I just completed this year’s Seven-Sentence Short Story workshop for the When Words Collide writers’ convention, at which I’m one of the Guests of Honor this year. This exercise, created by short-story writer extraordinaire James Van Pelt, has been a great success every time I’ve conducted it.
Below is my story, written extemporaneously during the 50-minute workshop, with the instructions embedded in it, should you wish to write your own!
1. Introduce what the main character wants and the first action he/she takes to accomplish that goal.
Julian could see the gaping mouth of the legendary cave of the Eastern Guru in the cliffside opposite the tree to which he clung, and thinking only of how, at last, he would learn the secret of life, he gripped a vine in both hands, crouched down on a branch, and leaped, intending to swing across the chasm of the mighty Thrifton River, tumbling in white foam over the rocks far below, and land easily and lightly on the ledge before the cavern.
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.
His swing came to a violent halt as what he had thought merely a vine twisted around on itself and pulled him hard back against the tree trunk, to come face-to-face with the glowing green eyes and razor-sharp black teeth of the deadly dark tree nymph that inhabited the tree and which he had awakened by, he now saw, trying to swing from one of the locks of her thick black hair.
3. Based on the new situation, the character takes a second action to accomplish the goal.
Julian knew only too well of the insatiable desire of tree-nymphs for the flesh of living creatures—especially men—and so even as the thing opened its maw to tear his head from his shoulders, he drew his dagger awkwardly with his still-free left hand and drove it deep into what would have been the tree nymph’s navel had she had such a useless accoutrement.
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.
The nymph screamed, and her vine-like hair writhed, each thick black strand snapping like a whip, including the one holding Julian, who was flung through the air with far greater force than his leap from the branch had provided, enough for him to clear the gorge—but in the wrong direction so that rather than land in front of the cave, he slammed feet first into the snow on a ledge some fifteen feet below the cavern’s mouth.
5. Based on the new situation, the character takes a third and final action to accomplish the goal.
Flat on his back, bruised and battered, Julian looked up the cliff face, saw, looking down at him, the wizened, blue-eyed, weathered face of what could have been a man or a god, and shouted, “Save me, oh Guru of the East, for I have come to seek your wisdom!”
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.
A warm, benevolent light enveloped Julian, erasing his pain, easing the chill from his bones, and then, miraculously lifting him off the ledge, out over the gorge, and up to the mouth of the cave, to deposit him, at long last, before the being he had come so far and through so many trials and tribulations to meet: the Guru of the East, the Wizard of Wisdom, or, as some styled him, the Mountain Lord.
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.
The mysterious being (who, up close, looked neither young nor old, but rather all ages—or none) smiled at Julian, leaned in close, and whispered in his ear words that only a few have heard, the very secret of life itself, and then, placing both hands on Julian’s shoulders, gave him a hard shove so that he tumbled back over the edge of the cliff; but he fell to his death smiling, for the secret of life contained also the secret of death and what came after, and it no longer held any terror for him.