Here’s a writing challenge for you to try to test out your skills! Taken from a short story-writing guest lecture on Brandon Sanderson’s master class on writing science fiction and fantasy, from Hugo award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal, this will not only challenge you to understand how to engage audiences quickly, it will help you say more with less words. In the lesson, Mary Robinette challenges aspiring authors to write three sentences that tell readers exactly what kind of experience they’re in for by picking up your book. Can you rise to the challenge?
3 Elements of the Writing Challenge
Whether you are writing a short story or a longer piece of literature, this writing challenge will help hone your storytelling skills by giving readers exactly what they need to know about your story as quickly and efficiently as possible. So, in order to participate in this writing challenge, you will need to include the who, the where and a genre-specific detail of your story. The order of how you want to include these elements is entirely up to you!
Writing Challenge Element 1: The Who
The first element of the writing challenge for you to include is the who, or the character whose perspective the reader will follow. The best way to include the who is to give a brief description of who they are and what they are doing right at that moment. Character introductions are so important, and with only three sentences to describe the character in this challenge, you will want to be as precise as possible.
First, who are they? If the character is a rough and rowdy cowboy in the Wild West, then try and include two specific adjectives about them – one that describes what they are, and one that describes who they are, in order to give a glimpse into their personality. So, for instance, you could say “Jed Smith, the over-confident ranch hand” to describe who and what this character that we will be following is.
Next, include an action that not only helps to tell the story about the character we will be following, but helps understand their motives. For instance, you could say “Jed Smith, the over-confident ranch hand restrained Big Elmer, the largest pig on the land, tying its feet together with a powerful yank.”
By doing this, we now know who this character is, and we’ve given many other clues about this story.
Writing Challenge Element 2: The Where
The second part of the writing challenge that you must include is the where, or the setting that this part of the story takes place, so that we as readers can immediately get on board with where this part of the story is happening. It sounds easy to do, but it will require some thought on your part to make this element exciting.
We need a sensory detail in order to get the most bang for our buck. We could simply say “in the hills of Montana, on a farm”, but that does not necessarily give the audience much to engage them. You’re telling them where this is taking place, when you should be thrusting them face-first into the setting as quickly and efficiently as you can.
Why not try something like “The cold spring wind spread the ripe aromas of cattle pens that desperately needed cleaned on the partially-melted snow-covered McGinty farm in the hills of Montana.” The more you describe with senses the place where the story is taking place, the more you can help them jump right in.
Writing Challenge Element 3: Genre-Specific Detail
The third element of this writing challenge is the genre-specific detail. You can include this as part of the descriptions of the character and the setting, but you need to make sure it’s specific and it’s unique to your story. It doesn’t need to be its own sentence, and could easily be part of the descriptions of the who and the where, but that’s entirely up to you.
You probably already know what genre the story you’re telling, but your reader doesn’t automatically get to know that information unless you give them something to go on. If this is going to be a romance story, then you will probably want to introduce some key indicator of that right away. “As he drew the rope into a knot, he wiped his brow and shot a glance over to the clothesline to see if Sally McGinty had seen his display of masculinity.”
Likewise, you can adjust the sentences describing the who and the where if you want to include the genre-specific detail there instead. For the sake of this example, let’s say that the story is now a horror story and we want to give some glimpses of how the world is not what it seems without giving away the big scary details we plan to do later in the book. Let’s change the sentence about the where we established earlier.
How about this? “The unforgiving early spring wind spread the stench from the carcass pit into the otherwise serene McGinty farm, a stark reminder that death underscores all new life.” Pretty specific, right? Just by reading this, you should have a good idea of what genre you are dealing with. No matter what genre you pick, your specific detail should give the readers a big clue about what it is.
Go Forth and Write!
You should have everything you need at this point to get started! I’m eager to read any examples, if you care to share. Otherwise, if you want more details on how best to write this, I recommend you watch the video in its entirety – there is so much to learn from Mary Robinette Kowal on how to write a good story, and I highly recommend watching it.