I recently reread the Stephen King book On Writing. It’s neat because it’s part memoir and part no-bullshit writing guide. In it, he gives only one exercise. It is a writing prompt where he details a situation he’d like you to use with a twist. I’m going to paste his exact prompt here and then follow it with my attempt at doing the exercise. This was so much fun! This is an adult only post 🙂 Here is his prompt (it’s quite long):
[..] I am going to show you the location of a fossil. Your job is to write five or six pages of unplotted narration concerning this fossil. Put another way, I want you to dig for the bones and see what they look like. I think you may be quite surprised and delighted with the results. Ready? Here we go.
Everyone is familiar with the basic details of the following story; with small variations, it seems to pop up in the Police Beat section of metropolitan daily papers every other week or so. A woman—call her Jane—marries a man who is bright, witty, and pulsing with sexual magnetism. We’ll call the guy Dick; it’s the world’s most Freudian name. Unfortunately, Dick has a dark side. He’s short-tempered, a control freak, perhaps even (you’ll find this out as he speaks and acts) a paranoid. Jane tries mightily to overlook Dick’s faults and make the marriage work (why she tries so hard is something you will also find out; she will come onstage and tell you). They have a child, and for awhile things seem better. Then, when the little girl is three or so, the abuse and the jealous tirades begin again. The abuse is verbal at first, then physical. Dick is convinced that Jane is sleeping with someone, perhaps someone from her job. Is it someone specific? I don’t know and don’t care. Eventually Dick may tell you who he suspects. If he does, we’ll both know, won’t we?
At last poor Jane can’t take it anymore. She divorces the schmuck and gets custody of their daughter, Little Nell. Dick begins to stalk her. Jane responds by getting a restraining order, a document about as useful as a parasol in a hurricane, as many abused women will tell you. Finally, after an incident which you will write in vivid and scary detail—a public beating, perhaps—Richard the Schmuck is arrested and jailed. All of this is back story. How you work it in—and how much of it you work in—is up to you. In any case, it’s not the situation. What follows is the situation.
One day shortly after Dick’s incarceration in the city jail, Jane picks up Little Nell at the daycare center and ferries her to a friend’s house for a birthday party. Jane then takes herself home, looking forward to two or three hours’ unaccustomed peace and quiet. Perhaps, she thinks, I’ll take a nap. It’s a house she’s going to, even though she’s a young working woman—the situation sort of demands it. How she came by this house and why she has the afternoon off are things the story will tell you and which will look neatly plotted if you come up with good reasons (perhaps the house belongs to her parents; perhaps she’s house-sitting; perhaps another thing entirely).
Something pings at her, just below the level of consciousness, as she lets herself in, something that makes her uneasy. She can’t isolate it and tells herself it’s just nerves, a little fallout from her five years of hell with Mr. Congeniality. What else could it be? Dick is under lock and key, after all.
Before taking her nap, Jane decides to have a cup of herbal tea and watch the news. (Can you use that pot of boiling water on the stove later on? Perhaps, perhaps.) The lead item on Action News at Three is a shocker: that morning, three men escaped from the city jail, killing a guard in the process. Two of the three bad guys were recaptured almost at once, but the third is still at large. None of the prisoners are identified by name (not in this newscast, at least), but Jane, sitting in her empty house (which you will now have plausibly explained), knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that one of them was Dick. She knows because she has finally identified that ping of unease she felt in the foyer. It was the smell, faint and fading, of Vitalis hair-tonic. Dick’s hair-tonic. Jane sits in her chair, her muscles lax with fright, unable to get up. And as she hears Dick’s footfalls begin to descend the stairs, she thinks: Only Dick would make sure he had hair-tonic, even in jail. She must get up, must run, but she can’t move . . .
It’s a pretty good story, yes? I think so, but not exactly unique. As I’ve already pointed out, ESTRANGED HUBBY BEATS UP (or MURDERS) EX-WIFE makes the paper every other week, sad but true. What I want you to do in this exercise is change the sexes of the antagonist and protagonist before beginning to work out the situation in your narrative—make the ex-wife the stalker, in other words (perhaps it’s a mental institution she’s escaped from instead of the city jail), the husband the victim.
Narrate this without plotting—let the situation and that one unexpected inversion carry you along. I predict you will succeed swimmingly . . . if, that is, you are honest about how your characters speak and behave.
This is what I came up with:
It was that Rite Aid Design Imposters brand fake Chanel. You always thought it made the stale Camel scent incognito. It didn’t. Now that I smell you, I’m not uneasy. I’ve got a fucking hard on. Goddammit. I go outside. I stand under the eaves to avoid the misty rain. I toe a pebble with my dirty Nikes. I light a Camel, inhale, feel the throat hit. I think you know that I know that you’re here.
I want to turn around and look back up at the bedroom window. I’m sure the curtain would fall back into place if I did. This stupid game of suspense, cat and mouse, this is what used to make it so much fun. Now I see how pathetic it is. If I could just stop the visceral reaction from the damn fake Chanel. I take a last drag, turn, flick the cigarette into the wet yard and don’t glance up as I open the door. You’re on my back before I’m even all the way into the house. You’re as light as I remember. Your legs are wrapped tightly around my waist.
“Dick.” You breathe into my ear. I force myself to be slack. I don’t touch your squeezing thighs. I cock my head so that my face is angled away from you. You take it as an invitation. You bite my earlobe. A flick of your tongue into the ear. I feel my resolve going. How easy. How much easier it would be to turn and take you into my arms. My mouth. “I missed you baby,” you say. You put your hands on my throat. I think of Nell. The steel in my veins from that day you got arrested comes back.
“You need to get down,” I say quietly. Of course you act like you don’t hear me. You moan in my ear. You reach a hand around to my belt. I pull your arms off of me. I use force but not excessively. You claw at me.
“Jane.” I say it softly which stops you. I push you further away and turn to face you. Being in jail has given you some flesh back. Your face is not as gaunt, almost beautiful even. Your mouth is bleeding. There is a smear of bright red on your bottom lip at the corner of your mouth. I don’t know what it could be from, we haven’t tussled really. Though it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve intentionally done something to yourself. The last time (with me at least) was the day you were arrested. The day you almost killed our daughter. The thought propels me. I shove my hands into my pockets. I back away from you.
Your dark roots are showing in your platinum hair. You’ve had a haircut in jail. It suits you. Shows off the cheekbones that are starting to soften and lose their angularity. I realize my mistake. You’ve seen me checking you out. You touch your hair. I feel my cell phone in my pocket. Swivel it so my finger is on the home button.
“Do you like my haircut?” You say it in your old Jane voice. The one you used to tell me I was the only man you’d ever need. The one that deceives.
“Why are you here?” I say, half wanting the answer to be what it shouldn’t, half stalling for time. Your eyes fill. Your tongue darts momentarily to the blood on your lip and I wonder if your blood is on my ear.
“I miss you Dick,” you whisper. Whisper! When you’re calm and sweet and watery eyed it’s hard to remember all the times you were raving and dangerous and high. I wonder if you’re high now. I know you aren’t. Your amber eyes are too focused. Alive. You are Jane number one right now. Old Jane. The one who didn’t use your body to keep me prisoner. The one without pills or rages or lies. The smarter Jane. The ultimately more dangerous Jane. You’ve got the bloody lip and the huge, contrite, teary eyes and now you cover your face with your hands. You fall to your knees and a soft cry escapes. Is it pushed out?
“I need help,” you say so quietly I’m not sure you’ve said it at all. I release my grip on my cell phone in my pocket. I watch you crying and feel nothing. Not for you at least. Sad for Nell. I pull the cell phone out.
“I’m gonna get you help,” I say. I dial 911. You don’t stop me. I speak to the operator. Give the address. Confirm your name. I hang up. You are quiet on the floor. I reach my hand out. You don’t see me offering it to you.
You look up. Your face is wet. Puffy. Swollen. You take my hand. I pull you up. That bright red smear is still on your lip. I want to wipe it off. You have my finger in your hand. You draw it up to your lip. You rub at the blood with my finger. It’s so red! I get a whiff of the fake Chanel again. You put my finger in your mouth. I whimper.