Earlier today, as part of this year’s online version of When Words Collide, the great annual writing conference in Calgary, I led about forty writers through the Seven-Sentence Short Story exercise, created by science fiction and fantasy author (and former English teacher) James Van Pelt, who was on hand and took part himself!
I’ve used this as an exercise several times now in writing classes and workshops, and always have a blast.
Here’s how it works:
1. Introduce what the main character wants and the first action he/she takes to accomplish that goal.
2. The results of the action the character takes in sentence #1 has to make the situation worse. The character should be further from the goal now.
3. Based on the new situation, the character takes a second action to accomplish the goal.
4. The result of the second action the character takes, from sentence #3, is to make the situation worse. The character should be even further 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.
And here’s the story I wrote:
The Quantum Beast
By Edward Willett
Anderson flung himself from the edge of the battlements without a second thought, confident that his personal antigravity belt would prevent him from dashing his brains against the sharp black rocks at the bottom of the wall, and knowing this was the only way he could hope to escape the swelling mass of the quantum beast emerging through the gaping portal of the failed interstellar transport gate.
It would have worked, too, had he not been a split second too late: the quantum beast thrust out one transdimensional tentacle and altered the laws of physics in the bubble of reality containing Anderson, so that his antigravity belt no longer functioned as an antigravity belt, but as a gravity-enhancement device—effectively, quadrupling his weight.
As Anderson accelerated toward certain death, he frantically slapped at the quick-release of the antigravity belt, hoping he had judged the new physical laws correctly: and sure enough, without the now pro-gravity belt pulling at him, rather than plunge, he bobbed upward again, like a soap bubble, the wind blowing him in the direction he wanted to go—away from the still-swelling quantum beast, limned with impossible-to-name colours and beginning to make a sound that made his bones itch.
He should have foreseen it: the wind, though it had been blowing a gale all day in the direction he wanted to go, now reversed, as the quantum beast’s maw gaped wide and it began to draw all of local reality into itself.
Still feather-light, he was sucked back toward the beast, the not-of-this-reality colours threatening his sight and his sanity—but having failed to escape, this was his only possible path to salvation: he pointed his head downward and, flailing his arms like a pigeon, flew down toward the bright white line of the interstellar transport gate, and the glowing red button of the emergency cutoff system beside it.
He reached it, but the bubble of alternative reality surrounding him surrounded it, too, so that, when he slammed his fist against the red cutoff button, rather than disabling the malfunctioning gate, it caused it to switch to emergency overload power—which, in its failed state, was…catastrophic.
The spacetime rift within the gate burst from its containment, opening wide and wider, running with superluminal speed straight up and straight down from its origin, splitting the universe apart like a tear in a piece of rotten cloth, and as reality unraveled around him, Anderson had a sudden sense of déjà vu: for the quantum beast was his own consciousness, fighting against time’s arrow to return from the devastated future (if that term had any meaning any longer), and the attack had been his own effort to warn himself about what was about to happen, and once again, as it had an infinitude of times before and would an infinitude of times to come, it had failed.