Writing Exercise: Create a Collage

Photo by Gareth David on Unsplash

A picture is worth a thousand words, but can it create a story?

(<-Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash)

Collages come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. They can be cut from books or photos or drawing. Cloth, sparkles, and pressed plants. Scrapbooking is one of the many presentation methods.

For both the reading and writing exercises, the challenge will be to make a collage. You can do it on a computer or just paper, glue, and anything else handy.

READING EXERCISE: Create a collage about your most recent book. Comment below what you aimed to share – the emotion of the book, the characters, the landscape, or something else entirely.

WRITING EXERCISE OPTIONS:

  1. Create a collage, then write a flash or scene about it. Share how the collage and flash interacted below.
  2. Create a collage about your present work in-progress. Share if the collage gave you new insight to your book, or why you think it didn’t add anything.
  3. Have a scrapbooking friend (or you child) create a collage for you for which you then write a flash or scene.

Writing Exercise: Y is for Yoke

Photo by Steven Ungermann on Unsplash

Normally, this post would be titled “Heating the White Box” or something like that, but it’s April and I’m in the middle of the A-to-Z blog – and do you know how hard it is to find a “Y” word? So Y is for Yoke, as in – yoking the scene to reality. Today will be a writing exercise related to description.

I know most of us have heard the story about the English Teacher asking student why the thought the author made the curtains Blue. Description can enhance theme, but sometimes the curtains are Blue because they are Blue.

As a writer, when writing flash and short stories, work to have all description pull extra weight, where Blue has a reason for being part of the story beyond making sure the room is not just a white box. (Although that is a legitimate reason to make the curtains Blue.)

Oh, some of today’s readers might not be familiar with the White Box concept. Newer writers often have one skill set they are good at and need to develop others – they might be good at plot, or description, or characters, or dialogue – and when they write a scene, the other aspects are underutilized. For example, a dialogue writer could have two characters talking to each other, but they don’t interact with the room – does it have furniture, are they indoors or outdoors, why are they in this room and not elsewhere? They are in a “white box”, an empty stage.

To break the white box, the characters need to interact with the room. Today, though, the writing exercise is have it be heavier than just description. Yoke the description to the story in some way. Bonus points for giving a Show instead of Tell of a secondary aspect to the story. The characters walk across the wooden floor and the taps on their shoes ring (letting us know they are tap dancers). The characters do dishes which can carry all kinds of relationship and emotional signals. The characters sit down in heavy carved chairs, one higher than the other, indicating status in the fantasy world without expressly stating one is more powerful than the other.

WRITING EXERCISE: Write a dialogue flash with one bit of scene description that pulls extra weight. A little more complicated than normal, aim for 100 to 200 words.

My Attempt: In Argumentative Law – M is for Monday (see links below), I had the heat kick on. I did this to indicate that the class was held in the late fall to early winter in the Northern hemisphere, as would be common for the first semester of a college course. While all the other aspects of the room, from the chairs to where the teacher stood in relation to the class, are fairly generic, I added this to set the class in time and place without expressly stating it. 

Argumentative Law series

  1. L is for Legality (4/14/2024)
  2. M is for Monday (4/15/2024)
  3. O is for Options (4/17/2024)
  4. Editing Rant: Q is for Quorum (4/19/2024)
  5. Writing Exercise: Y is for Yoke (4/28/2024)

U is for Unite Against Book Bans

Unite against Book Bans – Website: https://uniteagainstbookbans.org/

“Let’s Focus on What Kids Need – Books that Engage and Challenge Them.” post written by William Rodick. 8 November 2023. (https://uniteagainstbookbans.org/lets-focus-on-what-kids-need-books-that-engage-and-challenge-them/ – last viewed 11/17/2023)

My whole life has been centered around intellectual property and intellectual services: programming, writing, websites, taxes, editing, painting, embroidery. The list goes on. My business and the businesses I have worked for, small and large, require free dissemination of information. Book Bans actively harm my business.

Plus banning books just hurts. Hurts me as a reader. Hurts our children. Hurts our society.

Especially when the banned books are chosen because they present uncomfortable truths.

We must stop this censorship. When you vote this year, pick the school board carefully. Pick the school administrators and the board of education carefully. And make sure your legislative and executive representatives understand banning books is not acceptable.

WRITING EXERCISE: Write a letter to a local school board member or your legislator(s), letting them know how you feel about book censorship.

Writing Exercise: T is for Turn on a Dime

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Sometimes a scene needs to turn on a dime. A song reminds the MC (main character) of an important clue in the Mystery or a loss making them long for true Romance. Not everything in life flows smoothly from one point to another.

A.J. Hartley discusses “Instant Transitions” in his August 24, 2012 Magical Word post – URL: (see below as magicalwords.net no longer exists)

WRITING EXERCISE: Write a short scene, five hundred words or less, where the tone or point of the scene makes a left turn through an Instant Transition.

***

As Magical Words website has finally been taken down – here is the original post by A.J. Hartley:

Instant Transitions by A J Hartley

I was struggling with a passage I was working on once in which I had a character sitting in a coffee shop chatting to a friend. I needed to make my protagonist remember something crucial about a crime scene. The problem was that the friend had no connection to the case and the scene was relaxed and upbeat. Getting my protagonist to suddenly remember what he needed to would not so much derail the scene as pack it with C4 and blow it up. Not what I was going for.

So I wrote and wrote and the scene got longer and longer as these two happy little coffee drinkers dragged the long dead conversation round to something that might finally provide a plausible segue into a reminiscence about the crime scene and our hero’s all important realization. It was interminable, and when the subject finally came up it still felt labored. The first person I showed it too said, “yeah, I figured that was coming, but it still felt like being sideswiped by a bulldozer.”

Let’s file that under “Epic Fail.”

Not long after I was reading a book by someone else (someone much clever than me, as it turned out) in which the author executed a complete about face mid scene by dropping in the distant sound of a backfiring car. For a split second the protagonist thought it was a gunshot, and suddenly he was right back there, remembering, and the scene turned on a dime. It felt perfectly natural and it was only my own recent struggling with a similar moment that made me see the conveniently backfiring car for what it was: a ruse, an authorial interpolation designed to move the story sharply sideways.

I returned to my own story, hacked out three pages of aimless café banter and decided that something acrid in the scent of burned coffee drifting from the kitchen reminded our hero of the crime scene. Job done. It felt right, even rich—as if the extra detail made the café feel more real and the characters a shade deeper—though it was nothing more than a trick to switch the direction of the scene.

When done well, devices like this are practically invisible and they save you a huge amount of time which you might otherwise spend easing into the shift. Often you don’t need to take that change in direction slowly at all and any number of invented details might prove helpful. Try these examples for size:

“He was still laughing when he caught his reflection—slightly distorted—in the stainless steel coffee mug and suddenly he was back in the alley, the monstrous head with the gash-like mouth and its array of jagged teeth looming over him in the night.”

“She smiled at the thought, then eased her way past the damp plant which had swelled across the garden path. Its scent rose up like heat as she touched it: lavender. Instantly she was back in her grandmother’s house, aged about ten, gazing down at the knife in her hand.”

The transitions look clumsy because I’ve announced what I’m doing, so it stands out, but if this was just part of a story you were reading I THINK you’d roll with the shift because the transition moves the reader to somewhere striking, something far more interesting than the transition itself. In each case, the details (the distorted reflection and the lavender) actually add to the scene, make it feel more real, even though they are no more than a magician’s distracting flourish with his left hand, while the right one palms the card.

You’ll notice also that both examples make no attempt to suggest a gradual mood shift. I want a quick transition so I use words that make it happen and don’t apologize for it: “suddenly” and “instantly” in these cases. Again, I think such terms actually soften the blow on the reader who is being redirected because they fess up to the speed of the shift and make the surprise register in the character as well. Readers will accept a lot of things if the character in the story feels them too: it’s when characters accept without comment what any normal reader would find strange that you run into problems. “Suddenly” acknowledges that something slightly odd just happened, that the character has registered it, and then moved on. Nine times out of ten, the reader will too and you’ve pulled off your transition.

Any other tips for economical tonal transitions?

Q is for Quorum

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For flashes, the quorum (minimum number of people needed for an official meeting) is two to explore more than navel-gazing introspective of a single character, but what happens when you go beyond that? How do you write a large cast? I recently took up the challenge when creating the Argumentative Law series.

The flash format doesn’t lend itself well to large casts. In a thousand words, you can explore two, maybe three, people interacting. I did TEN! Each person in the first flash, L is for Legality, had at least one line. The challenge was making sure each person had a reason to be there, a different opinion and goal. When possible, a different mannerism. Overall, that first flash is a scene, not a story. No one grows or changes, the “protagonist” really is the class as a whole, not one individual who undergoes the most change. A few of the characters were well-defined in my head – Lindsey, the firebrand; Breanna and Matthew, the couple headed to problems; John, supporter of the status quo; and the professor, Dr. Hawkins – who is based on my very first college teacher – first semester, first class. He left an impression on me, not all of it good, but he did demand the best from everyone and he cared enough to extract it. I would have preferred he didn’t use a hammer and pliers, but the man was unforgiving as the fire which shaped him.

With five characters clearly defined, the second flash had more elbow room; still, most characters were again limited to a single line, but through that line I discovered more about each of them.

The final flash, O is for Options, is actually two scenes, one is the class discussion and the other the internships. Between the three flashes, four scenes, and six thousand words, the characters had evolved into individuals with different backgrounds and goals. (Hey! – That is the average of a flash dealing with two to three characters. Three flashes fleshes out nine characters. Good to know the word to person ratio is consistent.)

Strangely two of the initial weakest characters ended up to be the most interesting to me. Maybe because they evolved organically instead of a pre-defined cutout like Lindsey and John. For the “story”, I would define Monica as the protagonist, if I work from the definition of the “person who undergoes the most change”. Though Breanna and Matthew, with their breakup, also had a lot of change, their change was external while Monica’s was internal. I also fell in love with Seth Goard; the initial lackadaisical gentleman, coasting through the course, was revealed to actually have a lot going on in his life. When he finally faced something that needed doing, he stood up for it. Of all the characters, Seth is the one I want to grab and drop off into a real narrative instead an exploration of writing skills.

I’m still not sure if I would describe the Argumentative Law series as a story. There is a a beginning, middle, and end – with the ending of handing out internships being the most clearly defined. We see the class grow as a whole from the teacher directing the conversation, with the first narrative turning point happening when the students (through Lindsey) demand equal treatment for all students, to the final session where the professor mostly stays out of the conversation except to keep them on topic. There is a sloppy bit (from a content editing consideration) where the third flash opens with Lindsey as a close-third person POV before we expand back out to the omniscient POV used throughout the rest of the series.

If the story was rewritten, I don’t know what POV I would go with. The omniscient puts a lot of distance between the readers and the action, keeping emotional involvement low. But who to go with? Lindsey, with her strong opinions, would be my first choice, but she is an unreliable narrator and the themes within the story, if polished from first draft flash format, are about the clarity of law. The juxtaposition between her opinions and exploring society through law could make interesting counterpoints, but I don’t know if I have the skill set to sharpen the edge between unreliable fog and magnification lens clarity.

I know I mentioned this specific to the first flash, but it also applies to the whole arc. In a weird way, with the exceptionally large cast, the class as a whole became the protagonist. During the story, they learned how to argue, they split into factions, and they developed a cause they wanted to fight for that crossed the factions.

Have you ever written a large cast scene or story where all the characters impact the story at some level? What writing skills did it need? Comment below.

Argumentative Law series

  1. L is for Legality (4/14/2024)
  2. M is for Monday (4/15/2024)
  3. O is for Options (4/17/2024)
  4. Editing Rant: Q is for Quorum (4/19/2024)
  5. Writing Exercise: Y is for Yoke (4/28/2024)