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Vignette: A Writing Exercise

August 17, 2009

Type-writer GirlYesterday Paul talked about plotting vs winging it in his enlightening series of blog posts on approaching the blank page. Here is a writing exercise which I believe appeals to both categories of writers – and all the subtle variations in between. And it is a good place to start (not wanting to cut in on Paul’s territory!) for new and seasoned writers.

This writing exercise comes compliments of last Thursday’s critiquing class at the Queensland Writers Centre. Our tutor Kate Eltham borrowed it from Simon Higgins who also borrowed it (but sadly I didn’t scribble that authors name in my notes.) For the plotters you have a set guideline of how this vignette is produced and for the pantsers you don’t get time to sit and plot, only to sit and write.

While I tried hard between my mobile phone and a MP3 voice recorder to record and upload an audio file of this exercise – I have to admit to lacking the technical prowess of Paul to pull it off. So instead – I offer you a written version and hope you can control yourself from reading through all the prompts before writing.

Pens/fingers at a ready!

The premise is: to write a scene where two family members who have been estranged, come together for the first time. The scene is built on ten prompts.You should write just one sentence for each prompt. The entire exercise takes between five and ten minutes to complete depending on whether you write or type.

Here goes:

1. Describe the weather

2. Describe a sound

3. Describe an object

4. Update the weather

5. Describe a piece of clothing or an accessory

6. Update the sound.

7. Using the object describe in the third prompt, write something about the mood of the scene

8. Describe an action or a movement using the article of clothing or accessory

9. Describe a physical trait of one of the characters.

10. End with a single line of dialogue.

Post a link to your vignette in the comments box, along with any insights you gained or reflections on the process. You can read my original one from class or my [Fiction] Friday entry for last week A Lovers Tryst.

What I discovered through this exercise was a writer’s capacity to say a lot in ten short sentences. I also found it fascinating to look beyond the centre of action, to explore how extraneous elements of a scene also convey the narrative. Not to mention just how powerful one line of dialogue can be.

Of course the premise doesn’t have to just centre on the scenario of two estranged family members coming together. There are any endless possibilities within the human experience which could be explored in this structure.

It is the dark moon lunar phase until Thursday this week.  Here are 10 tips on how to use the cleaning and decluttering energy as a writer.

Jodi Cleghorn is closely following the fun and friction of Fourth Fiction as both a reader and guest participant. You can now read the opening sentence of her novella. Alternatively you can follow Jodi’s Tweets @jodicleghorn or her expanding blog Writing in Black and White.
  1. August 18, 2009 2:32 pm

    Here’s my take:

    The warm summer air provided the perfect setting for their first meeting in six years.

    He listen to his sister’s shrill voice with his hands wrap around a hot cup of black coffee.

    The flowers in the cheap white vase drool down to the white table, distracting her from saying what she really wanted to say.

    As the sun starts to set, long shadows appear across the cafe walls behind where he is sitting.

    He try to ignore the owl brooch with its large black bead eyes staring back at him from her periwinkle sweater.

    She lower her voice a bit recalling how her brother used to mock her with a voice that sounds exactly like hers.

    Like it always is whenever she tries to be serious with him, she feels the gloom settling but today feels a bit different.

    After a few sips of her coffee, she takes off her sweater and drapes it over her chair, hiding the owl behind her shoulders.

    Her bare arms reveal the curvy scars that caused the rift between them.

    “I wished I was a better brother,” he said to her as she spoons sugar cubes into a fresh cup of coffee.

    – Writing one sentence is really revealing but I think I was using too much, he does this, she does that wording, still I find it really does help me remove some clutter that I always seem to insert into my writing. This is a great exercise, thanks.

  2. August 18, 2009 9:17 pm

    Lissa this is wonderful – I loved the ending with the revealing of the scars on her arms and his lament of not being a better brother. Makes you wonder just what happened to her and what he may have been able to do to stop it. The owl brooch was a nice touch too – with the penetrating eyes.

    Going back for a second read reveals a lot also. Thanks for having a go and I’m glad it showed a way through some of the clutter.

  3. Daniel permalink
    August 18, 2009 10:16 pm

    Here’s my attempt. I did cheat slighty and built the mood using the accessory described in number five, rather than number three. Sorry, I should learn to read before learning to write maybe.

    1. In the latter days of a ferocious winter, the sun dropped earthwards, having on this day pulled clear of its sluggish trajectory casting a few meek rays on the redoubtable snow and frost of the mountain glade.
    2. The emerging thaw sent sheets of ice crashing from the roof of the solitary log cabin. Icicles dripped from the eaves immersing the dwelling in a cheerful crystalline symphony.
    3. The moon, pallid and senseless, had risen above the pines and lodged in the tiny window, gaping on the meagre possessions within.
    4. Night fell; a blustery wind picked up. A handful of tiny snowflakes began to settle on the window pane.
    5. The old man, shuffling around the corner of the cabin, took an earthenware pot, filled a kettle and placed it on an old but lovingly maintained stove.
    6. Without the sun’s guardianship, the thaw lost its momentum. The scraping of ice and the water drops came to a steady halt. All that was heard was the wind’s dirge through the pine grove.
    7. The kettle hissed and sputtered and finally let loose a low moan rising to a hysterical shriek as steam filled the cabin.
    8. The old man feebly stood and with the aid of his knobbled walking stick was making his way over to the stove when loose snow issued down the chimney extinguishing the stove’s flames and silencing the wails of the kettle.
    9. The old man’s sentences often trailed into a rasping chesty cough. This was exacerbated when he laughed – which was seldom – and lent a bitter note to his ire; his sardonic cackle collapsing into a rattling harshness.
    10. “You always were a careless brute! Now your pall-bearers shall have to shovel us out of here. Hey!”

  4. August 19, 2009 8:54 am

    Thanks Jodi, I find it’s easier to write in this way. I may just turn this into a longer story. Thanks.

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