Friday, April 10, 2009

Let Me Give You Your Prompts

I said we would take a look at some of the prompts Jack Heffron presents for us in The Writer's Idea Book so we can get a better idea of how the whole thing works. Again, we are looking to develop a system for "sketching-out" scenes and chapters, even entire works, by working from prompts and smaller chunks of non-specific writing.

The basic idea here is to use the prompts as inspiration and direction. Write whatever you want, but do not spend any time editing or anything like that; you want to get your thoughts on the prompt down on paper, not worry with making it correct or anything else, for that matter. The purpose is to write any and every -thing the prompt calls for which enters your head. This material will later be processed into the larger work.

In a chapter dealing with personal beliefs and convictions, Heffron gives the following prompt:
Create a character who speaks - and therefore thinks - about life in clichés and truisms. Develop the voice, perhaps in a monologue. If the voice interests you, place the character in a situation that challenges and eventually shatters those clichés.
I chose this prompt because it deals with several writing issues - characterization, voice, even avoiding clichés. I also think it an extremely strong writing prompt that focuses on characterization and voice. Remember to try and write in the character's voice, not your own.

The above prompt helps flesh-out the character, but while it is arguable that characters are the most important element in a story, there are several other elements to consider. One of these is setting. In fact, the setting of many works has been considered so important, so distinct, that it is referred to as a "character" in its own right.

This prompt is one of my favorites and is included in several writing books, so instead of quoting Heffron's prompt, I'm just paraphrasing:
  • Close your eyes for a moment and observe your immediate surroundings through your other senses. Consider the temperature, smells, and sounds surrounding you, as well as your mood and emotional state. When you open your eyes, focus on the environment - soak in as many details as you can, especially the smaller ones as they are what bring any setting to life. Now leave the area, then write every detail you can recall, describing the area in which you were sitting to the best of your ability.
Now you have two disparate chunks of writing, both filled with detail because you weren't bothering to try to write, you were just noting what you thought and observed. Just for kicks, highlight any sentences you find particularly good. Make a list of the details you recalled from the second prompt - don't add new ones, just list the ones you included when you wrote the piece.

Now take the character from the first prompt and write about him in the setting from the second prompt. Go down your list of details and make notes as to how the character would feel about them, or if he would even notice them to begin with. You do not need to include all of them, nor do you have to rigidly stick to whatever POV you believe he developed from the situation he underwent in the first prompt.
Don't just combine the pieces; pick and choose the details from your list, but remember that the character is going to notice different details and they will invoke different feelings for him. Set the better sentences aside for now.

It is important for the scene to be non-situational; all scenes have some action, but in this case, there is nothing to resolve. Have him sitting there, paying bills, reading a book, or smoking a cigarette - even literally just sitting there, doing nothing at all. The focus of the work should be which details the character notices and maybe why. Don't force anything. If you have a frayed desk corner on your list and you are suddenly inspired to tell the story behind it, then by all means go ahead! But don't force anything; let the character come to life in this non-situational situation.

This draft is still just that: yet another, though more formal, chunk of writing. Here, you are blending the setting and character. To continue with the visual arts analogy, you are sketching the larger elements in your work - placing objects, cementing outlooks, and developing history - working on your composition and deciding on the best medium and style to use.

Once you are done writing this scene, get your best sentences together. Now make a list of the major points in the piece you just wrote: what did the character notice? What was his mood? Did he know what happened to that desk corner?

Finally, write a polished scene in which the character from the first prompt is in the setting from the second, performing some mundane chore and thinking about life, love, his relationships, his job, his finances, or whatever, as he does so. Of course, this is still just your first draft and you may have to go through several before you develop a finished scene. Stick with it though, and share the results!

© C Harris Lynn, 2009

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