This month, Scott Bly has challenged us to use the element of surprise.
I like to keep my readers, my characters, and even myself guessing and surprised by what happens in a story. This is a fun exercise that I like to use that can work as a writing prompt, or as a quick break for writer’s block! Try these steps: 1 – Place a character or characters in a location where they’re comfortable. Tell us a little about them, such as what they like to do for fun. 2 – Give this character a goal that’s perhaps totally unrelated to what you’ve created so far. Tell us about that goal. Now the fun part! 3 – Have something unexpected and completely different from steps one or two happen – suddenly, if at all possible. Surprise your character, and don’t second guess yourself! Now… what if that unexpected development is the first step on an unlikely path toward that goal?
Here’s an example:
Kate the Baker sat in her tiny living room by the fireplace, sipping cocoa and listening to Petunia purr in her lap as she stroked the cat’s fluffy belly. Kate wondered how much longer the snowstorm outside could last. With weather this bad there was no point opening her bakery tomorrow – no one would come. And with no customers again tomorrow, she felt further than ever from being able to get her ticket to the moon. It’d been three years and she had no more money saved up than when she’d started. It was just outside the window above the clouds, but she could no easier fly there on the rocket liners than she could walk there.
The sound of breaking glass launched Petunia from her lap with a yelp, and a blast of cold air made the hair on her neck stand up as she leaped up from the chair. A baseball rolled across the floor and bumped into her foot.
“What in the name of…” Kate said with a gasp, picking up the ball. She looked out the window through the broken pane of glass and there in the pale glow of the streetlight stood none other than Dante Wherewithal, holding a baseball bat over one shoulder. Except for on TV, Kate hadn’t seen Dante since they were both children. Dante swung the baseball bat down from his shoulder and pointed the tip of it right at her from across the tiny yard. And before Kate could say a word, Dante dropped the baseball bat in the snow and took off running, leaving a trail of glowing red dust the fell from the backpack that bounced as he ran.
Kate cocked her head and stared out the window. Petunia stood on the back of the chair looking out the window as well. The little cat’s head was cocked at precisely the same angle as Kate’s.
“What the heck was that all about?” the cat asked, looking up at Kate.
“I have no idea, girl,” Kate said, staring out at the glowing red line that wavered away into the darkness.
My little exercise has introduced a string of unexpected turns of event in just a few paragraphs. From the moon to the baseball to whoever Dante is, to the red dust, to the cat talking at the end – this story could go a hundred different directions, and maybe Kate will get to the moon after it all plays out. But first, shouldn’t she and Petunia follow the glowing red trail?
Aim for between 350 and 1000 words. Submit your response by emailing email@example.com. You might be published on our website!
An Interview with Scott Bly
Tell us a little about your book, Smasher. What is it about?
Smasher is a Middle Grade Sci-fi Fantasy adventure about computers, magic, and time travel! Charlie is a boy from the distant past who has to save the world of the future from a powerful villain with the help of time-travelling robotic girl and a very special puppy.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. In college I wrote and produced short films and plays, then wrote a couple of feature film scripts that never got produced. I took a long break from writing fiction, and instead wrote songs and played music in bands for a number of years before the opportunity to write Smasher came along.
How did the opportunity to write and publish Smasher come about?
It’s a pretty unusual story, actually. As I mentioned, I hadn’t been writing for quite some time. I was playing music and working as a computer consultant, helping people with technology problems. I got a call from someone one day who needed help to save her computer from a virus that had taken over her machine. When I arrived to help she was in a complete panic, and I helped to calm her down. When I got the virus taken care of and made sure that all of her data was safe, she shared with me that she was a book editor and that I’d just saved one of her big-name novelist’s work from certain doom.
She asked me how she could have gotten a virus if she had a firewall. My answers to her questions led her to say to me — I’ll never forget this…
“In twenty years of unsuccessfully trying to use a computer, you’re the first person who could ever explain this stuff to me in a way I can understand. Have you ever thought about writing a children’s book?”
Well, that lady’s name was Bonnie Verburg, a Vice-President at Scholastic with her own imprint – The Blue Sky Press. We talked about what kind of book might be interesting that could get kids interested in computers and technology, and the story that grew from that initial conversation became Smasher.
Smasher is exciting and fast-paced. What advice do you have for writers who want to keep their readers on the edge of their seats like you do?
Thanks so much for that. I think the main thing is never make things easy for your characters. Every chance you get, raise the stakes – make things harder for them. In the example above, with Kate the Baker, if she and Petunia go outside in the snow to follow the glowing red trail, have them get chased by a dog that wants to eat Petunia, and when they get to a fence to escape, the dog gets one of Kate’s boots and she has to leave it behind. So now she’s in the snow with only one shoe. And then maybe some people show up who are looking for Dante and because Kate is following the red trail, they think she’s with Dante. Maybe they don’t believe her and they take Petunia.
If you’re always making things worse for them, you create more and more tension and your readers will want to know how the characters can get out of the situation. A ticking clock is another great technique. For Kate, maybe the last rocket liner to the moon takes off in ten days and this is her last chance. It can be anything, just make it difficult, and the situation will give your characters the motivation to solve their own problems.
If you could tell your younger writing-self something, what would it be?
Keep at it.
People ask me sometimes, “What should I do if I want to be a writer?” The answer is slap-your-forehead-obvious.
Writers write. People who want to write sometimes stay that way… wanting to write. Putting black marks on white paper or on a white screen is the process, and practice makes perfect. I followed a very unusual path, but I was always creating. It’s very easy to stay sidetracked with schoolwork or a job or friends and to allow the practice of writing to fall to the side. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But I believe the important thing is to always come back to it and write. Whether it’s a novel or a screenplay or a page in a journal – keep putting black marks on the paper and the words will keep getting better over time.
I wish I’d wasted less time goofing off over the years and spent more time creating.
Young Author's Studio: Design a Picture Book
Come artists and writers alike! In this writing and art-making workshop, you’ll play to your strengths, be those strengths visual art, storytelling, or both. We’ll create and refine a picture book text, design a book dummy, experiment with illustration style, and complete at least two finished spreads. You’ll walk away with all you need to take your book to completion!
This Zoom workshop in partnership with Stone Soup runs July 20-23 from 9 – 11 am (PST).
A special thanks to Scott Bly for sharing with us! You can find his book at his favorite book store, Skylight Books.
Scott Bly has been a computer consultant in Los Angeles for over a decade. He has also developed and taught computer classes for elementary and middle school-aged children. Scott has collaborated and worked with a wide variety of computer specialists, from hackers to designers, software developers to FBI Consultants. Scott’s debut YA novel, SMASHER, a fast-paced computer thriller.