Writing Exercise: Building a Story Prop

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03/12/2013 by Stephen Silke

I recently read Charles Baudelaire’s short book Paris Spleen (see related post), and the story “A Poor Child’s Toy” really stuck with me. It took me back to a few philosophies about writing that the minimalist poet Aram Saroyan mentioned when discussing his philosophy of composing poetry. He looked to William Carlos Williams’ excerpt from his poems “A Sort of a Song” and “Paterson” as solid repast. The line is “no ideas, but in things.” When conflated with writing, it means we should work toward employing natural images, that in the materials of life is the meaning of life.

Saroyan also stressed Ginsberg’s charge, “First thought, best thought,” and Jack Keruoac’s line “Mind is shapely, art is shapely.” We could improve in our writing by learning to throw off second-guessing and self-conscious restraints and aim our ideas into words without the specter of inhibition.

So without too much reflection, let’s do just that–hijack these poetry concepts to inform our fiction. After all, as we’re encouraged in the introduction to Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark, Roger Simon said, ‘”Why should I get writer’s block? My father never got truck driver’s block.”‘

Here is a ten step process to use to construct a useful story prop. It comes out of reading “A Poor Child’s Toy” by Baudelaire and considering Baudelaire’s use of the natural image, in this case, a mouse, a shapely prop that is central to the story. Using Blake and Keruoac’s advice, I think that the first thought for each of these prompts should be written down and then the writer should continue on to the next item. Don’t judge, don’t contemplate, just write:

  1. Think of your character.
  2. Now think of an object that would exist in your character’s world. An object that has value to a character (valued for it being hated, loved, its utility, or is so useful that it is taken for granted).
  3. Write down a primary use for the object.
  4. Write down a secondary use for the object.
  5. Write down a tertiary use for the object.
  6. Write a pun or rhyme for that object.
  7. Write a sentence where the character uses the object for its intended purpose.
  8. Write a sentence where the character uses the object for a non-intended purpose.
  9. List abstract, figurative, or metaphorical uses for that object.
  10. Now, divide your sheet of paper (typing space) into two columns and three rows. Write six completely different sentences where the character interacts with the object. (Another character could be introduced at this point.) In each sentence make the prop crucial to your character in some way. Write these six sentences in rapid succession so that you don’t second guess yourself. Just let it flow. Don’t sweat it if you repeat yourself. Instead, think about pushing the limits of the prop as the your character interacts with it.
  11. Now you have a cheat sheet with which to write a flash fiction, six variant sentences, and hopefully a number of new ideas to inform your next story, or to inform one you’ve already undertaken.

–Thanks to Ryan Griffith for seeding this post. 

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