Paint A Vivid Setting

And now for something completely different!

The Prompt

Write a story in which the setting is key

Tips

  • Choose a setting for your story based on a real place that you know intimately. You can change details, of course, but this just makes it easier to summon up images in your mind. You can change it to be it futuristic, or historical, or on another planet, but base your buildings on building as you know, base the weather on whether you understand. Use your experiences to make this story shine.
  • Sometimes we worry too much about plot and forget the story is NOT just about the things that are happening. A reader wants to be sucked into the story. They want to be able to see and feel everything the characters are seeing and feeling. Having a strong setting, a strong sense of where they are in space and time, can really help with this.
  • In a short story we don’t have a lot of space. It’s important for every element of the story to serve multiple functions. Setting can provide atmosphere. It can echo or heightened emotions, and it can tell us a lot about the time, place, characters, and mood of your story.
  • Think about your grandmother’s house and how it was decorated and furnished. Didn’t that tell you a lot about who you were going to find living in that house? Think about the houses in Architecture Digest magazine. Who would you expect to find living in one of those houses?
  • Atmosphere, weather, climate, all of these things can enhance or echo your character’s situation and emotion. Storms speak of peril. Humidity makes things feel oppressive. If the trees are bare we know it’s winter.
  • Simple details like whether or not there are weeds growing up through the paving can tell is a lot about the neighborhood in which your character finds themselves.
  • Don’t worry about creating a complicated or original plot in this story. The exercise here is to practice using setting to enhance the simple story that you’re telling. Choose a character, give them a simple mission, and build the reader’s experience into a feast.
  • Use all five senses. “Cinematic writing” can be good, but it means you’re only using your eyes. Use sounds to hear things, use the feel of things, the smell of things, the taste of things — even if the person isn’t eating, the tang of something-in-the-air can tell us whether we are near the sea, or near a decomposing body, or whatever it is that your story needs. Using all five senses will make your reader unable to separate themselves from the story, which is what you want.

Leave a comment and share what kind of setting you used. How’s the challenge going? Got any tips for the rest of us? Share them now!

Write A Hansel & Gretel Structured Story

Today we’re looking at the third of my ‘Life Changing Moment’ writing prompts (find the first one here, the second one here)

The Prompt

tell a story using the Hansel & Gretel story structure

This story structure is very different from the last two. The life-changing moment happens BOOM right up front.

Two kids, alone in the woods, abandoned by their parents.

Wha-?!

This time, things start big and get bigger and bigger until they reach the crunch and something snaps.

Every time the characters take two steps forward they take three steps back. Each time you give the reader a little hope and then take it away:

  • They leave breadcrumbs, but animals eat them;
  • They find a candy house! But a witch lives in it;
  • At least they have somewhere to stay…But the witch wants to cook them and eat them.

In this case the characters’ deepest desire is safety. And tellingly the story ends when Gretel kicks the witch into the oven, rescues her brother, and they walk out of the house.

The storyteller doesn’t waste any time telling us what they do next: we don’t know if they’re going to go home. We don’t know if they’re going to be reconciled with her family or seek revenge. What we do know is that these kids are going to be okay. After all their failures after all their setbacks they summoned up their courage to overcome their circumstances. That’s when the story is over.

  • Again, choose a character. Gives them a desire or need, and then put obstacles in their way.
  • If you’re getting stuck for ideas at this point, take one of your previous stories (it could be the one from yesterday or the day before) and tell the story again with this new story structure.
  • Start with a bang. Do the worst thing you can think of to your character and let them dig themselves out of trouble. But don’t make it too easy. Let them try and fail, and try and fail, until you and they are running out of ideas.
  • When I say, “make life difficult for your characters”, you don’t have to write a depressing story. In my chocolate cake story from the other day I could start that story on the day the government outlaws chocolate cake. I can have a lot of fun getting my character try to find ways around the rules ways to obtain cake until finally she realizes what she has to do is get elected. Or I could start the story at her first stump speech and explain the reasons as she campaigns. There are many opportunities to use this story structure with different genres, tones, moods, problems, characters, etc.
  • Dig deep, as you think of complications to throw at your characters. Be outrageous, if you want to. Remember, this is StoryADay. This is a safe space. No one is going to grade your story. If it’s a good story, great, you can revise it and publish it and become rich and famous. If it’s a terrible story, you will still learn something from writing it.

Leave a comment to tell me which story structure you enjoyed writing the most.

The Ugly Duckling Story Structure

Continuing our look at story structure, today I have a structure based on the story of the ugly duckling.

The prompt

Write a story based on the Ugly Duckling structure

The story of the ugly duckling is one when you probably know fairly well: Continue reading “The Ugly Duckling Story Structure”

Cinderella Story Structure

Write a story with a Cinderella story structure: try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, life-changing moment.

We’re starting our week of Story Elements prompts with a deep dive into story structure.

Ready? Let’s dive in.

The Prompt

Write A Story With a “Cinderella Story Structure

The Life-Changing Moment

I come to believe that short stories revolve around one life changing moment.

It doesn’t have to be literally life-changing, but it has to change something for the characters (temporarily or permanently).

If you’re writing quiet internal literary fiction, the moment is going to be something small, like realizing you can’t go on in this relationship, or this job.

If the story is a big action thriller then the life-changing moment could be anything from the moment you decide you need to take action, to the moment when you win or lose.

A Cinderella Story Structure

Cinderella Story Structure

In the story of Cinderella our heroine wants to find happiness. She tries and fails and tries and fails. A lot.

  • She tries to find it by being nice to her sisters and stepmother, but they just treat her terribly.
  • She tries to find it by going to the ball, but she’s not allowed to go.
  • She tries to find it from her fairy godmother. This one almost works, but there are time limits and she fails. When the love-struck prince can’t find her, all is lost.

Eventually, the life-changing moment comes at the end of the story when the prince finds her and Cinderella gets to choose her happy ending.

(In most versions she says yes and marries the prince; in every version, this choice is the first time Cinders has had any power. This is when her life changes.

So, this is where the story ends because the character’s story arc is over: She has her chance to reach her goal, at long last.

How To Write A Cinderella Story

Write a story with a Cinderella story structure: try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, life-changing moment.

  • Let you character want something. In Cinderella’s case she wants happiness. Your character might want anything from fulfillment to a piece of chocolate cake!
  • Start the story with the character in a place where they don’t have the thing they want.
  • Let us see the character trying to achieve their goal once, twice, three times.
  • The first failure can be pretty small. (She drops a perfect piece of chocolate cake on the floor.) The second failure should be a little more discouraging. (She goes to the shop and discovers they’re out of cake.) The third failure should seem insurmountable.(The government bans chocolate cake!)
  • These failures have taught the character how much they want their goal and that the only way to achieve it is through using their unique talents. Now the climax is on. (In my story, for example, my witty and feisty heroine decides to run a political campaign and get elected to office in order to strike down this terrible anti-chocolate cake legislation. Your story could be more serious.)
  • The story ends when the character realizes what needs to be done and makes the decision to pursue it or to walk away. In a short story you don’t have to show was the rest of the events. The arc, the journey, for the character is over at the moment when they see the path to pursuing their goal.
  • Of course this is not the case in every story structure but in this story structure, the Cinderella story structure, the character’s journey — and the story — ends here.

Write A Story In Dialogue

We’re changing tack today: writing in dialogue!

The Prompt

Write a story containing only dialogue

  • 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?

When Your Character Is Not Like You

Today we’re turning yesterday’s prompt inside out.

The Prompt

Write a story about a character as unlike you as you can manage

Tips

  • All those characteristics about yourself that you thought of yesterday? Age, gender, etc. Today were going to throw them out of the window and you’re going to write a story about a character who is diametrically opposed to all of those things.
  • If you wrote about a woman yesterday today, you write about a man. If you wrote about a middle-aged person yesterday, today you write but someone very young or very old.
  • When trying to get inside the head of this person, it can be useful to think of someone you actually know who is very different from you. Think of someone who does things that you would never do, that you despise, or that you secretly admire. Start with their external actions (what do they do when someone cuts them off in traffic that is so different from what you do, for example.) Backtracked from there to try to figure out what is going on in their head and their heart in that moment.
  • Put this character in a situation where there is conflict or stress and where their reactions are going to be really different from how you would react. Write the reactions, and as you’re doing so, unpack the story behind this person.
  • Don’t worry about trying to have a clever plot in this story. It can be something as simple as: this person gets cut off in traffic and how they react. The point of this exercise is to investigate the psyche of somebody very different from you. There’s a danger in always writing characters that are too sympathetic or similar to yourself.
  • Writing about somebody you dislike or someone unlike you can be very difficult. To make them more sympathetic, give them something there really, really good at. They might be charismatic. They might be really good engineering. But everyone has some areas where they are competent even if they are incompetent in every other sphere that matters to you!
  • This is not an exercise in writing a villain. This is an exercise in writing someone very different from yourself. It could be someone you admire.

Leave a comment, letting us know what you did with this prompt!

When Your Character Is Like You

Today I’m limiting your character choices.

The Prompt

Write a story featuring a character very like you

Tips

  • Think about the things that make you you: Gender, family roles, occupation, age, body type, religion, hobbies, outlook, genetic heritage. Are you curious, or cautious? Musical or tone deaf? Extroverted or introverted? Content or endlessly searching?
  • Put this character, who is both you and not you, into a situation that you might run across in your everyday life. Or put them into a situation you would like to find yourself in. For example, I am always dreaming up new business ideas. I don’t have the time or ability to pursue any of them, but I love to daydream about the businesses I could run if I had a thousand lifetimes. Take something that you care about — something that you daydream about anyway — and put your character into that situation
  • Now, you have to make something happen, so think about the ways that the situation could go spectacularly wrong. This can be funny, like Fawlty Towers, or serious like the TV show 24. It depends on your preferences and what you feel confident writing.
  • Again, you’re not writing a feature film or novel. We don’t have much space here. So don’t spend much time setting up the situation. You can start by having the character talk directly to the reader. Or you can plunge directly into the action. Or start with something cheesy like “it all started to go wrong when…”. Do whatever you need to do to get you into the story. It can all be fixed in the rewrite. (Or ignored for the rest of your life, this is a story just for you.)
  • Now that your character’s in trouble, how do they react? Do they react the same way you would? Do they react the way you wish you would if you weren’t so polite? Are they cooler than you? More skilled? More James Bond like? What are the consequences either way?
  • This is a really fun exercise. It captures all the best things about writing: What if…? The ability to live multiple lives in one life, is the gift of being a writer. It’s the ability to be better than you are, or worse than you are, without any of the consequences. Let loose with this exercise. Have some fun (and yes that does include doing terrible things to people if that’s how your story comes out. Don’t worry that you’re a psychopath. You have my permission to be bad.)

Go!

Leave a comment to know what you let your alter ego get up to, today!

Writing Prompt: First Person Story

Some people love first person some people hate it. Either way you’re using it today.

[Listen to me talk about this prompt on Anchor.fm]

The Prompt

Write a story in the first person

Tips

Write A Drabble Today

Don’t expect this to be a super-quick exercise…

Today you’re going to write a were a story in 100 words. This also known as a Drabble.

The Prompt

Write a story in 100 words

  • With a story this short, you have about 25 words to open the story and about 10 words at the end to wrap things up. The rest of the words hold the meat of the story.
  • Often it’s easier to write the story a little longer and cut it down.
  • Being concise doesn’t mean leaving out detail. You just have to make sure (probably on a rewrite) that every word is doing double duty. If you’re describing something make sure it reflects the mood of the character as well, for example.
  • Don’t expect this to be a super-quick exercise. A hundred words is not many and it can be difficult to shoehorn a story into such a small space. You are going to need to build in time to revise it.
  • The good news is that writing a 100 word story and revising it still takes less time than writing a 3,000 word story.
  • If you need some inspiration check out the site 100 Word Story. Read a few to get the idea of what can be done with so few words.

Go!

Post a comment to let us know how you’re getting on, share your story, share tips or ask for help!

Fourth Grade Spelling List

This is a ridiculous and fun little exercise. Try it!

Here’s another prompt that’s going to make it difficult for you to try to write a brilliant story. We’re focusing this week on productivity, quantity not quality. And here’s the secret, when you’re not too worried about the quality, you quite often find that your writing is better than you expected.

The Prompt

Write a story containing all of these words from a fourth grade spelling list.

  • Blame
  • State
  • Frame
  • Holiday
  • Relay
  • Waist
  • Pail
  • Gain
  • Raise
  • Mayor
  • Airplane
  • Remain

Continue reading “Fourth Grade Spelling List”