Set up to write. No point in reading through this. Write through it.
5 minute minimum each node. Several nodes in each section. Choose one. Go!
Set the stage
If the whole world is a stage, how is our opening scene’s environment laid out? Without people present, what is the weather, time of day, interior/exterior environment? Spaceship: is it the brand new one, or some ratty duct tape bound wheezing pile of junk headed for disaster? Cabin: rich mans play toy or survivalist’s tool? Office: high-tech hub or fly-by-night call center? Retail shop: trendy, well-appointed with current products and signage or out-of-date with worn furnishings?
If you are inside, are the windows washed, are there curtains or blinds, carpets or hardwoods, shiny Formica or well-worn marble counters? If you are outside what time of day of what season is it. What is the ecology: swamp, desert, mountain, river, steppe, flood plain, meadow, lava bed, rain forest, arctic ice flow?
What is transportation like? Hover boards or horse and buggy, on foot, floating down a river, hitchhiking, hopping trains, rental cars…
Let’s establish a stage for your story. Don’t involve any characters at this point. Write for 5 minutes on each start line:
- The air smells like… (War, flowers, mown hay, farm animals, zombie breath…)
- This land is a challenge during… (An election, summer, the harvest, the revolution, forced marches…)
- I love the season… (Because nothing is in bloom, the countryside is a poem in snow, it is full of promise, the birds return…)
- The house feels… (Like a fortress, it is perched on the edge of a cliff, unfinished, haunted, over-decorated, small…)
- The forest is… (Alive, full of adventure, a vault of history, taking back the field, aflame…)
We understand people and receive our strongest impressions of them through action. Their actions. People can talk until the cows come home about their great deeds, or the actions of others, but nothing invests us like seeing it happen. How do you respond to a passage where an author talks about what happened instead of letting you be in the middle of the action. If they are telling you what happened it is already past. Not very compelling. Let us start building the reader’s understanding of your main character by what they do. We are in normal life so let’s explore what your character does during that time.
Write for 5 minutes with each start line:
- They (s/he) they wake up… alarm clock, cell door unlocks, sunrise, neighbors fighting, internal alarm, get right up or fight to awaken
- The morning ritual they enjoy most is… cleaning, grooming, choosing clothes, checking their look in the mirror 5 times – or never
- Their first meal of the day starts with… foraging, cafeteria line, cooking something nice, instant cereal, someone ele’s scraps
- They join the day and… it is already in progress, they slip into the stream, like a hard charger, reluctant, frightened, ambivalent, wary
Your main character interacts with the world. That world is populated with…? People, creatures, robots, inanimate objects, magic… Whomever they are, your story revolves around their interaction. So let’s set up some of the characters that populate this world and learn to understand who they are, and who they are to our main character, by their interactions with each other:
Co-workers, school chums, neighborhood parents, fellow soldiers, competitors, enablers in both personal and professional exchanges that are action-oriented.
The energy between characters is the stuff of story: love, competition, jealousy, admiration, idolization, hate, suspicion, curiosity, friendship.
Choose one of your supporting characters and let’s explore them with a few 5 minute writes that start with:
- Left alone, one of their favorite activities is…
- When your main character and this character meet on the street they…
- Their last big challenge was resolved when they…
- When they feel angry/happy their first action is…
- Their standard response to something they don’t understand is…
Action and Dialog
A flower is cut, a face slapped, eggs are broken into a hot frying pan, man smacks his fist into his open palm, welder flips up a blackened helmet to reveal a woman’s face, crying boy runs his thumbnail along the inside seam of his Levi’s, woman examines the man at her breakfast table, she prowls the shadows behind him, the hair on the back of his neck stiffens, white knuckles wrap around the handle, the hammer sings the wind a song…
These are all examples, but how do you make your own so they fit your work? Practice. Let’s start simple by alternating one line of your dialog with one line of action. Keep it simple:
Jerry walks in the front door and closes it behind him.
“Thanks for seeing me today.”
Jack balances his big arm cast and sits down slow in the middle of the couch. He gestures to a side chair.
“It is good to see another soul.”
Jerry sits on the edge of the chair, slides his satchel off his shoulder and onto the floor.
“How are you?”
Jack looks away and into the dark kitchen. Jerry follows his gaze, then returns to Jack.
“Lots of people ask.”
Jack looks at Jerry and considers him for a moment.
“Would you like some water?”
See how it works. You don’t have to say how anyone is feeling, you show some physical cues, just like we are sitting there. Play with it. Try it on a scene that you have already written or one that is scratching around in your head.
Dialog and Action - Extra
Pick a dialog you have written and rewrite a page or less with this technique: Line of dialog, line of action. “But my peeps aren’t doing anything” you protest, “they are just at a table talking…”
Works like this:
Jane balances a fork between her index and middle fingers, she twiddles it up and down like a manic seesaw. “I’m going to leave the University after this semester.” Richard watches her fork wiggle. He leans forward, “I’m thinking of taking a break too.” Her fork stops. She looks at his face, “Now you are lying.” He sits up straight like a kid, digs his hands deep into his lap. “Trying to be supportive…”
She sets her fork down next to her empty plate, picks up her whiskey glass and takes a long pull. He studies the side of her face, “I’m supporting your choice.” She sets her glass down with a thump. The ice rattles. “Blind imitation is stupid.” He stiffens, “I’m not stupid.” She smiles and watches the ice spin as she swirls her empty glass on the tabletop. “Well then mister, don’t act like it.”
Did you write? I hope so. It is how books get written.
Great thing about these exercises is you can do them over and/or you can do them for 10, 15, 30 minutes.
Do them in a way that works for you.
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