Food for Thought

            It seems that many social gatherings include food of some kind. The group might meet at a restaurant where handling the check becomes a source of tension. Perhaps they meet at a park for a picnic, everyone bringing something to share. This can be fun, tasting different foods, but it can also create problems when someone arrives empty-handed.

            Normally conversation stays on safe topics such as the weather, medical issues or sports, but in every crowd there’s someone who wants to discuss politics. And when his point of view is different from most, conflict arises.

            There’s also the problem about what to bring. Salad? Main dish? Dessert? But what happens when someone, a notorious big eater, arrives with a single bag of chips?

            Does it rankle you when this happens or do you shrug it off?

            Your task is to write a story about a gathering of people that involves food.

            Choose a setting and situation that’s likely to involve tension and conflict. Have a variety of people with a variety of interests and beliefs that will light the spark.

            Setting and dialogue are both important. When describing setting, focus on what people are doing, how they’re showing emotions.

            Have fun with this one.

Hidden Images

We don’t always see what’s right before our eyes. We’re distracted by our phone or by conversations with friends as we walk. We might be rehearsing in our minds what we’re going to say or thinking about an upcoming event.

Because we’re not paying close attention, we miss things happening around us. There might be a senior citizen trying to cross the road, a starving dog cuddled up in an empty store front or a magnificent holiday display in a nearby square.

Your task is to write a story in which your character misses key elements in the scene. Make the items or issues large enough, in terms of importance, that not seeing them impacts the story arc.

Description will be critical as well as dialogue. Keep your character talking so that readers can see, through words, what’s happening in the scene.

Have fun with this one.


Your birthday is coming up and you’re aware that a party has been planned. You think you know who’s coming, you wonder if Jesse, a childhood nemesis, will have the audacity to appear.

Anew job opportunity has opened up and if you’re offered the position, it means more money and responsibility, but you’ve got to ace the interview.

There are many events that arise in our lives that cause angst. The anticipation alone makes us sweat, interferes with sleep, and causes our hands to tremble. We rehash possible negative outcomes, analyzing each reaction that we might have.

Anticipation is a complex emotion. It is a feeling of excitement about something that is going to happen in the near future that leads to restlessness, difficulty focusing, a sense of uneasiness, and an attempt at avoiding participation in the event. In story form, anticipation can trigger scenes of tension and conflict between characters that alter familial relationships and ruin friendships.

Your task is to write a story in which anticipation plays a major role. Choose a scene in which emotions run high, affecting how the character thinks, acts, speaks. Include narrative and dialogue so that readers can see how anticipating the event influences the story arc.

Have fun with this one.

Children in the Home

Some people don’t want to have children, but others do. Some only want one child, while others want a whole passel.

Children add complexity to a relationship. They have needs that have to be met, they have interests that need to be enriched, they like and dislike many things. They can be whiny, difficult beings. They can also be charming and pleasant to be with.

Your task is to write a scene in which the protagonist has at least one child. Remember that a good story has tension, so make something happen that causes conflict within the family unit.

Dialogue is important in this task. It would be difficult to show conflict between parent and child without conversation. Also remember that the child’s voice and choice of words need to be appropriate for the age. No adult voice for the child.

Reread. Where necessary, add details. Make changes whenever the child doesn’t speak or behave like a child.

Have fun with this one.

Too Much Tension?

Is there such a thing? Can a story have too much tension?

One way to check is to read a story or see a movie that is a thriller. Try to choose something where the action starts at the beginning and never lets up. A good example is the movie Ben is Back starring Julia Roberts.  The tension runs from beginning to end, with no let up. There is no scene in which the characters are not frightened or concerned or worried or frantic.

As a viewer, I was in overload after twenty minutes. I wanted some sort of release. There is one scene in which it was possible to have that release, but the camera focused on Ben and what he was feeling.

Your task is to write a scene in which tension is constant. Choose a setting that is appropriate for that level of tension. It could be a bank robbery, a kidnapping, an attempt at escape, running from evil (or from the law). Keep the focus on the emotions of your main characters.

When you are finished, reread or ask someone else to read. How do you feel as you read? Is there too much tension or the right amount considering the setting?

Next rewrite the scene with moments in which there are lighter actions. Then reread.

Which version works best?

Have fun with this one.

Establishing Motive

I recently attended a workshop at a conference in Fort Bragg, California. My leader, James W. Hall, is a published author and college professor of writing.

He reminded me that every character in a story has to want something, and that want is what compels the character to act. Once that want is fulfilled, then the character has to want something new, which now inspires action. And so on.

All too often we forget about this driving force. Without it, our stories go nowhere. Our characters are flat and uninspiring. There is no tension, and without tension, our readers are bored.

Your task is to reread something that you’ve written, but find troubling. You’ve known that something about it isn’t working and have tried rewriting without success.

Examine your characters, both primary and secondary. Protagonist and antagonist. Does each of them want something? Is each challenged to reach their goals? If not, then you need to find a way to fix it.

First, brainstorm a list of possible goals for each character. If you discover a character who exists only to give the protagonist someone to talk to, either eliminate the character or change his importance in the story.

After you’ve created your lists, choose primary goals for each character. Then rewrite, starting at the beginning. Constantly check your work, making sure to stay faithful to your goals.

When you’re finished, reread. Does your story now have tension? Do actions match goals? Are all characters important?

Hopefully this is so.

Have fun with this one.

Suspense is Critical

Story revolves around suspense. From the first page, there needs to be a compelling story developing. Tension. Argument. A chase of some kind. A search for something important. And possibly even a dead body, be it human or animal.

Recently I picked up a book that sounded interesting. The youngest daughter had been implicated in the murder of her father and the near death of her mother, but the boyfriend was found guilty on circumstantial evidence. Sounds compelling, right?

The problem is that the story moved too slowly. It felt as if the same thoughts and actions happened over and over. Worry about the youngest daughter moving back home. The accused being released from prison on a technicality. The oldest daughter, once a thriving mother with tremendous potential, now wallowing at home.

I kept waiting for something to happen. Some action that brought renewed fear into the protagonist’s life. A window found open. A bloody knife left in plain sight. A note or call that threatened. But none of that ever happened.

As a writer, you have an obligation to engage your readers with suspense, even if your story is not a murder mystery or thriller.

How do you do this? Your protagonist has to interact with others, animate or inanimate. This interaction brings up a strong emotional response. The character reacts, either by confronting the “thing” or by running away or by putting it out of mind. This leads to more tension as the “thing” comes back again and again to haunt the character, spurring the character into action once again.

Your job is to take something that you’ve written, that perhaps you find less than compelling, and reread, looking for spots where the story bogs down. Where there is a pronounced lag.

As you discover these places, fix them either by eliminating them altogether or by turning them into scenes with dialogue, action, tension.

This will not be easy as we often do not like to rewrite our pieces, but you must.

Good luck on this one.