Saturday Special That’s Not Actually from the Vaults: The Seven-Sentence Story

I’m conducting a workshop this afternoon on writing science fiction and fantasy, in my role as writer-in-residence (for just one more month!) at the Regina Public Library.

Now, it’s easy to just talk for an hour and a half about writing, but I want people to actually do some writing: and to that end, I’m going to make us of an exercise that SF author and high-school teacher Jim van Pelt came up with, The Seven-Sentence Story.

Since I want to make sure everyone writes SF or fantasy, I’ve made one alteration to his rules, insisting that the first sentence establish the fantastical nature of the piece.

Here’s how it works:

The seven-sentence story

1. Introduce what the main character wants and the first action he/she takes to accomplish that goal; establish it’s a science fiction or fantasy story with some fantastical element.

2. The results of the action the charact takes in sentence #1 has to make the situation worse. The character should be farther from the goal now.

3. Based on the new situation, the character takes a second action to accomplish the goal.

4. The results of the second action the character takes from sentence #3 is to make the situation worse. The character should be even farther from the goal now.

5. Based on the new situation, the character takes a third and final action to accomplish the goal.

6. The third action either accomplishes the character’s goal, fails to accomplish the goal, or there is an unusual but oddly satisfying different result of the last action.

7. The denouement. This sentence wraps up the story. It could tell the reader how the character felt about the results, or provide a moral, or tell how the character’s life continued on.

Now, I’m a strong believer in the notion that if you’re going to ask students to do something, you should be willing (and able) to do it yourself. So I wrote my own seven-sentence story. This took me about 15 or 20 minutes, start to finish, including one pass at revision.

My attempt:

1. Anethor, strapped to the belly of the great dragon, stared down at the pointed tops of the spindly towers of the great city of Karrnikk, saw the wizard on his balcony right where the bribed servant had told him he would, drew his sword, and pulled the quick-release buckle on the straps…

2. …or what was supposed to be the quick-release buckle: the mechanism only released the strap holding his upper body to the beast, not the one holding his legs, so that instead of falling free, ready to spread his mechanical wings and glide down to the attack, his torso fell with a jerk that threatened to snap his spine—and he dropped his sword.

3. The blade fell, twisting and spinning, the red light of the setting sun flashing off of it with every turn, while Anethor, swearing, hanging like a cased ham from the oblivious dragon’s stomach, drew his dagger, jackknifed himself up, and slashed through the remaining strap.

4. Now at last he fell free—but that suddenly seemed far from a blessing, as he pulled the cord to release his wings, only to have the cord come free in his hand and the wings remain neatly tucked away in their leather backpack.

5. Undone by what could only have been sabotage, he looked down at the pointed towers hurtling toward him and had no other choice but scream his teacher’s name: “Taaaaaannnnniiiiissssss!”

6. Instantly his plunge toward destruction halted and, light as a feather on the breeze, he wafted down to the wizard’s balcony, landing upright with no more impact than if he had stepped off the curb, finding himself face to face with the Wizard Tanis, who smiled slightly and inclined his head.

7. “A valiant attempt,” said the old man (which, Anethor thought, was some consolation, since as Master of the Apprentices to the Assassin’s Guild, Tanis had seen a thousand attempts by students trying to get close enough to kill him without him being aware of it), “but you forgot one very important rule,” and here Tanis’s smile widened, as he looked up at the winged beast circling overhead, showing its fangs in a toothy grin: “Never trust a dragon with a secret.”

I look forward to seeing what the students come up with!

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  1. Ha! That’s a fun seven-sentence story. Great example! I came up with the exercise for Creative Writing class, but I’ve used practically the same variation you put in when I have my Science Fiction class start writing their stories.

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