Begin in the Middle of Things
Write about a time you experienced a shock of realization. Begin your story as the shock is already taking place.
This is a concept we talk about in workshop quite a bit—beginning a story in media res. It’s a great way to plunge the reader into your story and get them excited to see how it all turns out.
For a look at a short story that does just that, check out the beginning lines of Amy’s Bloom’s “Love Is Not a Pie.”
In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding. August 21 did not seem like a good date, John Wescott did not seem like a good person to marry, and I couldn’t see myself in the long white silk gown Mrs. Wescott had offered me.
A Person from the Past
The Best Detail
Begin a story with the line “The last time I saw him …” (or “The last time I saw her …”).
To see what John Cheever did with this story beginning, check out his powerful short-short story, “Reunion.”
The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station. I was going from my grandmother's in the Adirondacks to a cottage on the Cape that my mother had rented, and I wrote my father that I would be in New York between trains for an hour and a half, and asked if we could have lunch together. His secretary wrote to say that he would meet me at the information booth at noon, and at twelve o'clock sharp I saw him coming through the crowd He was a stranger to me— my mother divorced him three years ago and I hadn't been with him since—but as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom. I knew that when I was grown I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations.
When describing characters, it’s often a struggle to figure out how much detail to give your reader about them. I like Rebecca McClanahan’s advice on this topic: “In describing characters, we need to select details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression. One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen unmemorable images.”
Consider this character description from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. What does his chosen detail convey to us about the character and the way she moves through the world?
“Phyllida’s hair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face.”
Then, think about how much Caitlin Moran tells us about her character in How to Build a Girl with just this single line:
“He had his head in his hands, and his tie looked like it had been put on by an enemy, and was strangling him.”
Finally, how does this description from J.D. Salinger’s “A Girl I Know” convey this character’s impact on the narrator, without telling us a single concrete detail about her?
“She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.”
For today’s writing prompt, come up with one line of description for four people you know (or four characters in your fiction). In that one line, choose just one detail to highlight about the person. That detail should speak to their personality, life experience, or impact on others.
All the Time in the World
The commonly accepted wisdom is that a short story should capture a small moment in time—the events of a single day or perhaps few short weeks in a character’s life. Some writers choose to break that mold entirely, though, and go for something much bigger: a chronicle of a whole life or era in just a few short pages.
For an example of how you can tell a big, big story in a very short amount of space, check out T.C. Boyle’s short-short story, “The Hit Man.” Then, write a story that chronicles a character’s entire life, from birth to death. Do not exceed four pages.
(Have a little more time and want to explore another short story that breaks all the standard rules about time? Read John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” which starts out fairly traditionally but ends up taking us through time in a most unexpected manner.)
From T.C. Boyle’s The Hit Man:
The Hit Man's early years are complicated by the black bag that he wears over his head. Teachers correct his pronunciation, the coach criticizes his attitude, the principal dresses him down for branding preschoolers with a lit cigarette. He is a poor student. At lunch he sits alone, feeding bell peppers and salami into the dark slot of his mouth. In the hallway, wiry young athletes snatch at the black hood and slap at the back of his head. When he is thirteen he is approached by the captain of the football team, who pins him down and attempts to remove the hood. The Hit Man wastes him. Five years, says the judge.
Write the Ending Three Ways
Often, what trips us up most about writing stories is the end. How should the story end? What will happen to the characters, and why? If you’re anything like me, this is where you freeze up and stop putting words on the page. What helps break this block is getting loose and experimental. Instead of focusing on writing the perfect ending, try writing three different endings and see what you discover about your story this way. Write a happy ending. A tragic ending. An out-of-left field ending. Feeling adventurous? Why not try the Scooby-Doo ending?
For more inspiration, read Margaret’s Atwood’s story “Happy Endings,” which begins this way:
John and Mary meet.
What happens next?
If you want a happy ending, try A.
Take Us Out of the Ordinary
Write a story in which an ordinary person or object turns out to have a magical or fantastical quality. The magical quality should contribute to the story’s internal or external conflict in some way.
For an example of a story that does this really beautifully, check out the excerpt from Ken Liu’s story “Paper Menagerie” below.
One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing. I refused to be soothed no matter what Mom and Dad tried.
Dad gave up and left the bedroom, but Mom took me into the kitchen and sat me down at the breakfast table.
"Kan, kan," she said, as she pulled a sheet of wrapping paper from on top of the fridge. For years, Mom carefully sliced open the wrappings around Christmas gifts and saved them on top of the fridge in a thick stack.
She set the paper down, plain side facing up, and began to fold it. I stopped crying and watched her, curious.
She turned the paper over and folded it again. She pleated, packed, tucked, rolled, and twisted until the paper disappeared between her cupped hands. Then she lifted the folded-up paper packet to her mouth and blew into it, like a balloon.
"Kan," she said. "Laohu." She put her hands down on the table and let go.
A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.
I reached out to Mom's creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger. "Rawrr-sa," it growled, the sound somewhere between a cat and rustling newspapers.
I laughed, startled, and stroked its back with an index finger. The paper tiger vibrated under my finger, purring.
"Zhe jiao zhezhi," Mom said. This is called origami.
I didn't know this at the time, but Mom's kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.