The introduction to this series is here.
The idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for several days.
Post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at daniel wallace at gmail).
(Thanks to everyone who shared this series on Reddit, Twitter and FB.)
Day Five: Write What You Know, But Also Tell a Story
Here’s something simple for today. It’s a short exercise to turn a setting — a setting you are halfway familiar with — into the beginnings of a story.
If we go back to the first paragraph of that Magic Barrel story, from the last exercise, it’s clear that the setting is going to matter a great deal. Leo Finkle is a lonely, studious young man, yes — universal conditions, as the critics say — but he’s also a specific inhabitant of a time and place. He is a would-be rabbi in New York, and he is living at a time when marriage brokers are still a half-accepted thing.
Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University. Finkle, after six years of study, was to be ordained in June and had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married. Since he had no present prospects of marriage, after two tormented days of turning it over in his mind, he called in Pinye Salzman, a marriage broker whose two-line advertisement he had read in the Forward.
The exercise is this:
Think of something unusual, interesting, potentially scary about your own culture, home, society. I like to do a mind-map of possible “things,” just scribbling down ideas about the area around me. When I’ve done this exercise with local Tennessee students, they come up with ideas like “the people at the end of the street who make really tasty-smelling barbeque” “the farms near our house” “the greenways” or “church.”
Try to come up with six things.
Then we invent a character with a problem and a plan. The character has been unable to get something he or she wants, and for some reason, the usual, standard methods of getting that thing haven’t worked out. So the character either heads towards the strange thing you’ve invented above, or leaves it in search of more “normal” people.
“A woman has lived alone on a farm all her life. When a tree falls on the roof, she has to walk through the woods to the next farm and ask for help…”
“A man is desperate to make his artists’ market a success, but it keeps losing money. So one day he visits the couple at the end of his street with the crazy-good barbeque, and he asks them to cook for the next weekend’s event. But the strange thing is, when this couple agree to help him…”
That’s stage one of the story. That’s the set up. Stage two is when the character gets to the new place, and seems to be making progress on her plan. At that point, the real source of her problem returns. The thing that was holding her back rises up. Whatever the problem or flaw that has long beset the character: now it threatens all that progress.
In other words:
WHY has this woman been living on a farm, alone, all her life? That doesn’t seem very sensible. Maybe she believes everyone else in the world is a devil worshipper. Or maybe she believes her dead father is hiding in the woods, and wants to kill her. Well, whatever you choose, once she finally reaches her neighbour’s house, the reason that kept her isolated has to come out. Perhaps, as the friendly couple feed her, she sees her father’s ghost in the mirror…
WHY is the art festival dude always losing money? What is causing him to be a bad businessman? Well, once he has the magic bbq people on his side, that deep, buried reason has to come out, and complicate things afresh.
Okay. Give it a try! Come up with a few interesting things about your home, and then construct a story around one of them.
- A setting — and the strange feature you’ve picked out
- A character
- The character’s deep, unconscious problem, flaw, or limitation, which, when the story begins, the character has half-successfully buried, sunk deep out of view.
- The immediate problem that the character has to fix.
- How the attempt to solve that problem will bring the character’s flaw out into the open.
P.S. This can, at this stage, just be an outline: I suggest just sketching out your response as a plan, not as actual prose. But it’s up to you 🙂
If you’d like to share your idea for this story, I would love to read it.