Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Day 24 Prompt: What’s Said and Unsaid

Jo and Laurie have a conversation.

Powerful dialogue. It’s one of the most important craft tools in the writerly toolkit. Yet writers are often stymied when confronted with the task of writing good dialogue, so they simply leave it out. Dialogue can be direct or summarized, but the best, most potent, revelatory, tension-filled dialogue ought to be given directly. Why deny your reader the pleasure?

Screenwriter Maggie Sulc, in this article, advises to take our cues from actors when writing dialogue, to examine the character’s desire:

“Your language can be poetic and lyrical or blunt and straightforward, but if there isn’t a clear desire behind it, then there’s no reason for it to be spoken and, therefore, it shouldn’t be dialogue.”

Today I want you to write a conversation that features underlying or overt tension. Perhaps like Jo and Laurie in Little Women your characters want different things. Or one wants something the other can not or will not give to them. You can do anything you want with this, but I want all the window dressing to be pared down.

Focus on ACTION and DIALOGUE. And make every word sing. 

Leave stuff out. Often the most telling aspects of dialogue are what the characters are NOT saying.

Don’t make this a ping pong match. In real life, people don’t always answer questions. Real dialogue is full of unfinished sentences, of non-sequiturs and detours.

Make your characters sound different. This is very important. And a great way to characterize. Does one speak in full sentences while the other murmurs fragments? Does one of your people have some sort of vocal tic?

And how do they move about? Use body language to its fullest advantage.

Fill it up with subtext, undercurrents of emotion. What do these people want that has gone unspoken?

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Day 22 Prompt: Face the Strange: The Uncanny

From Wikipedia: “The uncanny is the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. It may describe incidents where a familiar thing or event is encountered in an unsettling, eerie, or taboo context.”

As to the use of the uncanny in fiction:

“There’s a power and weight to this type of fiction, which fascinates by presenting a dark mystery beyond our ken and engaging the subconscious. Just as in real life, things don’t always quite add up, the narrative isn’t quite what we expected, and in that space we discover some of the most powerful evocations of what it means to be human or inhuman.” ~Jeff VanderMeer, “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction,” The Atlantic

“The uncanny freaks the reader out because it isn’t quite right – it taps into our understanding of the world and patterns around us and renders them slightly ‘off’.” ~Robert Wood, in this great article. 

Read “Day of the Builders” by Kristine Ong Muslim in Weird Fiction Review, which opens eerily like this:

“This happened long before the initial signs of sickness from the outsiders rippled across my village. You should understand by now how my people were easy prey because most of us were trusting, greedy for finery, and readily distracted by new things or any semblance of finesse.”

I’m struck by the world-building of this story, how familiar it feels, while at the same time so uncannily “off” in every way. 

So much of our world, our once familiar landscape, our interactions, have taken on an uncanny quality during this pandemic: The eerily deserted streets of the big cities, for example. People wear protective masks in the supermarket. A man pours wine out his apartment window into the glass of a woman leaning out her window on the floor below. Goats roam free in villages. We can draw on these uncanny images, this unsettled feeling, in our writing. 

Today, I’d like you to face the strange in your flash fiction. Explore something that is oddly and unsettlingly familiar. What happens when a normally benign event takes an eerie or inappropriate turn, for example? Challenge yourself to take a subtle approach with this.

Consider how Hitchcock uses the uncanny in his films, for example, the “uncanny double” of Marion and Norman in the film, Psycho:

If you need a nudge, try using these below (from Psycho) to get you started:

shower curtain

owl

cash

mother

“We all go a little mad sometimes.”

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Day 20 Prompt: Three Songs, Three Decades

This is a prompt I used in one of my Fast Flash Reunion Extravaganzas (this summer will be my 5th anniversary of teaching Fast Flash!).

Songs are hugely evocative. You know those songs you hear the first few notes of and are instantly and vividly transported to another time in your life? Here, I want you to find 3 songs from 3 different decades of your life. If you’re still in your twenties, get out of here! No, I’m kidding. If you’re still in your twenties just find three songs that were recorded during your lifetime.

I want you to write a one paragraph flash for each song. The songs may serve as the titles for each one paragraph flash, they may be mentioned within your one paragraph flashes, or they may just serve as inspirations for your one paragraph flashes.

Go HERE to find what was the #1 song on the day you were born (Mine was “It’s Now or Never” by Elvis Presley).

The result should be a trio of microfictions that feel somehow connected. If you want to give the trio an overarching title, go ahead.

Also, you may approach this as fiction or memoir or some hazy blend of both. Try to write these very tightly, for a total of fewer than 500 words if possible.

Rock on, my friends. xo

Kathy

 

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Day 18 Prompt: Write a Letter

Dear Friends,

Years ago, I lived in Australia, long before internet and email. I missed my family and friends back home terribly and while my little ones napped, I’d sit down and write long letters. One of my friends said she kept my letters in her purse and would sometimes read parts of them to her co-workers. I should add, this was before I fully recognized that I was a writer. 

I recently received a letter from one of my writer friends. A real honest-to-goodness handwritten letter. It brought me such joy. It made me feel more “connected” to another human being than I’ve ever felt on Twitter or from an email. The letter was newsy and rambling and kind and funny and warm, filling every inch of the notecard it was written on.

Communication is so quick and easy now. Personal events and news are frequently shared, even as they’re occurring. Everyone knows our business. What’s the use of a letter anyway?

Well, that’s my prompt for you for today: Sit down with paper and pen and write someone a letter. No, I’m not asking you to write an epistolary flash fiction (though you can if you’re so moved!). Look around you. These are strange days indeed. What has changed in your community, your neighborhood, your family? Think of the odd details. The other day on my Next Door app, someone had posted: WHYYY IS THE ICE CREAM MAN STILL COMING AROUND??? 

Share your hopes and fears. Or just something funny or exasperating your kid did. Because this is a writing prompt, I’m going to nag you to employ your writerly skills of observation, include strong, concrete, specific details, and engage the senses. Does it seem like the stars are shining brighter, for example? Is the local wildlife getting bolder? 

Pretend social media doesn’t exist today and reach out to one person. And hopefully you have a stamp because I don’t want anyone going to the post office. I’d love to hear if anyone out there actually does this prompt. Let me know. 

With love & affection, ❤

~Kathy

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Day 16 Prompt: Meander

In her excellent craft book, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison says:

“If a narrative naturally wants to flow toward its end but doesn’t want to get there yet—the pleasure’s in the journey—it might hold back by strewing conflicts, boulders, along the way, as an adventure story might. But it might be bored by classic conflict, so instead lingers by flowing along an extravagant arabesque of detours: this is what meandering narratives do. A meander begins at one point and moves toward a final one, but with digressive loops. Italo Calvino says that “digression is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion or flight. Flight from what? From death of course.”

Read “Friday Night” by Gwen E. Kirby, published in Wigleaf. This narrative is all over the place, yet focused like a laser at the same time. Take note of the breathless structure. It’s actually one looping sentence, spilling over with emotion, yet banal in its attention to, well, that pizza. It’s funny, angry, sad, desperate, tender, real. And it’s a wonderful example of the power of meandering.

So you guessed it. Your prompt for today is to write a story that meanders in this way, keeping the central conflict on low hum the whole time. Write a first person POV breathless paragraph or sentence like this Gwen Kirby did here OR do your own thing, but don’t write in a straight line. Take detours.