This is the second of our recurring “limits” posts. As the month progresses you’ll come across all sorts of limits: time, word count, point of view, structure. If you get stuck, try rewriting an earlier story in a new way, using these ‘limits’ posts.
Write a story in 640 words
Why 640 words? It’s the length of a traditional newspaper opinion column. It’s long enough for a set up, some flavor and a parting shot, but not much more.
Limit your intro and ending to about 50 words each, leaving yourself 540 words to set up and deliver an interesting moment in time for a fascinating character.
Overwrite and then cut, if you must. Think about every word, every description. Does it need to be there. Do your descriptions also tell us about the character’s state of mind? Is every piece of dialogue weighted with things unspoken, double meanings, misunderstanding?
If you need to cut words, can you get away without dialogue tags? There’s no need to say “he said” if you’re following it with the stage direction “John slammed his mug onto the formica counter and turned away”. Can you start the story later in the scene? Can you hint at or imply something that you have explicitly told the reader, with a word or a glance?
If you have finished your story and not yet reached the word limit, what can you add without bloating the story? Is it clear where this story is taking place from the noises, smells and sights the characters notice? It the timeframe or period clear? Do your characters give away the subtext of what they’re saying with unconscious body language? Can you add a few sentences of a different length, to change the pace? Like this?
Psst! Did writing a short-short story take less time than writing a 2,000-word story? No? I didn’t think so!
My Facebook feed and RSS reader are full of posts from angst-ridden parents who already—three days in—hate their stupid Elf On The Shelf[1. A craze that took off a couple of years ago and is like the Tooth Fairy crossed with an advent calendar, and a nightmare for parents].
Imagine a character who is trapped in a situation beyond their control for a finite amount of time. Write their story.
What is the situation and why is it so torturous for THIS particular character?
How do they react on Day 1. How does that change by Day 15?
What is the crisis point? What brings things to a head?
What hilarious (or terrifying) events happen at the climax?
What fallout does this have for the character and the people around him/her?
What lessons are learned at the end? What vows are made?
Think about something that drives YOU crazy. Create a character who is also driven crazy by this thing, but make them more extreme. Amplify everything. Make the lows lower than they ever get for you. Make the highs higher.
Write a story about a character who is, in the moment the story takes place, completely overwhelmed.
This story can be dramatic, comedic, or both!
Perhaps your character is, oh I don’t know, preparing for a big family holiday on top of all their normal commitments. How do they feel? What are their triggers?
Give the character a moment of crisis that forms the kicking-off point for the plot of the story. Then think about how he/she would react on a good day, and how differently they react under stress. Show us that reaction.
Brainstorm three or four things that could be the tipping point for your stressed character and choose your favorite.
Start right at the tipping point and then make things much, much worse: if your character is planning for Thanksgiving dinner, let her always-better-then-her sister call to say she’s inviting a food critic as her date. Then break your main character’s oven. Then let Grandma get a surprise pass from the nursing home, and have her turn up in full foul-mouthed-rebellion-mode; give your character hives; there should probably be a point at which the police turn up…that kind of thing 🙂
Use two or more voices, or let us see only one side of the conversation.
The ‘letters’ can be email exchanges, text messages, Facebook updates, or imaginary hand-written correspondence from sweethearts separated by war, an ocean, feuding parents…whatever makes sense to you.
Try to introduce some mystery, some misunderstanding, or some desire on the part of one of the participants. Frustrate us, tease us, keep us guessing about how it’s going to turn out.
Writing a story a day for a month is a crazy endeavour, but one that hundreds of writers have signed up for every May since 2010. During month of courageous creativity, writers learn how to write every day (not ‘someday’), how to craft a story, how to write in different forms, how to fail and dust themselves off, and write again.
Are you ready to join them?
The StoryADay Month of Writing Prompts book shares the daily writing prompts for StoryADay May 2014: 31 writing prompts, meditations, lessons and pep talks to accompany on your journey to becoming a more prolific, creative and fulfilled writer. Use these prompts during the StoryADay challenge, or any time you need a creativity boost.
Here’s your digest of this week’s StoryADay September writing prompts.
This set of prompts is all about point of view. The choice to write in First Person or Third Person Omniscient gives you, the storyteller, a different set of tools to use in each story. Use these prompts to practice some of those skills.
I’ve decided not to host an official StoryADay September here, but don’t despair!
Starting on Tuesday (Sept 3) I’m going to bring you prompts five days a week and will be inviting you to check in here at the site on any days that you’re inspired to write (or determined to). We’ll be here with congratulations, encouragement and, of course, more prompts.
Here’s a quick summary of the first week’s prompts:
Prompt 1 – Word Challenge
This writing prompt — a list of words to incorporate into your story — is an extremely silly one, designed to help you take your writing not-too-seriously and get back into the swing of writing for the joy of itPrompt 2 – The Fair
This prompt provides a scene and a suggested formula for writing a story set at a country fair. Bet you no two stories turn out alike though!
This week’s prompt revolves around taking a very short span of time (impossibly short) and stretching it out over the length of a complete short story.
Quick question before I get onto the prompt. We’re having a discussion on the Advance List about the possibility of doing a bonus StoryADay in September. I’d love it if you could share your level of interest in this poll
Thanks! Now, on with the prompt!
This week I read a great new novel called Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. One of the many remarkable things about this novel is that almost all the events in the novel happen on one afternoon.
I heard the author talking about this. It was a deliberate decision on his part, a challenge to himself to see if he could (with very few exceptions) avoid flashbacks or set-pieces that happened out of the timeline of the book’s one day. He also didn’t want a mystery or huge amount of suspense to pull readers onward. I was so intrigued that I had to get hold of a copy and see how he pulled it off.
Yesterday’s dialogue-heavy prompt probably resulted in very little descriptive language (unless your characters were poets). Today we’re going to remedy that.
Write a story where you concentrate on descriptive language.
Pick a tone and try to stay with it throughout the story (rich, natural metaphors lathered on, Tolkein-style; sardonic observations from your main character; floral imagery, the soundscape or ‘smellscape’ of the world your characters are walking through…). Or perhaps you’ll identify which of your characters’ perspectives we are in by giving your descriptive writing a different tone for each character.
Make us feel, smell, hear, see, touch and taste your world today. But don’t forget to make it a story (beginning, middle, end, action, moving the characters forward).
If you need a little inspiration, read this letter written by an aspiring screenwriter (he got the job).
Aren’t there times when you wish you could just say your piece without anyone interrupting you? Well, today’s the day — for your protagonist, at least.
Write A Dramatic Monologue
Have your protagonist tell their story out loud, in a self-aware way. Make it clear that they know they have an audience – whether or not you spell out why. (Perhaps they’re telling their story to the first police officer on the scene, perhaps they’re talking to a grown-up grandchild, or recording their story for StoryCorp’s National Archives project). You can have them refer to the reason, or simply ramble on.
Make it clear that this is their story and that no-one is going to interrupt, then let them go.
Will your protagonist be scrupulously honest, or portray herself in a good light, her enemies in a bad light? Will that be subtle or blindingly obvious?
Will your hero use humor? What emotions will he betray?
Does the language your character use tell us something about their personality, their upbringing, their age?
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