Exercise 5 from What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
Falling in love ran on the front page with screaming headlines and color photos, but it always ended with at least one death written up in the obituary column, a grainy black and white photo of the deceased and a suggestion for contributions in lieu of flowers.
With a description of a person
Lottie was the archetypal grandmother. Gray curls crowned her head softly, a smile played at the corners of her lips, and she was so wide in the middle that you could turn her on her side and she’d occupy the same amount of space as she did standing.
With narrative summary
Children dotted the hillside, looking for plastic eggs that shook with treasures. The girls were propped up on chubby legs, their round knees skimming the hems of dresses painted with flowers. Wide ribbons held back their hair, and eyes that reflected the bright sky hung in their small faces. Sarah was the only little girl with brown hair. It curled, tapping her chin when she turned. She pulled at the smocking that pinched her chest like a sausage’s tight casing. Her basket was heavy with eggs and cumbersome to carry, the wicker scratching her calves. The sun laid down cool rays against the green hillside.
“So what is it that’s making it so hard for you to sleep?” she asked him.
“Well. I wake up. And I lay there and tell myself not to look at the clock because once I look at the clock and see what time it is, I keep thinking about how many hours I have before work, and I think how tired I’ll be if I don’t fall back asleep, and I start to panic, right? My chest gets tight, and I can only take these really shallow breaths. I tell myself to relax, and I try to breathe deeply and all that bu it just doesn’t work. I tell myself that nothing is that bad, nothing isn’t fixable. But I obviously don’t believe it.”
“Maybe you should stop telling yourself things? It sounds like you’re a little,” she pauses and looks at him, “bossy with yourself? What do you think?”
With several characters but no dialogue
David dropped plastic doughnuts on a dowel, and Ali watched him with her towhead cocked to the left. Sam and Charles laid across the train table, circling two different trains on the same track, crashing over each other when their paths crossed. Kari held a hulahoop around her waist and watched Barney on the computer screen. Natalie sat with a broken puzzle in her lap, lifting the pieces one at a time and flipping each one over her left shoulder.
With a setting and only one character
I pushed open the heavy sliding doors. The deck was spongy with morning dew under my feet, and the sun threw itself at my head. Brown bottles covered the glass table and ashtrays erupted with soft piles of powdery ash, stirring in the morning air. Boxes of herbs sat on the deck’s railing. Green parsley grew in fringed bushes and thyme oiled the air with a heavy perfume.
With a reminiscent narrator
The unpleasant smell of lilacs hung in curtains around her memories, and she laid her palm on the christening gown. It was a ridiculous dress, long enough for a seven year old to wear for her first holy communion. Mary folded the gown into six pieces and held it against her chest. She stood by the window, the gown’s silk humming quietly against her breastbone, the wings of her lungs flickering.
With a child narrator
I walked to school with my bookbag hanging from my shoulder, pulling me to the right of the sidewalk strewn with leaves. Hot, oily tears washed my face, and my chest pushed against the coat that was too tight for me when I was so sad.
By establishing point of view
First person: I shifted my weight from left to right on the narrow barstool, leaning forward to catch my elbows on the long bar.
Third person: A sheath of blonde hair swept down her back, motionless even as she tried to settle herself on the barstool.