Do Try This at Home
These writing exercises work equally well for short stories or short-shorts. Most people find them fairly easy to apply to standard short stories where you may have up to 10,000 words to work with. But try doing these when you only have 600 words to spend!
Focus: Using your senses.
Exercise: Write your opening paragraph from the viewpoint of a blind person or a sighted person in total darkness.
Focus: Putting yourself in some else’s shoes; empathy.
Exercise: Two people are arguing in a public place. The young woman appears distraught but tightly controlled. The man, a little younger than her, is on the verge of losing it.
- Identify with the woman and write the scene from her perspective.
- Identify with the man and write the scene from his perspective.
- Change it up and write the scene with two men, or two women.
Focus: Getting specific; using setting to define character
Exercise: In your opening paragraph, describe the bedroom or living room of the main character’s apartment. Write your description so that we can learn a great deal about the character just by looking at the place he or she inhabits. You can’t make any direct statements about the character (“Maureen demanded only the best.” or “Cornell lived like a pig.”). Write only what we, the readers, can see. And don’t forget: streamline!
Focus: Controlling POV – this is critical in flash fiction.
Here’s a quick ‘n dirty POV primer if you need it before you do the activities below.
- Omniscient: author can enter any character’s mind and reveal thoughts or opinions.
- Limited omniscient: author can enter the mind of only one (the main) character.
- Detached (cinematic): author doesn’t enter any character’s mind, just reports.
- Single-character: author tells the story entirely through the perspective of one character.
- Multiple-character: series of single-character viewpoints, each of a different character, but not occurring simultaneously (as in omniscient).
- First person: “I” – “I ambled down the street, wondering if they were following.”
- Second person: “you” – “You amble down the street. Are they coming? You can’t tell.”
- Third person: “he” or “she” – “She ambled down the street, alert for pursuing feet.”
- Present tense: “Gary ambles down the street, listening for pursuit. Not tonight, he thinks.”
- Past tense: “Gary ambled down the street, listening for pursuit. Not tonight, he thought.”
- Subjective: We perceive only what the POV character can physically see, hear, smell, etc. We’re walking around in his or her body.
- Objective: We perceive the space around the POV character and how he/she interacts with it, but not what’s going on inside his/her head.
Exercise: Identify the POV style in the following two passages, and then rewrite them a couple of times using different POVs. After the fourth try, you’ll feel like you’ve done this forever.
- Miss Walpole watched the gray flakes twitch and crawl. Her eyes shifted. She sat on the very edge of the chair. Her feet were flat on the floor, as if she were about to rise.
- Chuck went into a bar and I crossed the street and stood under an old hotel awning and looked across the street at the bar and watched him through the glass. He ordered a drink and sat and took his time with it. I started to feel cold.
Head-hopping is verboten in controlling POV. The temptation to do it is even worse in flash fiction because with the limited space you feel the urge to cram in as much as you can about what the characters are thinking/feeling.
Exercise: Suppose a story is told through the POV (single-character subjective) of a man named Randall. See if you can find the POV slip made in this bit of dialogue:
“What did you say?” Randall began to sweat.
“You heard me.” Cynthia silently counted the seconds, watching him.
She was playing for time, he decided. “It doesn’t matter which you choose,” he said, inhaling her perfume. Honeysuckle.
“Oh, I think it does.” Cynthia smiled faintly, looking down at the table.
ACTIVITY #6 The Ultimate Challenge
Focus: Story underpinnings – character, setting, situation, emotion.
Exercise: Write an opening paragraph that incorporates all four elements. Obviously they will be undeveloped, but the kernel of each one is there. In other words, locate your story opener in place and time, and identify your main POV character and the issue at hand. Do all this in just ONE paragraph!
Then polish it until it doesn’t suck (i.e., sound contrived).