11 Feb 2008 [ Prev | Next ]

Ex 1-2: Short Story

About 800 words; 5 pages maximum.

There is also a peer-review exercise in Turnitin.com, due Feb 13.

For this assignment, you may choose to expand a dialog that you began as a workbook exercise, but note that I may have given you an "A" on the dialog exercise simply because you demonstrated the ability to punctuate it properly, and because somewhere in the scene you demonstrated the ability to show. If you do re-use an exercise that you have already submitted, you should look at every scene, every line, and every word.

Five pages is not a lot of space. I've posted some helpful tips, so you can make the most of your alloted space.

Some word-wasters to look out for:

Travel scenes.

The protagonist runs out of shampoo, and decides to go to the store, so she goes downstairs, gets in the car, drives to the store, and bumps into a friend in the shampoo aisle.  (Compress. Start right in the store, where the most important scene take place: "Janice had been looking for love all her life; she didn't expect to find it in the shampoo aisle.")

Redundant telling.

  • Telling: "Bill missed Lucy." [If this sentence exposes the emotional core of the story, there's not much for the reader to do now. Why bother to keep reading?]
  • Redundant Telling: "Bill still cooked himself pasta with the sauce he made Lucy's way, even though Lucy's bags were packed and she was gone. He thought of her all the time." [The detail about cooking Lucy's way shows he's still emotionally attached to her... we don't the narrator to announce "He thought of her all time" because we have already seen an action that conveys the idea.]
Pointless Showing

  • Pointless Showing: "A stream of thick red substance sliding from the jar into the pot... the long strands in the pot, undulating and flowing like hair, like Lucy's hair, took on the crimson hue, and moments later the silence of the empty apartment was broken by the slurping sounds of eating. Or was it weeping? Not even the absent Lucy would have been able to tell for sure, even if Jack could have choked out the question. He reached for the cheese grater, held it to his chest, and ground, ground, ground his love into the dish Lucy would not eat." [What the hell? Showing isn't simply about being obscure. It's about choosing details carefully, in order to lead the reader to figure out, on his or her own, what precisely the details show.]
  • Good Showing: "Bill still cooked himself pasta with the sauce he made Lucy's way, even though he hated pasta." [What does the above passage show-- without coming right out and saying it? That Bill's attachment to Lucy was so great the he has developed habits that he hasn't broken since something happened to end their relationship. What happened? The passage does not say. We'll have to keep reading in order to find out.]

Avoid Redundancy

  • Doris is a middle-aged woman calls her mother in order to complain about her husband, then ends the conversation by announcing she's going tell him that she's leaving him, and she's going to back her bags and move to Florida. Then she marches into the garage and tells him what she's just told her mother -- that she's leaving him, and she's packing her bags and moving to Florida.  Then she packs her bags, grumbling to herself about how much a pain he's been and how much better her life is going to be in Florida. Then Doris goes to the airport and gets on a plane, and tells the person sitting next to her all about what has just happened. [By this time, we start hoping the plane crashes, simply so Doris will shut up!]

  • Revision -- get right to the point. Two middle-aged women happen to be seatmates on a plane to Florida. Martha is trying to read a book called "Finding Love after Forty: Why You Shouldn't Give Up."  The other is Doris, who can't stop talking about the husband she's just left. She says thing slike "I love your coat. My Harold got me one like that last Christmas. I call him 'my Harold' even though he's a bum I just left."  or later "Harold always says I have a way with words."  While Martha keeps hinting she wants to get back to her book, finally she says, "You say you've left him, but you're talking about him as if he's still here. How can you walk away from someone who's so much a part of your life that you can hardly form a thought without thinking of his name? I would give anything in the world to have -- for one night -- something you've walked away from after thirty years!" 

    Once you've cut the boring stuff, fill up the space so that you develop the important scenes more fully. What happens next?
    • Does Martha break down and cry?
    • Does Doris stop thinking of herself and let Martha talk for a while?
    • Does Doris change her mind about Harold?
    • Has Doris "left" Harold dozens of times before?
    • When the plane lands, are there six voice mail messages from Harold on Doris's cell phone? 
    • Does Doris cynically suggest that Martha and Harold should get together? 
    • Does she seriously suggest that Martha and Harold get together, so that the next act of the story is her effort to be a matchmaker, with the idea that if she finds someone for Harold she can leave him without guilt? Does she succeed or fail? How might Harold react?
    • Which, of all the possible stories, do you really want to tell? (See "planning your short story.")


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