Birth of a StoryA Lesson by Jodi Eaton
Writing exercise to jump into short story writing.
Birth of a Story in an Hour or Less
Inventing fiction is like giving birth. It is about the act of creating a living, breathing character and placing him or her in a realistic situation. As fiction writers we take everything we know about how the world works and bridge it to another level of understanding. When we invent a character we inhabit someone else’s voice, body and mind. This act of explaining the movements, the actions, the psychological history of someone we don’t fully understand is precisely the art of fiction.
This exercise is intended to be done in several parts and may take up to an hour to complete.
Part I: The Voice
At birth our first modes of communication are oral, so let’s begin there. Imagine two characters having a conversation. Maybe they are talking about a third person. Perhaps one of them has a problem. Write only dialogue. Focus only on inventing a conversation.
A: I’m not feeling well today.
B: Really, what’s wrong?
A: I’ve got a headache.
B: Did I tell you what Bob said last night?
Keep writing until you have two full pages of dialogue.
Part II: Your Characters’ Place in the World
Imagine where this conversation is taking place. Describe the place, filling in as many details as you can just taking in the area. What objects are there? Are there any sensory details you’ve missed? Weather? Are there smells? Sounds?
Part III: Who Are You?
Choose one of these characters to focus on and answer the following questions. Each answer puts you closer to knowing this person you’ve invented. Try not to overthink your answers; just move as quickly as you can down the list, not stopping to judge. Answer honesty in the moment.
1. Describe your character physically, from head to toe.
2. What relationships are important to your character? Why?
3. What does your character do? Profession? Pleasure?
4. What is your character most afraid of?
5. What does your character want?
You may also add any other character detail to this list.
Part IV: Making a Scene
Isn’t that just like a baby? You’ve put your time and effort into giving it birth and now it wants to act out, make a scene. But that is preceisly what we want our characters to do, to act. Fiction is made of actions and reactions.
Now it’s time to put all that you have discovered to work. Write three separate scenes that may occur at different points in your story. The scenes will not necessarily be chronological. Try to write at least one to two pages for each scene. Make sure your scenes open, close and something takes place. The “something” is up to you.
A brief definition of a scene: A scene gives the illusion of real life in fiction. It slows things down to real time and allows a reader to see something happen. A scene most often includes dialogue and should include some combination of the things you’ve done above: description of the setting, a character’s feelings and thoughts, gestures, action and observations from the narrator or author. A scene occurs in one place.
Scene 1—Before the Conversation
Imagine a time in your character’s (s’) life before the conversation or before their problem. This could be immediately before they began the conversation with the other character(s) of long before, even to childhood. But it must be before the conversation. Go for it.
Try to include all you know about these characters so far. In thinking about their past even (if you choose to write from that place) what may have contributed to the problem they are experiencing now at the time of your story’s invention.
Scene 2—During the Conversation
Write a scene that occurs during the conversation. You will most likely rely heavily on your dialogue section here. Include the description of the setting; include any objects in the room that your character(s) may come in contact with. What gestures are they using? Do they have an accent? Are there interruptions? By whom? By what? Does your character’s mind wander during the conversation? What is he/she thinking about?
Scene 3—After the Conversation
This scene occurs after the conversation. Include as many elements of scene as you think necessary but allow one of the following to occur:
1. Your character’s problem is solved.
2. Your character(s) decide that this problem is going to be with them for a while and so they must learn to deal.
For this scene think toward change, think toward some closure at this moment in your character’s life.
If you think of a story as having a beginning, middle and an end, what you have in these three scenes could mimic the structure of a story. At this point you should have a skeleton of sorts in front of you, at least three pages toward a story that you can build on. In your process you may have discovered that the story needs to begin with one of these three scenes or someplace else altogether. The objective here is to cover a lot of ground toward the invention of a story in a small amount of time. This exercise forces you to make some decisions that may address multiple possibilities for a single story idea. It is an interesting way of jumping into a story quickly instead of forming your decisions in a chronological or even logical way. It gets you out of a think-pose and get you writing.
(Taken from “Now Write!,” Almond, Butler, Bloom et al.)
Added on February 24, 2014
Last Updated on February 24, 2014