make two opposites collide
a guest writing prompt from old friend and excellent writer Eva Langston
Today’s post is a pop-in from an old friend. I met Eva Langston when we were both right out of college, and we taught ninth grade in classrooms next to each other. This was in pre-Katrina New Orleans; the high school where we taught, in New Orleans East, happens to be very near where Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House is set. Eva taught math, I taught English, and our classrooms were linked by a door in the back of the room. Somehow the doorknob went missing in the middle of the year, and students took advantage of that gap in the door to throw pencils and notes back and forth at each other. It was a wild time.
Eva and I reconnected recently, and since she’s working in a genre totally different from mine—a paranormal suspense YA novel! how fun does that sound?—I asked if she’d share a writing prompt. And here it is!
The Prompt That Launched a Thousand Stories, a guest prompt from Eva Langston
When I was in college I worked at a high-end children’s clothing store. The kind of place that sold old-fashioned smocked dresses and hundred-dollar Christmas sweaters for toddlers. The owner of the store was one of those seemingly-perfect women. She had perfect hair, perfect clothes, a perfect house, a perfect family. Not that I was jealous of her, because I wasn’t. I sensed in her a deep insecurity that she kept hidden by her pristine white blouses and tailored pants.
Years later, I decided to write a story about a woman who seems perfect from the outside, but is flawed and insecure on the inside. I wasn’t sure what would actually happen in the story, but then I remembered a prompt from my undergraduate creative writing class. The prompt was as follows:
Create two characters who are complete opposites of each other. Write a story in which they are forced to interact.
In college I had used this prompt to write a story called “Goddesses” about a woman struggling with fertility issues who offers a ride to a teenage mother and her baby. The story went on to win 3rd place in the Richmond Style Magazine Fiction Contest.
The prompt had worked for me then, so I decided to use it again with my perfect-on-the-outside children’s clothing store manager. I created a second character, a young employee, who was the woman’s opposite in many ways. The resulting story, “Living Room,” went on to be published in The Sand Hill Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
I don’t know if this prompt has actually launched a thousand stories (I suspect it’s been the seed for many more), but it helped me create two published and prize-winning stories. Not a bad track record.
This prompt works so well because compelling fiction often presents a contrast; two ends of a spectrum. Want instant conflict? Make two opposites collide.
Here are some writing prompts with an eye towards dramatic contrast:
· Write about a horrible thing happening in a beautiful place (or a beautiful thing happening in a horrible place).
· Write a fish-out-of-water scene in which a character is placed in a situation that is completely foreign to them, or in which a character is forced to do something they would normally never do.
· And, of course, write about two characters from opposite ends of a certain spectrum (social class, wealth status, political ideology, intellect, age, etc.) being forced to interact. If you’re not sure where to begin, try writing dialogue between the two characters.
It’s been many, many years since I was in college, working at that children’s clothing store. I now have children of my own, and I dress them in hand-me-down t-shirts, not expensive smocked dresses. Motherhood, in fact, is a wonderful example of dramatic contrast: it can be isolating despite the utter lack of alone time. It can feel degrading and annoying at times, transcendent and beautiful at others. Perhaps this could be another prompt: write about a character having two opposite emotions from the same experience. Something to think about…
For more writing prompts and tons of resources for writers of all genres and levels, check out my free newsletter. Paid subscribers can also read “Living Room,” as well as have access to my online courses, Cultivating a Regular Writing Practice and Getting Started on Your Novel
elsewhere on the internet . . .
Eva’s newsletter is really great—always jam-packed with writing resources including classes, conferences, upcoming contests, and twitter pitch parties. (She connected with her agent through #moodpitch!)
I recently wrote a guest post—Robots Can Be Writing Teachers, Right?—for Eva’s newsletter, a writing exercise based on the “popular questions” Alexa claims people ask her. (Though I’m skeptical—do you really need Alexa to tell you when milk has gone bad?)
I was on the fun podcast Mother Plus recently, talking about writing and mothering, the nonsense of parenting styles, and our bonkers expectations of mothers in this country.
I got to talk with my colleague Cynthia Arrieu-King, who hosts the poetry podcast The Last Word, about my new book, Pocket Universe. I also read two poems from The Long Devotion and may have cried a little (January Gill O’Neil’s poem has a line about her love for her son that always gets me), but I hope she edited that out.
What are you reading? I had a big deadline this past Friday, and I’ve been decompressing my brain with lots of twisty, fun fiction. I’m partway through The Violence right now and really enjoying it. (Enjoy seems maybe like the wrong word, given the premise—“a strange epidemic that causes the infected to experience sudden bursts of animalistic rage, with no provocation and no memory of their crimes”—but it’s really very good.)
I hope you’re all doing well! I’ll be back on Sunday to check in on your June progress and provide some tips for setting July intentions. If you have a friend you think would like a little writing support this summer, I’d love it if you’d share this newsletter.