Building a Short Story, Part 1

You can see other writing exercises here.

Putting it all together.

This week, we’ll start putting together a short story. I will go over an example story of mine as we go – you can check mine to see how well I follow my own advice! As with anything I share, I love feedback and will keep working to make it better.

We’re going back to the first month of exercises.

I’ll draw on some exercises from this blog back in March. We need:

  • A one-sentence description of a character (March 9)
  • One or two very important desires your character has (March 16)
  • Conflicts that stand in the way of those goals (March 23)
  • A main problem in the story that makes things worse (March 30)

I’m going to work with one of my old stories here and try to improve it. The story is called “Memory Exchange” and it was in an early self-published book. Here are the details I get when I put the story through the March exercises:

Two word & single-sentence description:

Ambitious magician: Robert is an ambitious stage magician who learns a real magic spell, along with the terrible cost of using it.

Character desires:

Robert wants to be a rich and famous magician. He is also passionately in love with Carla, the seasoned performer who taught him real magic.

Story Conflicts:

Robert’s mom is alone for Thanksgiving, but his next show is right after – he needs to be with her.

Carla wants him to use his new magic to get to his mom and get back quickly, but Robert realizes he will have to sacrifice a special memory to power the teleportation spell.

Carla convinces Robert that he can control which memory he loses and he can give up an unpleasant memory. He doesn’t realize that she is conning him and has other plans.


Now I want you to try.

Tell me about your main character, his or her desires, and some potential conflicts for your story idea. I’ll share the beginning of my work on Thursday, and we’ll see how well it sets up the story. See you then!


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Setting #4 – Results

 

Time to finish off this month’s writing exercises.

I’m sharing an excerpt from Painted Blue Eyes as an example of a setting might look “in action” – that is, how setting description can blend into the narrative. I encourage you to share your own work, and to look at what sensory info you’ve included as you worked the setting into your story.

At the start of Painted Blue Eyes, my goal was to describe a setting that many people should know fairly well – the dusty attic of an old relative’s house. I used the familiar idea of stumbling into an old attic, along with sights and the memories it triggered in the main character. Blending sensory info with the feelings triggered can be a great way to put the reader in the setting, even without long descriptions of all the senses.

What are your favorite passages that describe settings? I’d love to hear what stories you’ve read with excellent stage-setting and scene description.

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Setting #4 – Share a setting from your story

This month we’ve answered lists of setting questions, gone outside, and used a room to describe a character. Now let’s see your settings in action.

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Show me what you got.

Let’s see a setting from a story you have written or are working on now. You could share an actual excerpt where you describe a setting in narrative, or you can compose a separate piece laying out a setting that you plan to use.

My best answer for this comes from a story I published called Painted Blue Eyes. The excerpt starts like this:

In the cramped space between ceiling and roof, I stepped around furniture older than any living relative. Rocking chairs and antique tables were hidden under filthy rags or tangled in cobwebs. I came to an ancient brown sofa, its seats bandaged many times over with duct tape.

I encourage you to share from your work, and I’ll post more on Thursday!

 

Setting #3 – Results

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Gwangali Beach. Photo Source: Me!

See other Writing Exercises from this blog.

On Tuesday, I wanted you to actually go somewhere different and write about that real-life setting.

I was intentionally vague about where you could go – a park, doctor’s office, beach, rooftop – as long as it’s a place you don’t go very often (or better yet, a new place not too far from home).

Even though I work close to Gwangali Beach, it’s rare for me to get much time there. It was a nice treat to have time to sit before a meeting of the Busan Writer’s Group began.

Here’s the setting description I came up with. I tried to include sensory info along with a general mood.

The low waves can’t drown out the constant running of car engines on the road behind. I can’t lose myself in this crescent slice of beach, with the city wrapped around so closely. Its growling engines and blaring horns are a few long strides behind, and the island of sand is not wide enough to fully escape into the sound of small waves breaking against land. Even the horizon will not let me forget the city, with the great suspension bridge stretching over the natural sky, ferrying an endless stream of cars across a dimming sky.

The sun sets behind me, and I sigh as I brush sand from a bench. The feel of the coarse grains spurs a thought, and I look closer at the sand under my black Doc Martens. Dry brown, it breaks apart quickly as I scoop with testing fingers. There is no sign of the earlier rain, no clumps of dark brown or half-dry sand to tell of the rain that fell for most of the day. The hours of sun, brief as they were, were enough to remove the memory of rain.

The evening wind brushes a tiny patter of sand against my cheek. I turn to see children, tossing sand as they laugh, oblivious to the wind that chills as it billows my jacket. I take shelter in the jacket, clutching it close as I sit. As the children play, their Korean falls in my limited understanding, and I am glad to know their playful words.

The wind picks up, adding salty flair strong enough to drown the constant exhaust. For a moment, the air is clean, and within that snapshot, I can believe I’ve left the city behind. The moment ends at the sound of my alarm, a light melody playing from my phone. I look at the display. Friends and fellow writers will meet amid the grinding of espresso machines and the chatter of small talk. I rise from my seat, ready to leave the slice of beach and return to the city around it.

I hope you’ll share your setting as well!

Setting #3 – Let’s go somewhere different

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Alas, my own brick of a laptop is far too heavy and lasts all of 1 hour, if I’m lucky. Image from Wikimedia Commons

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See other Writing Exercises from this blog.

I’m being quite literal with the title of this post – let’s actually go somewhere freaking different this week!

I’m serious, go somewhere with your pen and paper, or your portable device of choice (I have a 7-year-old brick of a laptop that can’t go an hour without juice, so I’ll go for the paper option). Go somewhere you don’t usually go, or better yet somewhere you’ve never been.

I want you to describe the scene around you, using as many of the five senses as you can. You can write this ‘in character’ by imagining one of your story characters is in the location, describing it as they’d see it, or you can do a straight-up description of the scene in your own words, without worrying about connecting it to a narrative. It’s really up to you.

I’ll refer to an example of my own work where I really did go to the location described to set the scene:


Daniel walked along the stony path before the temple. The doors of the main shrine were open as he passed before them, allowing a glimpse of a golden Buddha with colorful paper lanterns hung above his head. Daniel stepped on the low stone stair just outside the frame, a sharp sandalwood scent filling his lungs as he examined a bowl with sticks of incense set just before the Buddha. No different than a one–night stand? No. Of course I won’t do it. Shaking his head, he turned away from the Buddha, walking around the small pond set into the center of the stony ground before the temple. He allowed himself a last look at the peaceful place before descending the tree–lined path down the mountain.


That temple is based on Cheonbulsa, a temple that’s five minutes from my house. I had my character Daniel stand outside the temple and describe it, though I admit, there could have been more senses involved. I got smell and some sights in there, but I could go all out and get the clacking of the wooden bells, or the feel of smooth, worn wood under your feet after you remove your shoes to meditate in the temple.

For Thursday, I’ll go somewhere I don’t normally go and try a similar scene-setting piece. I encourage you to do the same!

 

 

Setting #2 – Results

Time to see some characters’ bedrooms!

On Tuesday we talked about your character’s bedroom. I’m going to give my own example, and I encourage you to check how much I let the reader know about my character, William Flynn.

We’re actually focusing on two skills at once here – developing setting descriptions AND character building! My goal is to try to tell a few things I think you need to know about William Flynn while describing his personal space as well.

Feel free to give me feedback – how could I give more detail about the room and Flynn’s personality without adding too many words? How could I add more sensory detail in the room description?

Look for the same criticism in your own work, and please post a sample as a reply or post a link to your own blog.

All right then, here’s what I have. I present William Flynn’s bedroom:

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Setting #2 – A Character’s Bedroom

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What impression do you get about the person who uses this room? Photo by Ben Babcock, flic.kr/p/49Fy3M

Time for the second exercise on Settings!

These writing exercises are intended to help beginners who are stuck, but I try to make them useful for writers of all levels.

 

Last week we talked about your character’s hometown, so now let’s find out about his bedroom.

Exercise #2 – Describe a character using his or her bedroom.

What does Captain America’s bedroom look like? How about Harry Potter’s?

If you have a character who loves cats, what does her bedroom look like? How about someone who hates other people?

For this exercise, assume your character is the only regular occupant of the room – we want to shape the setting from this one character’s personality. If your character is not single at the start of your story, you could imagine what their bedroom would’ve been like before meeting their lover, or you could describe their personal study or office space.

You can use any character in this piece. You can create a character, or you could use a character from a book, TV show, or movie. This character will not appear in the piece. You are narrating as an observer who walks into their room – nobody is in this room right now.

Describe everything you see, hear, and smell. What is on the floor? On the bed? On the desk? Is there something unusual about the bed? Is everything neat and clean, or is it messy and dirty? Look for ways to give hints about the character’s job, hobbies, favorite animal, secret desires, or any other details you could place into the decor or arrangement of items in the room.

 

You can check your writing by looking at the sensory info and descriptions. How much detail can a reader learn about the character? Are there descriptive details about things one can see, hear, smell, and touch? Taste might be a tricky sense to work with in a bedroom, but by all means run with it if it’s justifiable! (A character who can’t live without junk food might have something tasty out on his desk, for example).

I’m trying this exercise myself with a character from my works. He’s from a sci-fi setting, so this will be an extra challenge for me to work in a few details from the future.

I’ll start with a couple sentences today, and the rest on Thursday. I hope you’ll share your character’s bedroom as well!

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