A Masterclass in Writing Fiction pt. 2 – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 12

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.

See pt. 1 of this amazing session here. As I’m blogging this as it occurs, the post will have a certain disjointed quality to it.

Mark Farrington continues his presentation on writing fiction with a discussion on the intersections of reality and fiction. He reminds us that:

1. Fiction is not reality.
2. It’s not a mirror of reality.
3. It’s an illusion of reality.

You don’t try to duplicate reality. You suggest it and let readers react to it. What details are essential for the reader to know? You must convince the reader to believe in your story.

Tips for writing fiction based on real life:
1. Changing the name
2. Changing the gender
3. Changing a key personality quirk
4. Changing the events or the outcome of events
5. Looking for metaphorical or symbolic truth vs. literal truth
6. Realizing that the setting is often the easiest to both “steal” and “alter”/fictionalize

Gain distance from a real life story by asking yourself “What if?” and then following your line of thought. Mark says this also works if you’re at a point in your story when you feel it’s slowed down.

Mark also recommends the Mr. Potato Head approach. You can pull different personality and setting and plot aspects from whatever you want. It’s not who or what you based it on that matters, it’s how you manipulate it and how it ends up on the page.

Another tip Mark suggests is the “situation / catalyst” approach. First you come up with an interesting situation (one that has potential for conflict and tension). But without an initiating event nothing happens. Therefore you try to think up a catalyst that gets the plot going. The catalyst is an event or situation that makes the tension of the situation concrete and real.


Don’t try to force the ending. Writing fiction is like driving a car at night, he says. You can always see in front of you, and you get where you need to get, but you can’t always see the path. I’m reminded, not for the first time, of the disconnect between what Mark is saying and the way many of us (myself included) teach fiction writing. I’m not necessarily saying Mark’s word is gospel, but it’s important to think about the ramifications behind what we do and why we do it.

Prompt: Building a character. Mark asks us questions and we write down answers to each one. Quick rapid fire. The only rules are that the character you create must be human. Try not to base the character on a real person.

1. What gender is this character? M
2. What age? 23
3. What words or phrases describe this character’s appearance? Puny, emaciated, hunched
4. What about the way your character looks would they like to change? giant ears
5. Where does your character live? Arlington, VA
6. What kind of structure do they live in? A micro-home
7. Who else lives there? Three cats and a bird
8. What’s their favorite place within the structure they live in? The bathroom. Twee wall paper, retro shag carpeting, furry toilet seat cover, and, most importantly, a giant mirror.
9. What do they like to eat for breakfast? Poptarts with frosting on them
10. What work do they do? OR how do they spend their weekdays? Sweeping hair at an all-male salon
11. Speaking in the voice of your character, finish the sentence: ‘It makes me angry when…’ I get a haircut and my ears are always clipped,
12. What clothing do they wear when they want to feel comfortable? Skinny jeans, snug sweaters, beanie cap pulled down tight
13. How does your character usually spend Sunday morning? Making boutique teas for the old folks living in his apartment complex, delivering door to door
14. What vehicle do they drive / ride in most often? A battered brown bike with a deflated, punctured black horn attached to the right handlebar
15. Which parent was more important? Dad, he made sure his kid grew up on a steady diet of Led Zeppelin and other hard rock staples\
16. Finish the sentence in the character’s voice: ‘I am afraid that/of…’ people will see the way I dress and reduce me to a hipster stereotype
17. What is the educational background? HS grad, community college associate’s degree in progress
18. When confronted with a decision, is your character decisive or ruminative? Quick-witted and decisive
19. Does your character believe that the world is orderly and fair or chaotic and purposeless? Orderly and fair
20. Finish the sentence in your character’s voice: ‘I don’t know why I remember the time…’ my dad brought me home a furby, a special Kiss edition complete with Gene Simmons tongue

Write five of this character’s stepping stones. Two of them have to be what the character would describe as ‘difficult.’ 

  1. I was born on September 12th, 1995
  2. Dad played my first Zep record
  3. Got my first crush on my 3rd grade babysitter
  4. Parents divorced
  5. Dropped out of college 
  6. Moved to new apartment and bonded with the building’s septuagenarian population

That was frustrating! I had to keep going even though I wasn’t satisfied with most of my answers. Now we begin to write a story in the first-person voice of this character. They have to talk about one of the difficult stepping stones or begin with “I don’t know why I remember the time…” Okay, let’s do this.

I don’t know why I remember it. The Furby I mean. Pops didn’t normally bring me home gifts. When I think about it I’m pretty sure that was the only thing he ever got me outside of a holiday. 

He called me into the living room where he was seated with Ma. Her eyes looked real red, I could tell she had been crying. We need to have a talk, he said. But I can’t remember anything he said. It was like one of those Charlie Brown wom-wom-wom voice overs, you know?  I sat down on the ruddy carpet, almost prostrating myself before the thing. It sat on the living room table, a heavy oak thing my dad picked up from some country store. 

I was afraid to touch it. Maybe I was afraid that if I touched it I would break the spell and whatever my parents were saying would reach me. So I just sat there, transfixed by the thing’s plastic eyes and ridiculous eyelashes. I don’t know how long I stayed like that. 

You don’t have to do these types of exercises, Mark says, but they can be helpful for generating content or fleshing it out. Have students volunteer questions for the class to use. He also brings up interviewing your character. Asking them, “why did you do X?”

Here are some more story prompts for getting started with fiction:


He ends by reminding us that most people don’t build stories like a bookcase. We don’t start with exposition, rising action, etc. The form grows out of the piece, not the other way around. And besides, not all stories follow story grammar.

Hope you’re able to glean some useful info from this wonderful presentation!





  1. Amy Langrehr

    Thanks for sharing these, Peter! I did the exercise here, and I also found it to be frustrating. It was reassuring to read that you weren’t satisfied and kept going back. I ended up with some things which were eh, though it did lead me to a little snippet of a character’s thoughts which I thought was interesting. Just keep moving and follow that road in the night and you will see *something* I guess!! (At least that’s what I tell myself).


  2. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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