Behind closed doors: Prague writing workshop for April 12

He-e-e-e-res Johnny!

Someday, our kids will ask what ink was.

Literati

As most of you know, I am now residing in Prague, and have been asked to run workshops for InterNations.org.  We will meet Thursday, April 12 at 7:00 pm.

Italská 2 Prague 2, Vinohrady. It is located in front of the Costa Coffee in Namesti Miru.

Doorbell is Natura

I thought I would share one of the classes with those of you on the left side of the pond.

This is the third of six sessions I will be hosting here.  Your comments on what more I could add are appreciated.  This is a bit lengthy, and if some of this seems very basic to our field of regular visitors, bear in mind that not all the people who attend my workshops have your experience, or are even native English speakers.

Discussion for our April 12 writing group

At our last session, I asked everyone to write a brief story using the prompt:

The key broke off in the lock. He/she had to break through the door.

I would like your story, if possible, to use expansive language (referred to on our group message board) and metaphor, but it is not an absolute requirement.  Just write whatever your muse directs you to do.

A metaphor (metamorphosis—transference) attaches the values and understood meaning of one thing to another. An example: He was a tiger in the courtroom, but a kitten in her arms.  It is a more colorful way of stating that even though he was aggressive in court, he was gentle or harmless in her arms.

An action can also be metaphorical, as is the prompt to which you are writing.

Our prompt could be a metaphor for determination: resistance overcome by will-power. It could also be viewed as a metaphor for assault or rape. It is an ambiguous prompt, which allows for your own interpretation.

Only fair that I myself write something to this prompt, and use it to demonstrate several literary principles. Comments are in parenthesis.

Here we go:

 

“No. No fucking way.”

 

(You risk alienating some of your readers if you start with profanity. If you avoid starting off with profanity, the trade-off is the loss of perceived authenticity of dialog, but in my opinion it is better to wait until you have established a rapport with your readers and they like you before you use crass language. AND harsh language that is not standard profanity can also be authentic, dependent upon the character in your story.  Remember, once you have reached for words like “mother-fucker” you have nowhere left to go. Use profanity sparingly for the best effect. If I were to follow my advice, I would have saved discussion that included profanities after I had gained your confidence by discussing less controversial elements of style. Was it awkward for you to read that first?  Did you feel at all uncomfortable or put off by the language?

I also started my story with dialog.  Right in the middle of a story, as opposed to setting the scene first).  And I do not start ad ovum—from the egg, which would have looked something like the man enters the hallway and tries the lock and then breaks down the door).

 

“Just open the goddamn door.”

 

(Drama and conflict already established with an action and resistance.  Do not use exclamation marks if the dialog itself is exclamatory.  The reader does not need that clue if the dialog is strong).

 

Rachel gathered the evidence and stumbled to the bathroom to the beat of a man’s heavy fist on a heavy door, pounding to the War of 1812.

 

(Notice first the repetition of “heavy fist/heavy door.”  Do you think it sounds stronger than “heavy fist on the door?”  Don’t identify what the evidence is: allow your reader to the pleasure of speculating.

The sound of the woman/girl’s name is harsh. The story is harsh. Rachel. A name like Emily flows too easily and is too soft. Stumbling instead of going or headed to the bathroom implies urgency. We have established now this is man-woman scene. Alluding to War of 1812 accomplishes two things: there is an implication of violence or war but it also controls pace, slowing it down to allow the reader to visualize the scene. The sentence would be ruined if you somehow tried to inform your reader that the War of 1812 refers to music. Unless you are writing to a young audience, your readers will instantly hear the percussion. Give your readers credit. This would be weakened and even a little insulting to the reader’s intelligence if the sentence read: …the War of 1812, Tchaikovsky’s symphony complete with the sound of cannons).

 

He fumbled for the key and thrust it into the lock.

 

(Fumbling indicates he is not in control. Thrusting it into the lock indicates sexual violence).

 

He heard the toilet flush, and twisted the key. “Dammit. Just open the door.  I won’t hurt you.”

 

(Turning the key has no emotional weight. Twisting the key is more aggressive and this is shaping up to be an aggressive story. You turn the pages of a book; you twist a knife in someone’s back. By the way, this story is an example of a story created by a premise rather than a plot outline. I had no idea where this story would go. I still don’t; I only had the premise of the prompt.

His saying “I won’t hurt you” indicates further the potential for violence and the woman’s anticipation of it).

 

Rachel jammed her legs into her jeans and slid her t-shirt over her bare shoulders. She tripped over her boots as she staggered to the window. For a moment, her father stopped beating on the door.

 

(Ok. A direction for the story is given.  It is not the police or a jealous lover or a landlord after rent or a pimp or a drug dealer. It is her father.

The urgency is amplified and we are getting clues for what may have happened. Why should I tell you what those possibilities are? Offer to let your reader speculate. I still have not decided myself what happened or will happen. I prefer to let Rachel tell you when she is ready.  Jeans and t-shirt indicate the generation to which she belongs—no elegant or formal dress.  Also, your choice of verbs getting her over to the window allows endless possibilities for you as a creative writer, as each verb has different implications: staggered/rushed/tip-toed/slinked/crawled/bolted to/ etc.).

 

Once more he demanded entry, and once more he was refused. Once more he twisted the key, which conspired against him and broke off in the lock.

 

(Here I am slowing down the action.  A little foreplay is always appreciated! I am also giving human characteristics to an inanimate object, the key. This is called anthropomorphism. Add it as a tool in your work belt.  Notice also repetition of a phrase as in a previous paragraph. “Thrice times I offered him a kingly crown which he did thrice times refuse.” [another example of the writer-me—giving the reader credit for recognizing Marc Anthony’s eulogy to Caesar.  People who by choice will read your book will know this]. Repetition of sounds or phrases can be very powerful and reinforcing).

 

Rachel could see Raul disappear down Kleine Mantelgasse under the amber of a street lamp. She closed the window as the room reverberated like the inside of drum, as a shoulder loaded with 120 kilos of rage assaulted and splintered the door. He had to break through the door, as any father would.

 

(A prompt does not necessarily have to launch your story. Here it is actually split in two parts.  It is important for all stories to quickly establish time and place. Rather than saying “this takes place on a ground floor apartment in Germany,” that is established by a German street name, and by Raul’s escape—not likely if this was four flights up. [ask me what info-dump means when we meet. An example of an info-dump would be telling your reader that the speaker is a lawyer as opposed to having him speak legalize and dispense legal advice]. We now know it is a ground-floor apartment and it is in the evening. We are also allowing that the “villain” may have better motives than we originally thought. Making him a complex character instead of a generic bad guy. Using the name “Raul” is intentional, because it sounds foreign in the context of the story being set in Germany, opening up the possibility of conflicts and tensions later in the story.  And why is she closing the window?).

 

So now we are assuming that Rachel’s lover had just made an escape. But are we sure?  Maybe he was her drug dealer and she traded sex for drugs. Maybe it was a gay friend who came to visit while Rachel had been sleeping naked on the bed and Rachel fears her father’s homophobia?  Still endless possibilities.  How would you finish this short scene?

 

We also get a partial description of the father. 120 kilos and strong. Use similes  sparingly: like inside of a drum).

 

His daughter pressed her shoulders to the wall furthest away from him, bracing herself.  After a moment without a word passing between them, he sat on the bed and began to rub his shoulder.

 

(The potential for violence subsides. In the larger sense, if this were a novel, the approach to the door was the beginning and breaking down the door was the climax. What happens now is a cooling off, a denouement).

 

She eased away from the wall and sat beside him. “You hurt yourself,” she said.

“Yes.”

She kissed his cheek.

“You hurt yourself,” he said.

She looked through the open door to the toilet before she answered.

“Yes.”

 

(So now the reader can infer that what was flushed down the toilet was not a condom or a pink pregnancy strip, but drugs.  It is important not to reveal more than you have to so that the reader can be an active participant in your story and not just a passive witness).

Here is the full story, uninterrupted by comments:

 

“No. No fucking way.”

“Just open the goddamn door.”

Rachel gathered the evidence and stumbled to the bathroom to the beat of a man’s heavy fist on a heavy door, pounding to the War of 1812.

He fumbled for the key and thrust it into the lock. He heard the toilet flush, and twisted the key. “Dammit. Just open the door.  I won’t hurt you.”

Rachel jammed her legs into her jeans and slid her t-shirt over her bare shoulders. She tripped over her boots as she staggered to the window. For a moment, her father stopped beating on the door. Once more he demanded entry, and once more he was refused. Once more he twisted the key, which conspired against him and broke off in the lock.

Rachel could see Raul disappear down Kleine Mantelgasse under the amber of a street lamp. She closed the window as the room reverberated like the inside of drum, as a shoulder loaded with 120 kilos of rage assaulted and splintered the door. He had to break through the door, as any father would.

His daughter pressed her shoulders to the wall furthest away from him, bracing herself.  After a moment without a word passing between them, he sat on the bed and began to rub his shoulder.

She eased away from the wall and sat beside him. “You hurt yourself,” she said.

“Yes.”

She kissed his cheek.

“You hurt yourself,” he said.

She looked through the open door to the toilet before she answered.

“Yes.”

xxx

Hope this helps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 comments

  1. Avatar
    Laura G says:

    Great idea to share these prompts so that contest entrants can learn from your workshops (although we wish we could come to Europe to enjoy the workshops there)! Excellent use of examples for each skill you’re teaching. And your humor makes the lesson fun!

  2. Avatar
    Kristine Starr says:

    This was an excellent breakdown of the steps and reasoning behind a well-structured story. This was marvelous…thanks for posting it!

Comments are closed.