tom Swift parody!
People rarely use each other’s names in everyday speech. Resist the temptation to have your characters do it. Instead, focus on making each character’s way of expressing themselves distinctive. (How often have you heard a story your friend told you, laughed, and said ‘yup, that sounds like something he’d say’? People DO sound different from each other. Use that.)
It might be easiest to limit this story to two characters so you can really focus on each of their voices — with maybe a walk-on part from a waiter or a cop or the person they’ve been waiting for, just to mix things up.
What form did you decide on? How did this go for you? Do you usually write a lot of dialogue or was this new for you? Leave a comment below or chat about it in the community.