Creative Cattle Prod

A shock to the system for writers: exercises to stimulate the creative limbic, stir the creative grog, and jumpstart your mentality. Updated weekly.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Aiming your story

This week I'm taking a short break from the type of prods I usually post. I'm going to talk a bit about how to aim your story.

This might be a new term for you. Okay, it probably is a new term for you because I just made it up. I think most writing "how-to" books call it "targeting". Targeting, though, implies your story is so precisely defined that it can hit dead-center bullseye in the interests of your readers.

In real life, I don't think things are that neat and well-defined. I think most writers get the idea for the story first, then decide to which audience it would appeal.

I'm going to suggest doing things a little different. I'm going to suggest aiming your story.

Aiming implies that you know the general direction you'll shoot at. It implies you have a target. It just doesn't imply that you have your sights zeroed in and locked down on the exact spot you intend to hit. I think that's more like a story or novel in progress.

I coined the term based on a website: Aim A Book. I found the site useful to narrow down subgenres for a story I'm considering.

Here was my thought process:
I had a general idea for a character-driven story. As of yet, I didn't (I still don't) have the characters fleshed out, but I knew, vaguely, how I wanted the characters to interact. The interesting thing, to me, was the idea of exploring this interaction in a genre where I thought I could bring out the interaction the most.

Once I decided on the genre, I decided to explore sub-genres. This story wasn't suitable for all subgenres of the genre I chose, so I wanted to narrow down the possibilities.

This probably all sounds a little amorphous (if the story goes any where I'll be more specific later), and more than a little backwards (most writing books, from what I recall, don't suggest targeting your story this early in the process. Some that I have read don't suggest targeting until you write a query letter!). Writing isn't like engineering - the process is much less defined and the order in which you take the steps required isn't important.

In my opinion, approaching your story by aiming it can help you break through some blocks. If you have problems getting the story out, maybe you don't have a firm grasp of who your audience is. Or maybe at some point you've decided to tell a different story than the one you began with, but you haven't yet realized it.

Or for a different tack, try this prod:
Take a scene from whatever story you're currently working on. Rewrite the scene, but place it in a different genre, or subgenre. How has the story changed? This may give you ideas on different directions you can take your story.

More ideas on genre:
Genre Descriptions from Agent Query on fiction genres You can click on links to different divisions such as mystery and sci fi, and from there, click on subgenres for a description.
Wikipedias list of literary genres You can click on each to find a description, and from there, subgenres.

Technorati tags:

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Due to water leakage in my basement from recent downpours, it will be a few days before I update.

Technorati tags:

Friday, June 16, 2006

Action Jackson

Action seems simple to write, but isn't always. You have to clearly convey what's happening, but in a way that keeps the story moving (which usually means minimal description during the fast-paced scenes), keeps the character growing, and keeps the reader invested in the story, but at the same time paces the narrative such that it matches the pace of the action being described.

There are tricks you can use. Writing an action scene using the most descriptive verbs you can think of can add interest and can help with pacing. The best action scenes start quick, and get quicker. They use an economy of words to get the reader's pace of reading in tune with the action, which in turn really involves the reader with the scene.

So here you are: write 200 words using full characterization and scenery, with as much tone and atmosphere as possible, but avoid adjectives for description.

Technorati tags:

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Write 200 words about a heroic characters. However, this character's heroic actions may not be life-saving, world-saving, etc.

For example, here is the skeleton of a scene. Guy at a store. He's in a hurry, seems generally tired. There's a whiny kid in line in front of him. The mom is obviously having a bad day. She's yelling at the kid, taking out her bad day on the child. This strikes a chord with the guy. Maybe his kids are grown and have moved away, and remembering how many times he yelled at his kids, he feels moved to try to ratchet down the emotion.

There is an act of minor, every day heroism. Writing suspense and emotion into life and death situations is easy. If the reader relates to the character, and really cares for her, the outcome of the situation has high stakes. Taut suspense is the natural outcome of high stakes and an uncertain outcome.

In an every day situation, however, the emotion probably won't running as high. You will have to work harder to develop suspense. The challenge is to develop the right amount of suspense without descending into melodrama. Imagine reading a story where every situation is written like the fate of the world rests on the character's decisions and actions. The reader would likely find it laughable after just a few pages.

So this week's challenge is: Can you write a suspenseful scene of every day heroism without melodrama? Let's see what you can do.

Technorati tags:

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Inaction Jackson

As the song goes, the waiting is the hardest part. No matter how action filled your story or novel is, at some point, things will slow down. How do you keep the reader on the hook, so to speak? Can you write a suspenseful expository scene? This scene can be someone waiting, a brief interlude of description for purposes of setting, or the aftermath of a big action scene.

Here's the challenge: write 200 words of a scene with little or no action, which still creates suspense. Bonus if you can get the scene to build in suspense throughout the scene. Try to avoid cheap theatrics, like a surprise ending.

Technorati tags:

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hidden agenda

Related to misunderstood characters.....

Sometimes a good way of building suspense in a scene is to make it appear as if characters, or even other things, have a secret. It's easy to descend into melodrama again using this technique. You don't want to cause blunt force head trauma by beating the reader to death with “There's a secret! A secret, I said!” Being able do this subtly, and yet still create the right level of suspense shows skill.

So here's the challenge: Write a scene with a secret. Remember, it isn't just characters that have secrets. An object, a pet, a place can all hold secrets. Showing that something inanimate or inarticulate has a secret may even be harder that skillfully showing a character with a secret, so bonus if you choose this for your challenge entry.

Technorati tags:

Monday, May 22, 2006


Countering Friday's prompt:

Sometimes a character's actions, reactions, and overall demeanor leads the reader into believing the character is antagonistic, or guilty of some dark act within the context of the story. This has been cliched in film and television, where the ugly, foul-tempered character turns out to be a hero finally (and the heroism usually results in the character's injury or death!).

However, writing your character as being misunderstood can be a powerful tool to build sympathy for him or her (or it), which is why the technique is used so often. One key is to do it subtly, without beating your reader about the head and neck area with stereotypical villain characteristics like the scar, the taciturn manner, the limp, etc. Another option is to write the character as being misunderstood in terms of something other than good and evil. For example, a character may be misunderstood as unintelligent, or cruel, or as a bully.

Your task for this prompt is to write a scene where it become obvious - gradually, it should dawn on the reader rather than surprising him or her - that a character is misunderstood.

Good luck.

Technorati tags: