Practice Exercises for Fiction Writing Help (page 2)
Finding a Story Idea
Story ideas come from what we are passionate about and from the experiences and emotional situations we must work through in life. In The Writer's Idea Book, author Jack Heffron advises writers to write down the 10 most momentous occasions in their lives. To help yourself think of those occasions, group them in feeling categories: scariest, happiest, saddest. Perhaps as a young man, you were elected captain of your football team and you learned a great deal about being a man and a leader. Or perhaps as child you met your state senator and formed career goals of being in politics because of it.
After you make a list of your life's most momentous occasions, it's time to do as Ron Carlson does with his ideas—explore them until they are personal right now. "How would my leadership abilities have been encouraged or destroyed if I had had to cope with (or as) a girl on an all boys team?" "How would I really feel working amidst a group of people who seemed to me to be continually selling out?"
Write your questions down. You will keep them in mind and heart as you pursue more preliminary work for your story beginning with creating a narrative line.
Creating a Narrative Line
In his book The Screenwriter's Workbook, Field describes how he helps his students learn to create narrative lines by teaching them to come up with two- or three-sentence story descriptions of popular films. For the film Body Heat, for instance, he writes: "… a careless attorney meets and falls in love with a married woman, then kills her husband so they can be together. But he's been set up for the murder and ends up in prison, while she ends up with a fortune in a tropical paradise." Although novelists and fiction writers traditionally work differently than screenwriters, turning to Field's clear paradigms offers useful guidance in conceiving a story to go along with the question you have centered on.
Here's an example. Field describes one student he worked with who was writing a screenplay concerning a woman who was to sign treatment consent for her acutely depressed mother. Doctors told her there were two choices for treatment—shock therapy or drug therapy—and the daughter must decide what to do. The writer decided that in her story, the woman's daughter would wait and do nothing to see if her mother would respond in time. Field told his student that she had to decide if the story was about a mother recovering or about a daughter taking charge of the health and well being of her mother.
In the end, Field's student couldn't decide and ended up shelving her project. There's a lesson here for us: We must go back to the questions from the occasions on our list. If this writer had witnessed a friend having to care for a mentally ill mother, she may have wondered about what it is like to have such responsibility for a parent. She might decide that not accepting either of the two medical treatments would provide her more of a platform for exploring this question than if she chose a medical treatment. The story's narrative line might be stated like this: A woman's mother is in the hospital needing treatment for mental illness, and all the options are onerous. Instead of listening to doctors, the woman takes her mother into her home with no treatment. In a delusional state, the mother burns the house down and the two take up residence at the mother's childhood farm, where a farmhand falls in love with the daughter and, with lessons from nature, helps her with the responsibility she has taken on.
Author Nancy Lamb lets us know in her comprehensive and accessible instructional book, The Art and Craft of Storytelling: A Comprehensive Guide to Classic Writing Techniques, how she turned one momentous occasion from her childhood into a narrative for a children's novel. When Lamb was in grade school, her friend Patty rode her little brother on the back of a bike. When the boy's foot brushed against the wheel, a spoke cut off his big toe. While he was rushed to the hospital, Patty searched for the toe. She packed it in cotton in a matchbox, according to Lamb, and it soon turned black and wrinkled. Patty stored the toe under her bed and took it out for her friends' inspection whenever someone wanted to see it. Lamb co-authored a story with Muff Singer, called The World's Greatest Toe Show. In it, a little girl has saved her father's toe in a matchbox and causes trouble as part of a club.
If your momentous occasion was leading an all boy's team with one girl on it or being allowed, as a girl, to play on an all-boy team, your story's narrative line might be: When a talented girl wins a place on the football team, the team captain succeeds in thwarting the team's backlash but sustains his own injury in the process. The girl ends up succeeding in his place and the team makes it to the state championship game, which he watches from his hospital bed.
Choose one of your momentous occasions and the questions that arose for you. Invent a story you want to tell, one that will allow you to explore characters in a situation that propels them to action. Make sure your narrative line has an incident that begins the story, a summary of events, and an outcome.
Figuring Out a Time Frame
Now that you have targeted a momentous occasion, formulated a question, and shaped a narrative line, it's time to figure out a time frame for your story.
In traditional short stories (over 1,000 words but under 9,000) or sudden fiction (under 1,000 words), the part of the story involved is, of course, smaller and probably occurs over less time than a novel takes on (although James Joyce's Ulysses and the contemporary novel The House on Eccles Road by Judith Kitchen cover only one day in their hundreds of pages).
To illustrate how you might make timeline decisions, let's work with this story idea: Immigrant girl living in the U.S. meets a boy originally from a country at war with her native country. She decides not to follow her family's warnings and elopes with him.
If you are writing a novel, you could write the story from their meeting to their marriage and a future in which the family's fears are or are not realized, perhaps concerning the children of the couple. In a short story, you might concentrate on the part of the story where the girl must take action and leaves home with the boy. In flash fiction, you might write only the thoughts the girl is having as they ride the bus out of town.
Once you have made your choice about the length of the story you are writing, rewrite your narrative line beginning with where your protagonist is at the story's opening, noting points at which things happen to him or her, and finally where he or she is at the story's end.
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