Get Writing: Stolen-Form Stories
By Celeste Ng
As part of our teaching theme this month, we’re sharing some of our favorite exercises in our “Get Writing” series for classroom (or personal) use. Enjoy!
Last week, Michael Rudin suggested that stealing a first line can help you overcome that new-story inertia. Here’s another larcenous twist: instead of stealing a line, steal a form.
For this exercise, write a story in the form of some other piece of writing—a grocery list, an obituary, a set of instructions, liner notes, the back of a cereal box, a help wanted ad, a press release, a weather forecast… The less literary, the better.
Here are some (published) examples:
- “Test” by G. A. Ingersoll, in Pindeldyboz
- “Pledge Drive” by Patricia Marx, in the New Yorker
- “In Webster’s” by Aaron Devine1, in Flashquake
- “The Night Watchman’s Ocurrence Book” by V. S. Naipaul, in his collection of the same name
- “To-Do” by Jennifer Egan, in The Guardian
- “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” by Jennifer Egan, from her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel-in-stories A Visit from the Goon Squad:
You may end up with a short-short, or your completed story may jump off into totally new territory after a paragraph or two. Either way, “borrowing” a form can often get you started—and lead to surprising stories—because you approach the story from such a different direction.
1disclaimer/brag: Aaron is a former student of mine, and he wrote this story in one of my classes in response to this exercise. Go Aaron!