Getting to Z

It always surprises me when former students write to me and tell me they’re not writing, can’t find the time, or can’t produce a story when they sit down at the desk. Exercises like “Solving for X” are the easiest thing to do, daily if you like. As long as you have no expectation of producing a perfect story or even something that looks like a story, the repetition of the exercise can be useful.

There are some things you become aware of as you repeat an exercise like this. I’ve noticed that students who use only one character, unnamed, and rely on their interior worlds--thinking, feeling, imagining-- really struggle to get anywhere. The story never moves forward; there’s no potential for conflict. There’s little occasion for conflict because there’s only one person on the page. The engagement with the concrete world-- the objective reality of the story, the reality that exists no matter who is telling the story or what’s happening-- is minimal, and so there’s nothing to move the story forward.

Let’s go back to Zack and Miranda.

About last night, Zach had no memory. Beer flowed freely at Miranda’s party, as it always did, and there had been little to eat. Cake at midnight and before that, little cocktail wieners on toothpicks. Dinner wasn’t the point though, it never was with Miranda, who liked snicky snacks and nibbles, preferably from a can or a box or a bag.

I have no idea who Zack and Miranda are, or why food matters so much to him. I have no idea what comes next. But note, I have loaded the first few lines with concrete details, the kind that I can come back to later. I’ve also given myself two characters, whose names I might use at the beginning of sentences later. And I’ve given myself a clue about Miranda -- she seems to like processed food. And Zack might have a problem with this. Are they brother and sister? Exes? Cousins? I know that the closer the relationship the more potential there is for tension.

This exercise then forces you to put characters in play who already know each other.  There’s no time for introductions, long explanations about how knows how and why.  History between them must be assumed if you’re to get to “Z.”

“Cake at midnight” seems also potentially telling. I decided as I wrote that this was Miranda’s 60th birthday. As I wrote, I gave her an ex-husband, Frank, and Zach became their college friend. Tight relationships, with a lot of history. As I wrote, it emerged that Frank wanted something from Miranda that she either didn’t want to give him or didn’t have.

The exercise, because it’s timed, because of the alphabet, forces you to be brief. I can’t flesh out the characters, I can only hint at their interior lives. Expecting this to do any more than point you in the direction of a potential story is a mistake that students too often make.  This is why the “exercise didn’t work.” By the time I get to the end, the first sentence may have no meaning, and Miranda’s preference for processed food may not matter. That’s what revision is for, isn’t it?

In the next post, I’ll talk about how one can approach a revision once you’ve completed the exercise.

Tags: ABC, Characters, Getting Started, Prompts