PURPOSE AND INSTRUCTIONS

This assignment challenges you to make up a story.   About people.  Make it credible with no requirement for suspension of disbelief.  Some change must occur in one or more of the characters, either in thinking or feeling.

Present the entire story in two hundred and fifty words.  Include in your story these elements: 1) the protagonist’s core desire or want (may be implied or stated) and the characteristic that will relate to the plot.  2) What the major conflict or barier-to-achievement is.  3) The resolution of the conflict.

Agree that stories can be character-based or plot-based.  Since you’re writing literary fiction, make your story character-based, that is, make the character’s traits drive the action and the resolution of the plot.  Instill human choice.  (Genre fiction is plot centric. more fatalistic with characters more like puppets on strings doing the will of the storytelling puppeteer.)

EXAMPLES OF KNOWN STORIES.

Naive Little Red Riding Hood disobeys her mother’s advice (desire–go to grandma’s; flaws–disobedience, naivete)  to talk to no one on her journey to Grandma’s house but she talks to a wolf (conflict)  in the woods and the wolf  (hungry) devours her grandmother and attacks Red (resolution).  DOING WRONG DRIVES THE PLOT.

Sisters-and-stepmother-despised Cinderella (wants a husband) meets a prince (wants a girl) at a ball who, recognizing Cinderella’s kind nature, falls in love with her.  But Cinderella disappears (conflict) back into her impoverished, in-servitude origins.  A shoe is left behind and the prince finds Cinderella (choice, she probably left the shoe) by determining which girl fits the shoe (resolution).   LOVE DRIVES THE PLOT.

Note that there are different interpretations that make every writer unique.  The key is finding what your characters want and do to fulfill that want and the cause and effect that results.

EXAMPLES OF IMAGINATION GENERATED STORIES.

Seeing or hearing of a character or situation that you think might make an interesting story (or scene) and working through a character-based structured outline for the story.  This gives the story action, purpose, drama, and consistency that will serve you well as you write the story.

1.
Challenge.  A homeless beggar begging on a median in the middle of a busy highway who’s tattered clothes were once stylish and expensive.

Imagined story outline.  John is a single parent father.  (want–raise child) His only daughter is killed by a drunk driver while riding her bike.  The driver is never charged (conflict–no justice).  John sets out to avenge (new desire) the death of his daughter.  After repeated attempts he traps the driver and is about to maim him when he realizes the evil of his plan, and lets the man go.  (resolution)

2.

Challenge.  Pretty girl about twenty sitting on a bus.

Imagined story outline.  Cathy loves Bobby who does not love her.  (Desire–Bobby to love her.)  Bobby is to take a cruise with his fiancée.  (Want–to marry fiancée.).  Cathy secretly signs up for cruise determined to discredit fiancée (falsely) and convince Bobby to love her, Cathy.  (Conflict.)  She is successful but suffers guilt for having unfairly hurt and demeaned the innocent fiancée. (resolution)

WHAT TO DO.

->  Make up three stories as directed above.  Each one no more than 100 words.

->  Submit stories for comment and ideas.

 


   Work submissions for Assignment 9: Practice making up literary stories

 

Assignment 9: Practice making up literary stories

 

(1)

 

Annelise had not eaten that day. That slice of bread would be her meal until she could find a job.

 

She felt lightheaded. She sat on a bench and pigeon-watched.

 

One pigeon caught her eye. It wobbled. When passers-by threw food at the pigeons, Wobbly could never get any, for it was too slow-moving.

 

Annelise took out her bread slice and threw pieces in Wobbly’s direction. Wobbly caught those. Annelise had never felt more sated.

 

(2)

 

Annelise had not eaten that day. In her purse was a slice of bread, and this was going to be her meal until she found work.

 

She carried a cardboard sign: Will work for food.

 

A man offered to feed her if she’d yell fire inside a theater. She hesitated. It did not seem right, except from her empty stomach’s vantage point.

 

“Okay, here we go. FIRE INSIDE A THEATER! FIRE INSIDE A THEATER!”

 

 

 

(3)

 

 

Annelise had not eaten for two days. She was desperately looking for a job but nobody would hire her because she looked exhausted and disheveled.

 

She found a piece of cardboard and wrote on it “Will work for food.” She held the sign at the busiest intersection in town. Nobody stopped. She felt entirely invisible.

 

A car hit Annelise. As she lay dying and her consciousness began to slip away from her, she wondered if she could have some food at her own funeral.

Instructor Response

Nice work.  You have skillfully incorporated human feelings—desires and motivations—in a plot that advances, and you’ve done it succinctly.  This has demonstrated how valuable thinking about character-driven stories can energize stories and augment meaning to the story.  Your skill allows you now to build on the characterization and add complexity to the plot to create and engaging an purposeful story for readers.  I’ve pointed out where I found things cranking along so that you can gage effects of your writing.  And thanks for submitting.  WHC

Assignment 9: Practice making up literary stories

(1)

Annelise had not eaten that day.  (Desire—food)  That slice of bread would be her meal until she could find a job.  (Barrier—no job)

She felt lightheaded. She sat on a bench and pigeon-watched.

One pigeon caught her eye. It wobbled. When passers-by threw food at the pigeons, Wobbly could never get any, for it was too slow-moving.  (Sympathy—nicely done.  And embedded “pigeon-based” plotting with pigeon hunger and too slow moving complication.  Great!)

Annelise took out her bread slice and threw pieces in Wobbly’s direction.  (Nice!  Motivation from feelings of kindness with sympathy for hungry pigeon.  A self sacrifice that provides a really clear purpose for story.)  Wobbly caught those. Annelise had never felt more sated.  (What a nice reversal and conclusion, the idea that Annelise’s hunger was satisfied by her act of kindness.  Well done.)

(2)

Annelise had not eaten that day. In her purse was a slice of bread, and this was going to be her meal until she found work.  (Desire: hunger.  Basic needs: food, find work.  Character-based plotting!)

She carried a cardboard sign: Will work for food.  (Motivated to action.  Good.)

A man offered to feed her if she’d yell fire inside a theater. She hesitated. It did not seem right, except from her empty stomach’s vantage point.  (Motivation.  To satisfy need but by an evil deed.  Will she or won’t she.  Just great!)

“Okay, here we go. FIRE INSIDE A THEATER! FIRE INSIDE A THEATER!”  (Change and resolution.  She fails to maintain her resistance to evil.  A very nice and significant point of characterization nicely accomplished with a few words.  Effective plotting.)

(3)

Annelise had not eaten for two days. She was desperately looking for a job but nobody would hire her because she looked exhausted and disheveled.

She found a piece of cardboard and wrote on it “Will work for food.” (Motivation.) She held the sign at the busiest intersection in town. Nobody stopped. She felt entirely invisible.  (Yes.  She wants work.  No one responds.  She feels bad.)

A car hit Annelise. (This is fatalism of sorts.  Fatalism, although often useful and necessary, frequently erases action driven by the character and therefore the opportunity for characterization.  Easily solved.  It could be an opportunity for Annelise to contribute to her demise, either by a personality trait or by an action to satisfy her needs.  For example, could she be hit by the car when trying to get to someone who is ignoring her so that that person recognizes she exists?  Or could she have thought someone waved to her from another care and she ran to respond mistakenly thinking it was a job offer but in her excitement runs in front of the car that hits her?  Note that by thinking like this you would also be taking out “telling” (a car hit Annelise)—and begin to “show” through in scene action, almost always a plus for characterization.)  As she lay dying and her consciousness began to slip away from her, she wondered if she could have some food at her own funeral.  (This seems sentimental in the fact that she now is a victim.  For prose, strength of character can add to meaning in these situations.  For example, could she worry as she dies that the driver of the car will feel guilty, or be punished (for hitting her) when there was not fault . . . only her need to solve her problem.)

  1. Thank you SO much for your comments.

    Yes, #3 was a bit too ‘decadent’ though, after crying for killing off my character, I had fun imagining the paradox of partaking in one’s own funferal. Speaking of fun, in #2 I failed to clarify that she compromised by yelling “fire inside theater” as a substitute for yelling “fire” inside an actual theater–my warped sense of ‘humor.’

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Portrait in Chalk: Story 1

            A fourteen year old boy with a talent for drawing discovers a sixteen year old runaway girl living under his porch. Smitten at first site, helps safeguard her, bringing her blankets and food. She gets a job using a false identity. Gradually, she learns to trust him. When the authorities trace the stolen identity, he makes a dreadful mistake, giving away her secret hideout, but she had already escaped. He tries desperately, but finds her too late, seeing her for the last time in the window of a Greyhound bus as it leaves the terminal.

 

Portrait in Chalk: Story 2

            A young man, once a hopeful artist, is haunted by the memory of a runaway girl whom he sheltered for several months when he was fourteen. He loved drawing her. When she left, he quit drawing. It broke his heart to remember her face. After an attempted baseball career, his life becomes aimless. One night, as he stumbles out of a bar, he remembers when he and the girl laughed at a drunken man. Disgusted with himself, he finds work with a stone mason, with whom he once held a summer job, becomes his apprentice, and eventually a master craftsman.

 

Portrait in Chalk: Story 3

            A middle aged woman, whose husband died suddenly, is left with a tidy insurance benefit. At first, she continues the hard but satisfying life she has known for 30 years, conducting cruises on her catamaran in Maui, but without her husband, the life is unsatisfying. One of her divers points out pictures on the internet that resemble her in a disturbingly familiar manner. She remembers the boy artist she left when she was sixteen, when she was a runaway from a dysfunctional family life. She sells the catamaran and seeks out her onetime admirer.

 

Instructor Response

Russ.  Good work.  Great ideas.  I’ve suggested structure to clarify story mainly.  Remember, story (even within a scene) needs conflict and resolution (or nonresolution with implied something to come), beginning-middle-end, character-based plot (for literary fiction and most other genres too), and momentum.

All the best, and thanks for the submission.
Bill Coles

Portrait in Chalk: Story 1

A fourteen year old boy with a talent for drawing discovers a sixteen year old runaway girl living under his porch. Smitten at first site, helps safeguard her, bringing her blankets and food. She gets a job using a false identity. Gradually, she learns to trust him. When the authorities trace the stolen identity, he makes a dreadful mistake, giving away her secret hideout, but she had already escaped. He tries desperately, but finds her too late, seeing her for the last time in the window of a Greyhound bus as it leaves the terminal.  

Neat!  Some thoughts to increase tension and conflict.  Could the boy accidently give away something or do something that results in her being discovered?  It would have to be innocent on his part.  Is it possible the boy is related to the job she gets—his father owns a fast food joint, or the girl works as a nanny for the boy’s sister’s children . . . something like that?  She gets fired.  (Trying to increase the entanglement.)  Rather than make the loss fatalistic in that he doesn’t get to her time under the porch, could he find her as she is packing and pleads with her to stay; she argues she can’t and then tells him to get her something from his house and when he returns she is gone.  Then the bus station stuff.  Examples as to how to make characters and plot inseperable.  You can find your own that will have more impact when it’s you, the author, choosing them.

Portrait in Chalk: Story 2

A young man, once a hopeful artist, is haunted by the memory of a runaway girl whom he sheltered for several months when he was fourteen. He loved drawing her. When she left, he quit drawing. It broke his heart to remember her face.After an attempted baseball career, his life becomes aimless. One night, as he stumbles out of a bar, he remembers when he and the girl laughed at a drunken man. Disgusted with himself, he finds work with a stone mason, with whom he once held a summer job, becomes his apprentice, and eventually a master craftsman.

Tell why she left.  Make it related to something he did.  Your basic premise seems to be:  would-be artist draws girl who captures his heart and the memory of her face and the desire to create her artistically spurs him to become a great craftsman.  But it’s not enough for the story.  Reader will need to know more about the girl, what about her attracted him.   Where she went and why.  What she thinks of him even—mutual attraction, apathy?  The scene with the drunken man seems unrelated.  It does not contribute to plot or characterization.  Consider the young man rediscovering the girl.  She could still be lovely and fuel his feelings but she rejects him.  She could be dying.  She could have a disfiguring disease.  She could be mentally ill and unrecognizable as the girl he fell in love with.  With something like this, he is compelled to recreate the girl as he remembers in his drawings (now lost), the image he cherishes, and he becomes a stone mason to try to satisfy this need to find her again (which, I think, would have to be unsuccessful do to the nature of how such a scenario must turn out).  See how conflict, character-based plotting, and a resolution to a problem are being inserted?   Of course, do it your own way.  And the story has momentum driving to a resolution of whether he succeeds in recreating the girl, not on becoming a master craftsman.

Portrait in Chalk: Story 3

A middle aged woman, whose husband died suddenly, is left with a tidy insurance benefit. At first, she continues the hard but satisfying life she has known for 30 years, conducting cruises on her catamaran in Maui, but without her husband, the life is unsatisfying. One of her divers points out pictures on the internet that resemble her in a disturbingly familiar manner. She remembers the boy artist she left when she was sixteen, when she was a runaway from a dysfunctional family life. She sells the catamaran and seeks out her onetime admirer.

Consider redoing the timeline.  Boy meets girl (from dysfunctional family) and provides something for her she never had.  Later woman’s husband dies.  She continues the tour business (catamaran in Maui).  She is not satisfied with life after her husband dies.  (I’d reconsider the diver and the photos.  They don’t seem to be credible and direct enough to motivate her.)  Something happens in her life for her to remember how the boy saved her life when she was young.  She craves happiness and stability so much she cashes in on her possessions and tries to find the boy.  The conclusion is what she finds.  (She has to find him!)  She could fall in love again.  She could nurse him back to health and a normal life but he resents her unwanted compassion after a lifetime of neglect.  He could be happily married with five kids and unwilling to speak to her sending her into a suicidal depression.  He could be a single wealthy banker waiting for her all these years :-(   Make up as many as you can think of and chose the best.

Lots of possibilities.  The idea is to construct the story so the problem is clear, the obstacles obvious and the choices to be made significant, the solutions many, the resolution realistic and happy or sad without sentimentality. 

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A moralistic Scottish busybody is suspicious of the quiet foreigner who moves to town. She is determined to “out” his secrets, though he does his best to keep his past hidden from the local community. At last the nosey gossip discovers that he is a German who fought with the Nazis. The German’s deep shame and guilt evokes the busybody’s compassion. She chooses to keep his secret safe, finally realising that it is not her place to cast judgement.

[SHORT STORY] A young woman loses her husband in a sudden accident. Following his death, she tries to distract herself by throwing endless parties and dinners, despite her increasing exhaustion. She tells her small daughter she is “keeping away the monsters”. One night (Christmas Eve) no-one is free to come. The little daughter, armed with toy sword, bravely offers to fight off the monsters by herself. The woman realises that her feelings are not to be battled or banished. She acknowledges her “monsters” as Grief and Loneliness, and at last allows herself to truly grieve.

An ineffectual man returns from an unsuccessful business trip to find that his wife has left him and his home has been burgled. Fearing a complete nervous breakdown, he sets off with his cat for a sanatorium in the far North of Scotland. His journey is long, and along the way he must overcome many challenges, but the thought of sanctuary drives him on. At last he reaches the retreat, only to find it all shut up. The man realises that it does not matter – simply by completing this arduous journey, he has uncovered his own inner strength.

Instructor Response

Nicely Done!

Each story has a clear beginning, middle, and end. And you’ve expressed an emotional arc and enlightenment in each. In the stories, be sure to keep conflict in the writing and the scenes, conflict that will relate to the overall theme and purpose of each piece.

In the next phase–you’ve got the stories down–think about developing your characters. You have the talent to conquer this stage, but spend time on this. The process can be endless, but you’ll know when you reach sufficient development in each character and where further work has less value.

Look into the soul, thoughts, and feelings of each of your protagonists and any other major characters. Develop each character through action, feelings, thoughts, dialogue as well as narrative description (which is the least effective for the literary fiction writer and needs much broader support from other modes).

As you develop your characters, remove yourself from the development character thinking and feeling and develop characteristics, thoughts, feelings that directly relate to who the character is becoming. For example, the Scottish busybody. What is her core desire in life? (Don’t let it be necessarily be something you want. Make it hers.) Is it to impose her moral view on the world? Is it to take out her frustrations at life failures by exposing others? Et cetera. (Needs much more thought.) Then live in the character for a while. What would she think about the Royal’s scandals. What does she think about sports violence at games. What does she think about global warming? How ill it affect her garden? Does she believe in God? What is her concept of a deity, afterlife, fatalism? What does she think is beautiful (images or sounds or thoughts or feelings that please her). Is she happy with the position of women in contemporary society? What does she think needs to be done.? What are her feelings about justice? Are there injustices that inflame her? Then think about how she’d respond to situations and conflicts you observe everyday. Think about the dialogue she’d use in conversation. How she’d respond to anger, pain, sorrow, happiness, ridicule, et cetera. Keep your development consistent with theme and purpose in the story that the characterization will logically support.

This entire next phase of the exercise is to encourage you to create the most dynamic, logical, credible, unique, engaging character you can. It’s what makes stories grow. Plots are secondary. It’s the characterization that grows the story and fills out the plot action . . . and contributes to your theme and purpose for the story.

You have all my encouragement. You’re great at this. Submit if you want further comment and direction on one or all three of these really good stories. I would look forward to how your work develops.

All the best and Happy New Year!

Bill Coles

  1. Dear Bill,

    Many thanks for your feedback and encouragement. I found this exercise invaluable, as plotting is something I have very much been struggling with. I also really like your ideas for developing the characters, and knowing them inside and out.

    I very much look forward to trying more of your assignments – and hopefully developing the above stories!

    Many thanks again.

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