Tag Archives: writing exercise

How to Describe A Character

6 Aug
Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick" appeared in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford’s story, “Walking Stick” appeared in Drunken Boat. She recently served as the fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch near Austin, where she worked on finishing a story collection, Crooked Hallelujah.

When people call Anton Chekhov the greatest short story writer, they often talk about how quickly he develops characters. In “The Lady with the Dog,” for instance, he sums up a gentleman in Moscow this way: After the main character reveals the tiniest bit of his feelings about a woman to a friend at a dinner club, the friend says, “You were quite right, you know—the sturgeon was just a leetle off.” An entire social dynamic is revealed in those few words.

The best character descriptions do more than only show the reader a character. They reveal something about the way the world works or the way a character interacts with that world. Kelli Ford writes those kind of descriptions. To see how she does it, check out her story “Walking Stick.” You can read it now at Drunken Boat.

How the Story Works

Here’s how Kelli Ford describes one character:

“At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through.”

We learn not only that Anna Maria is poor and old, that she’s overweight with a limp, and that she lives in a place with gravel roads. But we also learn about how she faces a world that isn’t easy for a poor, old, overweight woman with a limp. We understand her mentality through the simple, matter of fact description of the shoes and the fact that she can feel the gravel. One of the most important words in the passage is always. Thin shoes and poky gravel are facts of Anna Maria’s existence, and she does not complain. A lesser writer would call her stoic, but a description like this one, because it shows us the character so thoroughly, makes us believe that she exists.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character, using Kelli Ford’s description of Anna Maria as a model:

  1. Start with the character’s age: “At — years old, So-and-so did (did not) _______.”
  2. Describe the character in terms of how he/she has always been: “He was still ______”
  3. But then add a recent change: “But (some new thing) made her ______.”
  4. Describe the affect this change has on the character: “As a result…”
  5. Describe the world from the character’s POV. Given the recent change, how does the character see the world? What does the character notice or do?

The idea is to move beyond basic physicality or mentality (short, tall, skinny, fat, smart, dumb, happy, sad) to a sense of interaction with the world. This means creating pressure on both sides: the pressure the world applies to the character and the way the character pushes back.

Good luck and have f un.

How to Write about Remembering

30 Jul
Matt Bell's novel

Matt Bell’s novel was published by Soho Press and has been called, by the New York Times, “a gripping, grisly tale of a husband’s descent into and ultimate emergency from some kind of personal hell.”

A novel that’s getting some well-deserved attention is Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. If you’re not yet familiar with it, the synopsis will give you some sense of this novel’s ambition:

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.

Think about that phrase: the labyrinth of memory. Many novels—and certainly memoirs—feature narrators telling stories from memory. But what if the novel seeks to represent the act of remembering? It’s not an easy task. In a way, storytelling and memory are incompatible. Fiction moves forward while memory tends to return endlessly to an image or moment. So, it takes a gifted writer to reconcile the two.

Matt Bell is one of those writers. Find out how he writes about remembering in this excerpt from his novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

Every paragraph from the excerpt begins with the same four words: And in this room. The effect is powerful and clear. The passage is drilling down into a room, into and through moments, details, revelations that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The first two encounters with memory may seem familiar: “The love letters we wrote to each other” and “the moment of our first lovemaking.” But then comes the third encounter:

“And in this room: a moment even earlier, the first time my wife raised her dress to me, exposing her battered shins. And then in another the first time I saw the bruises that blacked her knees and tendered the skin of her thighs. And then, in another, the first time, long after those first times, when I realized she’d done this to herself.”

As the passage develops, the phrase “And in this room” continues to be repeated, leaving the narrator no choice to not only confront the darkest memories from his marriage but see them from every angle. He (and through him, the reader) begins to see fully a life that was lived in the rush of real time and initially recalled only in snapshots. That is the beauty of a strategy of repetition: And in this room. The character or narrator can’t leave until all has been revealed or confronted.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s encounter a memory without looking away. (This exercise works for both fiction and nonfiction.)

  1. Choose a powerful memory to write about (yours or the character/narrator’s). It could be something funny or sad, happy or tragic. The best memories often cannot be easily labeled; that is why we remember deaths and births. They’re some of the few times that we, as adults, will encounter something that is wholly and completely outside of our experience.
  2. Let’s borrow from Matt Bell and use the phrase “And in this room.” If the memory takes place outside, substitute the appropriate noun for room.
  3. Write a series of paragraphs that begin with “And in this room.” You’ll write about the obvious things, of course, but don’t stop there. Keep going. Exhaust your memory; excavate the contents. Discover things that you thought you’d forgotten or that the character never realized she knew. Focus on objects in the room and their role in the memory. Think about relationships that define the room and the objects that were picked up or leaned against or sat on by the people in that relationship.
  4. Once you’ve written about a moment, try to remember the moment that occurred immediately before or afterward. You can worry about arranging and rearranging the details later. For now, let your mind surprise you.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Introduce Setting

23 Jul
Marc Watkins story "Two Midnights in a Jug" appeared in Boulevard Magazine.

Marc Watkins story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won the 2008 Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writings from Boulevard Magazine. You can read the story here.

A basic element of all fiction is showing the reader where the story takes place. But how? Do you use a wide-angle lens or focus on details? If you zoom from one angle to another, when do you narrow or broaden the focus and how quickly or slowly?

Answers to these questions can be found in one of the most beautiful and well-crafted story openings I’ve read recently. “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins won the 2008 Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, and you can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on the opening paragraph:

“Follow any hollow in the Ozarks and it’ll come to river or stream where soft clay the color of rust covers jagged limestone along the banks. Mountains cut by water dot the horizon, their peaks smoothed over millennia into knolls and greened with trees. In Eminence, MO, folks call trailer courts neighborhoods and hundred year old farm houses with acreage equal to a football field are mansions. There’s one high school, and you’ll get sidelong looks if you finish. People will talk, call you learnt, expect you to work at the mega hog farm as manager with an education. You’ll need a wife, finding her’s easy cause every household’s got at least one daughter ready for marriage, and you won’t meet her at a bar, there’s only a few in town. More likely it’ll be at a church, there’s twenty inside city limits.

Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.”

The passage begins with a wide frame (any hollow in the Ozarks) and gradually zooms in on a particular town (Eminence, MO) and then parts of town (trailer parks, farmhouses, the high school, the mega hog farm). So far, the passage follows the basics of Describing Setting 101. But notice what happens next. The passage moves from physical setting to philosophical setting, i.e. what the people who live in the place think and how they talk. This transition is crucial to the story’s development because it allows the narrative to begin. There’s almost never any story inherent in place. Concrete is merely concrete, and trees don’t care what happens around them. It’s the people who walk on the concrete and sit beneath the trees that give those things meaning.

This transition from place to people happens all of the time in fiction. Look for it in the next story or novel you read. I bet you’ll find it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a description of setting that transitions from place to people.

  1. Choose the place.
  2. Write down the basics of the place’s geography, landscape, and physical features. If you’re describing an interior space, the same ideas still apply except that you’re describing floor plans and architecture rather than landscape. (It’s important to sketch these details out before actually writing the paragraph. Your brain doesn’t always give you details in the best order for prose.)
  3. Now, write about the sense that you have of the place: cultured/backward, beautiful/ugly, freeing/oppressive, spiritual/dead, exciting/dull, etc. Try to explain why you have this sense.
  4. Finally, describe the people who occupy this place: smart/dumb, happy/sad, cosmopolitan/provincial, motivated/depressed, etc. When you think of these people, what actions, habits, or things first come to mind?
  5. At last, let’s write the paragraph.
  6. Start with a wide frame: show us the largest view of the place that makes sense (i.e. the region/city/neighborhood and not the blue speck of planet Earth in the black universe.)
  7. Zoom into the specific place where the story is set. Do this in no more than four sentences.
  8. Transition to the people. Notice how Marc Watkins does this with the phrase “folks call trailer parks…” In the next sentence, he writes, “You’ll need a wife…” And then he moves directly to the people: “People will talk…” He’s transitioning from the Godlike objective view of a satellite looking down on Missouri to the subjective view of the people on the ground.
  9. Drive home the sense that you have of this place with the people’s actions or habits. Marc Watkins does this with details about finding a wife. When you finish this paragraph, you may be ready to write a story. Or at least you’ll have a few good sentences about setting.

Good luck and have fun.

Creating Suspense and Suspension of Disbelief

16 Jul
Laura van den Berg's story "Farewell My Loveds" was published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and is included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Laura van den Berg’s story “Farewell My Loveds” was published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and is included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Every writer must learn to create suspense. But how? Laura van den Berg offers a masterful lesson in her story “Goodbye My Loveds.” The story is included in van den Berg’s story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us from Dzanc Books and was first published in American Short Fiction and republished by Atticus Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story introduces a mystery right away: the hole in the street. But the exact nature of the hole is unclear. Is it bottomless as the little brother believes or simply a hole as his big sister, the narrator, suggests? In delaying the answer, the story not only makes the readers want to know the answer but also changes the readers’ expectations: perhaps the hole really is more than just a hole. In other words, when a story creates suspense, it also creates a suspension of disbelief in the reader.

Here’s a breakdown of van den Berg accomplishes this trick:

  1. She introduces the mystery (the hole in the street) and a sense of urgency (the brother wakes the narrator up at dawn to look at the hole).
  2. The narrator and her brother argue about whether the hole is actually a crack.
  3. The narrator and brother argue about when to use a flashlight.
  4. The narrator and brother argue about whether the hole is bottomless.
  5. The narrator imagines her brother disappearing into the hole.
  6. The characters go back to their apartment.

After each of the first five sections, the story shows us the hole. With each view, we (along with the narrator) see some new aspect of the hole and it becomes a little bigger, deeper, and darker. Here is each view:

  1.  “a dark circle on the asphalt. It was the size of a dinner plate, the borders uneven and jagged”
  2. “he reached inside, his arm disappearing to the elbow”…’Okay,’ I said, hoping he would stop before a rat found the soft tips of his fingers.”
  3. “It looked like a patch of asphalt just melted away, a miniature sinkhole precariously close to the rear of a brown Honda…I saw a narrow stream of darkness, as though I was gazing through a telescope trained on a black and starless sky.”
  4. “He aimed the light into the hole; the beam was swallowed by shadows.”
  5. “I examined the diameter and, to my relief, decided it wasn’t large enough for him to squeeze through.”

At the end, the narrator imagines her brother falling into it—and this moment introduces a new mystery: why would the narrator imagine such a thing? It is this mystery that will drive the story forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a small scene around a mystery.

  1. Choose a mystery. You might use a familiar horror from books/movies. In this story, van den Berg has used the bottomless pit. Here are some other options: pit of snakes, endless staircase, secret doorway, cutout eyes in a painting for someone to spy through, trapdoors, secret passages, monsters under the bed, bogeyman in the closet, stranger hiding in the back seat of the car, and spider under the bedcovers.
  2. Translate the mystery into familiar realistic setting. van den Berg makes her bottomless pit a pothole. Think about how you could put a secret doorway, endless staircase, or monster into your kitchen or bedroom. Which familiar objects could be made mysterious? Show it to the reader using non-fantastic details.
  3. Create two characters. One will believe that the mysterious object is truly mysterious, and the other will believe that it’s not. List ways that the first person might investigate the mystery.
  4. Let the characters argue about the nature of the mysterious object.
  5. After each investigation or argument, show the object again, with new details, each more mysterious than the last. Your goal is to make the reader appreciate the object in a new way.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Write a Story About Storytelling

2 Jul
Barry Hannah's story "Water Liars" is from his collection Airships and was republished recently at Garden and Gun. Photo credit Maude Schuyler Clay

Barry Hannah’s story “Water Liars” is from his collection Airships and was republished recently at Garden and Gun.
Photo credit Maude Schuyler Clay

At one point or another, most of us will try to turn one of our grandparents’ tall tales into a novel or a short story. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance, wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude as an attempt to capture his grandmother’s way of telling a story. But unless we’re Marquez, the task is almost always more difficult than we expect. We often discover that what captivated us was the voice of the storyteller, and so after we’ve written a few sentences or pages, we come to a dead end because there’s no plot, no story to tell. So what do we do?

No writer has better answered that problem than Barry Hannah. His stories are dominated by his idiosyncratic voice. The plots are thin, sometimes nonexistent, and yet they draw us in anyway. For a perfect example of his storytelling gifts—and an example of a story about people telling stories—take a look at “Water Liars.” It’s from his collection Airships, and you can read it here at Garden and Gun.

How the Story Works

The story begins with the unpredictable bursts of a troubled mind that typify a story by Barry Hannah. If you try charting out the early paragraphs, you might feel as though there’s no structure or sense to them. But keep reading, and the story becomes quite simple: a man goes on vacation to a lake where old men tell tall tales, and one of those stories bothers him a lot. That’s the entire story. Nothing else happens. So how does Hannah make it work?

The answer can be found in two sentences: “I’m still figuring out why I couldn’t handle it” and “I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago.”

The narrator has discovered that his wife slept with other men before him, and not only does the news bother him, he’s also bothered by the fact that he’s bothered by it. As a result, the story becomes less about his wife and more about the narrator trying to understand his reaction to his discovery about her. That is the mental state that he brings to the dock where the old men tell their stories. When they begin to talk about the teenagers who come down to the lake to have intercourse, the narrator thinks about his wife and realizes that his way of thinking about her isn’t acceptable there, beside the lake, with that group of men. He realizes that he’s not like them.

The story is about self-discovery. It’s not so different from this line from Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”:

“As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.”

The narrator of “Water Liars” has discovered the house of difference between him and the other men. The fact that one can quote a black, lesbian, feminist poet to explain “Water Liars” is, itself,  an explanation of the greatness of Barry Hannah.

The Writing Exercise

Here’s a simple exercise to help create a story about self-discovery:

  1. Create a character who has recently experienced trauma. The trauma could be an experience, or it could be, as in “Water Liars,” a discovery.
  2. Let the character struggle to recover from the trauma.
  3. Put the character into a scene with people who are talking and telling stories. Let them tell stories that are indirectly related to the trauma. For example, in “Water Liars,” the old men start out telling ghost stories, and those stories take a sexual turn.
  4. Let the character realize that his/her own experience doesn’t fit with the tone of these stories. Or, as Audre Lorde puts it, the character will begin to understand the “house of difference” between him/her and the others.

Remember, you don’t need to resolve the character’s struggle to cope with the trauma. The narrator of “Water Liars” find little comfort by the story’s end. But he does come to a realization, and that realization, or epiphany, is what the story has been building to.

Good luck.

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