English 351: Creative Writing: Prose
Instructor: Bryan Fry
Office: Avery 371
Office Hours: 12:00-1:00 p.m.

Prompt 1—Experiencing a Community Event (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)

Describe an event you'd like to celebrate - it can be as large as a Kwanzaa celebration or as intimate as a picnic. Write quickly for twenty minutes; don't edit. 

   

Prompt 2—Experiencing the Folk (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)

Look for a person to describe, someone worth celebrating. It can be someone you know, a bus driver, a street-corner musician, or a child playing double Dutch in the street. Write quickly for twenty minutes; don't edit. 

   

Prompt 3—Talking that Talk: Community Storytellers (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)

Listen for stories!!! 

"I remember . . .," "Girl, let me tell you . . .," "Back home, we used to . . .," "Listen up! It's like this . . ."

Storytelling is a fundamental human activity - some stories are short (leaving you breathless for more), some are long and twisting, some teach, some give praise, some slander, some help you imagine a time and place where you've never lived. In Africa, the griot was honored as master storyteller, responsible for maintaining the stories and legends of the tribe. The griot tradition did not die with advent of American slavery. Indeed, cultural storytelling kept alive a past and sustained a newly born people. Slaves were not "blank slates" but a community who mirrored, shaped, celebrated, informed, and inspired themselves through stories.

Go out and find a storyteller (a teacher, a friend, a relative) and listen to the voice, the rhythm in his or her speech. Is the talk slow and meandering or fast and focused? Is the voice loud or soft, rough or smooth? Is the voice conversational or formal? Write a page in the voice of the storyteller you've studied. Try to recapture their story - feel free to elaborate, improve upon your memory - the important thing is to keep writing the voice of the storyteller you heard. To keep imitating the rhythm, sounds, and speech. 

    

Prompt 4—Current Events (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)

Local and national newspapers and magazines can inspire stories. For at least a week, cut out articles which interest you and have dramatic appeal. File the articles you collect in your journal. Gradually, narrow your focus and decide which clippings inspire the most provocative questions about character, plot, and point of view. For example, you might ask questions about that teenager who got hit by the car? Was it a girl or boy? Where was she headed? Was she in a hurry? What are her likes and dislikes?  You might ask what happens next. Does a witness go home and rock her child to sleep? Does the reporter quit her job? What about the driver? Finally, you might ask yourself who should tell this story. The reporter? The pedestrian? The driver? Or some third person who knew the teenager's family. You don't have to write anything for now. Just collect and ponder possibilities for stories.

   

Prompt 5—Creating Character (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)

In your journal, select a name for a character you'd like to write about. For example, Anita. An Anita is different from a Barbara, a Lorraine, or an Elsa. A Jerome is unlike Terrence, a Bobby, or a James. 

A name makes a character real. So does history. Write down details about your character's past: When and where was she (or he) born? What are her parents' names? Was she a wanted child? Is she the only child, eldest child, or baby of the family? How much schooling does she have? Who was her first love? First enemy? What was her greatest fear growing up? Her best talent?

Write down the details about your character's current life: Is she married? Does she practice a faith? Where does she shop? What's her profession? Her hobbies? Is she a mother? An activist? Is she inside or outside a network of friends?

What is a typical day like? Chances are you'll be writing about an untypical day, so decide what your character normally does. On Thursday, does your character eat at Jones's Deli? Work a night shift at the hospital? Or meet with a women's group to discuss books? What are her daily rituals? Rising at dawn for coffee and Frosted Flakes, then a bus ride with three transfers to work? Or does she sleep late, making the kids ready themselves for school, then awaken in time for aerobics and lunch with her friend Martha?

What does your character look like? You needn't list details as if you were writing a police report or printing a driver's license! Instead think of physical details which make your character striking and unforgettable. It may be her elegant hands, the way she moves or doesn't move through a crowded room, the slope of her neck or a rose-shaped birthmark on her shoulder.

What clothing does your character wear? Clothing tells a lot about your character's income group, self-esteem, and style, but it can also delightfully deceive.

Take 20 minutes and complete a character sketch in your journal.

 

Prompt 6—Preparing Characters for Scenes

Write one paragraph that introduces readers to a character that would appear in a peice of fiction. Somewhere towards the end of your paragraph, transition smoothly to the first line of dialogue. Look at the stories in your three-ring binder for examples. 

 
 
Prompt 7—Placing Characters in Scene 
(from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)

Using a character created in class or in a  previous exercise, imagine a scene in which your character is responding to a specific event or person. Because you already know your character's history, appearance, and emotional life, you are much more likely to "breath life" into your character in a credible, consistent manner.

Write a two-page scene emphasizing your character's actions, reactions, thoughts, and speech. Do these aspects have to be created in equal measure? No. Sometimes, a character may not think but impusively respond. Speech can be limited during a blank heist or tender love scene. A prisoner, arms and legs chained, may only be capable of limited actions/reactions to a sentencing. However, characters will be more vivid if you use as many character-building techniques as you can.

             

Prompt 8—Studying Plot 

The best way to understand plot is to study conflict, the series of events that drive the story forward. As you read Ron Carlson's "The Governor's Ball" create an outline that includes the major plot points in your journal. Consider the obstacles, trials, and challenges to the main character's emotional, spiritual, psychological, and/or physical well-being. 


Prompt 9—Creating Plot (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)

Select a character you love from your journal or prior exercises. Imagine a set of specific choices--to travel down the road with signposts or the road without, to answer the door or not answer the door, to accept a new job or not accept a new job, to go on a blind date or not go on a blind date.

After your character makes the first choice, ask yourself, "Then what happens? What goes wrong? What new conflict does my character have to face? Write a summary paragraph detailing the initial conflicts in the story you plan to produce in this class. Remember this is no-fault writing. You are just brainstorming here. We will develop your ideas in class.

   

Prompt 10—Advancing Plot (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)

Then what happens? Using the initial conflict established in prompt 9, introduce another set of choices. Something else goes wrong. What choices does your character have to face now?

Then what happens? Something else goes awry. What does your character choose to do?

Then what happens?

Continue this exercise for at least four paragraphs and include four choices your character has to make to respond to obstacles.  

   
Prompt 11—Writing in Slow Motion (from Ron Carlson's Ron Carlson Writes a Story)

Take a simple act, say unbuttoning a shirt, tying a tie, pulling on a sock, pouring a cup of coffee, removing a sliver from a finger, etc., and write it in slow motion, that is, give it two hundred words. Don't automatically lapse into hyperbole (and thereby the comic), but think of the effect: make it sensuous, matter-of-fact, sinister, gross, comic, etc.

           

Prompt 12—Practicing Subtext (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)

Underlying tensions rule much of human conversation. Polite society usually discourages direct expression of strong emotions: outrage, anger, love, desire. We learn to dissemble, bury our emotions as subtext within our speech. A teenager struck with romantic passion may blandly say, "She's okay," when his heart more eloquently speaks of love. 

People often avoid saying what they mean or say less than what they mean, which creates subtext, conversational tension. This sense that another conversation underlies our dialogue or that meaning is found "between the lines" makes conversations interesting. 

Pay attention to how you and those around you argue. How many times have you and your loved one argued over the toothpaste cap when you're really fighting about how you spend money? How many times have you criticized your children's clothing and hairstyles when you're really arguing about the suitability of their friends? Arguments about food, home repairs, Christmas decorations, and when and where to vacation can all potentially hide arguments about insecurity, infidelity, child rearing, and marital rifts.

It's important to remember that subtext as a form of emotional restraint can't last throughout your story. Eventually, what's at the heart of conversation has to be confronted. It is this confrontation your readers anticipate. 

For the next twenty minutes write a sequence of dialogue that has subtext, underlying tension. Ideally, you will want the reader to be able to tell that there is something lurking beneath the surface conversation. Leave clues: unfinished sentences; unexpected silences; emotional responses that don't fit the conversation; or more emotional than the surface situation would warrant. 

Example: Two characters argue about the unequal distribution of household chores.
                 The subtext: One partner believes the other is unfaithful.
 

Prompt 5—Changing Point of View

Pick a scene that you have written this semester or one you plan to write and use in your short story. Write the scene in three different ways: first person point of view, second person point of view, and third person omniscient point of view

    

   

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