At When Words Collide in Calgary this summer I once again conducted a Seven-Sentence Short Story workshop, and had more people in it than ever before–30 or so, I’d guesstimate. This is a plotting exercise created by SF writer/high school teacher James Van Pelt, and it works great in this setting.
Below is my story written during that exercise, with each sentence prefaced with the corresponding instruction.
1. Introduce what the main character wants and the first action he/she takes to accomplish that goal.
Stanislaw crawled through the stinking mud of the escape tunnel on his hands and knees, screams chasing him through the darkness, the dim blue light that promised freedom glowing in the distance, seemingly just out of reach but drawing closer with agonizing slowness.
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.
Breathing hard, he reached toward the light, jerking his questing fingers back to his side as he felt the brush of a wire against them, but not quickly enough to keep from triggering the land mine that swallowed that faint blue light in smoke and flame, the shockwave a moment later hammering him into the mud with an ear-splitting roar and blast of hot air and steam.
3. Based on the new situation, the character takes a second action to accomplish the goal.
He spat filth from his mouth and then, jaw set, began backing up: he had no choice now but to take the other branch of the tunnel, the one he’d been warned to avoid—however dangerous it might be, he knew it led out, and returning to the camp would net him nothing but an agonizing death in the torture chamber.
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.
Then he saw the deep green glow ahead of him that could only mean this path led to the lair of Chall, the poison-spitting devil’s worm whose nightly patrols had worn a deep groove in the ground just outside the camp’s stone walls, and he wondered if death in the torture chamber might actually be preferable to what might await him here.
5. Based on the new situation, the character takes a third and final action to accomplish the goal.
But there could be no turning back, and it wasn’t like Stanislaw was completely helpless: he pulled from his belt the obsidian knife he had laboriously chipped in secret night after night in his cell, the blade that had conjured the screams of the crippled guards that had followed him down the escape tunnel, and holding it thrust out before him, crawled out of the tunnel and into the devil-worm’s lair.
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.
He hardly believed his luck: the devil-worm slept, stretched out like a cat on its back, its soft belly exposed, and he gathered his legs beneath him, leaped forward, and drove the blade into the soft flesh.
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.
But as the flesh parted, and sucked him in, and his vision changed, and his legs and guts twisted, and the blade became claws, and his teeth became fangs, he realized that the devil-worm was not a beast at all: for a brief brush of thought that was not his own touched his mind, a heartfelt “At last,” wrapped in immense relief, and he recognized the voice, and recognized the awful truth—the voice belonged to Victor, the last prisoner who had attempted escape, and Stanislaw had now taken his place, for the rest of his miserable existence, as the final guard of King’s strongest prison.