I’m doing a workshop soon that has as its goal that we all finish a draft of a short story in three hours. Here’s my handout so far. Thought it might interest some of you:
You Can Finally Do It: Write the Story You’ve Been Meaning to Write
A. Can the idea come from your writing territories?
- Make a list of places you know well. Perhaps one of these spots would make an ideal setting for a story.
- Make a list of topics you know a lot about. These might represent areas of knowledge where you’d be able to lay down the needed details to make the fiction true.
- List the main parts and/or roles in your life. For example, I’m a teacher, a husband, a father, a runner, and much more. Can I tell a teaching or husband story?
- Do a sample schedule of your life. Try out a school day, weekend, summer, and a holiday? What possible stories are there in all that?
- List some political/social issues relevant to your life. Rather than telling kids to not use the word “fag” at school, I wrote a short story of the same name. I wrote a golf course story that captured cultural tensions I experienced while working in Queens in a pro shop.
B. Can you look back into your writing territories above and brainstorm some story ideas? Here’s a few stories of mine, published and unpublished, that will give you an idea of what I mean.
- “Every Word I Said.” A man runs into an old high school classmate and remembers something ugly he did to her. This triggers an apology.
- “Ye Olde Trading Post.”A grocery store love triangle leads to some Biblically serious egging.
- “Fag.” Two “fag” incidents at school told through four perspectives.
- “Friends at the Table.” To tell or not to tell? Adultery among Friends.
- “Bloody Bucket.” How can a woman murder her husband and name her new bar after the act?
- “Sanctuary.” A man whose daughter has cancer sets up the church for a healing service.
C. Use published stories (fiction and non) as voices which help you think of your own stories. I don’t mean you read Upike and you copy him. His “A & P” is a work story and I wonder what a work story of yours might be? for ideas of your own. Can you tell a…
- work story? John Updike’s “A & P.” In walks these three girls…
- relationship story? Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter.” The notice informed us…
- story that fills in the blank? “A ______’s Story.” Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story.” My name is Luke Ripley and here is… (this is also a test of conscience story) The narrator is faced with a difficult moral decision.
- a story of faith? Langston Hughes’s “Salvation.” I was saved from sin going on thirteen. But not really saved.
- story that goes slow and describes an action you know well? Richard Selzer’s “The Knife.” One holds the knife as one holds the bow of a cello or a tulip—by the stem.
- a time you learned something? A family (mother/daughter) story? From Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. I was six when my mother taught me…
- a story of place? a moving story? a road trip story? (examples not included)
D. You could pause here to look up and refine your idea/s. How can some of these stories come together and enhance ONE idea for a story?
E. Some questions to consider when building a story: Not THE way, but material for possible use. (I’m thinking/hoping you are starting to get an idea for a story you might want to write)
1. Who will the characters be? (make a list of some of the most interesting people you know or can imagine)
2. Who is in the story? Do I want some people I know to help me? What about my grandmother at 17 going out on a date with that kid in my first class who drives me crazy? In other words, some truth and fiction in the character.
3. Is there a surprising or startling event out there that would fit into this?
4. What dilemma might a character face? Should he/she _______ or ________?
5. Where will the story be set so that I can make it interesting for the reader? What images (sight, smell, touch, hear, taste) might evoke the place my story is set?
6. What’s the point of view? An outsider? First person? If it’s third person, does the teller of the story know anyone’s thoughts?
7. What valuable part of myself as a human being or what insight into living will I be able to bring to the story? I am a teacher…I’ve been divorced…I have kids…I’m angry when…
8. Are there social problems that this story deals with that I could highlight/bring to the surface?
9. What forces might oppose each other in this? Boss, administration, weather, competing loves, desire for the other to…
10. What stress is wearing or has worn on the characters up to this point?
11. Where will the language come from? New England, school, ocean, farm, cold weather, church
12. Will anyone move from one emotional and geographical place to another?
Before we write:
A few craft-related ideas to think about:
1. Write a lot of active subjects with dialogue and resist explaining: Bill swept the pile of papers off his desk. “I’m tired of it,” he hollered. Write your own active sentence here that might go into the story somewhere.
2. Multiple subjects or verbs to mix up structure. Bill swept the papers off his desk and turned to the class. Write your own sentence with two subjects or two verbs.
3. Load slots. I mean if you think of a S-V-D.O. sentence, between each part of the sentence there is a slot you could load with more words. My attempt: Hands trembling, Bill, who had spittle on his chin, swept the papers off his desk as if he would wreck the whole classroom.
Note: you probably wouldn’t load all the slots, and my example is not so hot, but I used to like to load slots as a warm up and a way to get to know my story.
4. If I feel lost, I try to write active sentences with action verbs and I try to go back to writing in structural units: description, dialogue, action.
For example: (active sentence with some description) Hoop and Laura walked in the rain along the edge of the cemetery. (dialogue) “I just don’t think you should put yourself in that sort of situation.” (some action) Linda stopped walking, and Hoop raised his hands in exasperation.
At the risk of ruining what we’ve accomplished so far, I’m going to lay out a pretty conventional structure with hopes we can finish a draft. My opinion is that there is an infinite number of ways a story can be put together and succeed, but if you don’t know how to start, you can start with this:
F. Write the beginning of the story. What do beginnings do? Introduce characters, setting, and situation. Intro the conflict. Jump into the action. Anyone bring or know of a story that starts in a particular way that you can share? What are the different ways that writers begin? What choices do you have as a writer starting a story?
G. Write the middle. Jump ahead if you have to and write the crucial moment where something BIG happens in the thoughts and/or the action. It might be that all you have to do is keep going with your start.
H. Write the end. Try and arrive at your emotional and/or physical destination. End with key images? End with a line of dialogue from a character? How do the stories that you admire end?
Of course stories are written in all sorts of ways. This handout is my attempt to write a draft of a story in the company of others. If you try any of this out or have suggestions for improvement, I’d love to hear from you.