While reading stories from my students this semester I noticed in many pieces there was a clear tension between two characters, but no other elements of conflict. In our individual conferences, many students expressed a desire for deeper and richer stories beyond the single line of conflict. “It feels like my story is missing something,” one student said.
Both in conferences and in class, I encouraged my students to draw out a third element in their stories—a character, a weather pattern, an object—that bears significance to their stories and pulls at desires of the two characters already on the page. Then the stories have three central elements in conflict, a triangle of tension as one of my own creative writing instructors called it.
While my students understood how adding a third element to their stories would be effective, the question many of them asked was “How can I do this?” In response, I led the class in a guided story exercise of five steps. Each step built on the next to encourage students to pay attention to conflict and to go looking for trouble. After each step, I gave students a few minutes to wander on the page and see where the prompt took them before moving onto the next. I used “you” in each step to encourage students to get in the mindsets of their characters.
First, I asked my students to place themselves or a character in a room.
Where are you?
What are you doing?
Then, I drew their attention to another figure in the room.
There’s another person in the room with you.
What are they doing?
I turned toward dialogue, asking students to listen to their characters.
What do they say to you?
What do you say back?
What are you doing while you’re talking?
I finally asked them to look for another figure in the scene.
You may have already noticed this, or you’re just noticing now, but someone or something else is in the room with you two.
Who or what is it?
What do they say or do?
What do you say and do?
Finally, for the closing of the exercise, I encouraged students to explicitly consider elements of conflict and tension in the scene.
What do you want?
Who and what is in your way?
When students came up for air at the end of the exercise, shaking out their hand cramps, I saw the pages of their notebooks were filled. As a class, we discussed the benefits of the exercise. One student said she’d forgotten to look for a third character when she started writing, so she was grateful for the prompt to pay attention to one. Another student found the open-ended nature of the prompts useful, so that he had authority over where he sent his characters. Yet another student found the closing part of the exercise, the question of what her character wants, to be a powerful question to ask each of her characters to make sure they all had something at stake in the piece.
My students almost unanimously asked for more guided story prompts, with the condition they receive even more time to write than the fifteen minutes I had set aside. I’m eager to develop more of these exercises to support other fiction skills, such as creating turns, developing a clear setting, and tuning ears to dialogue.