Exercises Discovering and Developing Your Voice

1. Choose three short stories by different authors to read and think about. For each story write brief answers to the following questions:

a. Which three of the seventeen qualities of narrative voice contributed most to the way the author told the story?

b. Which three of the qualities of narrative voice contributed least?

c. Considering the three authors together, which one do you think had a particularly strong, effective, or interesting voice? Why?

2. The paragraph below tells us about Larry and his dilemma. Write a scene or a sequence of scenes that reveals the same information by showing it.

Larry had lived in Midvale all his forty years, which he felt was about thirty-nine years too many. But he was stuck. His wife Barbara liked being so close to her sister and her parents, especially now that her mother was sick. The kids—Jonathan, age nine, and Kim, age thirteen with all its accompanying annoyances—were settled into their schools and their activities with friends. Larry was doing well at the bank, even though the work bored him stiff, and he didn't dare quit, not with the mortgage on the fancy new house staring him in the face. Barbara called the place her dream palace, although frankly Larry preferred their old home on Maplewood Drive. Life would be forty more years of the same dreary stuff, Larry figured—unless he could figure out a way to implement his Secret Plan.

3. Select a story you have written or a scene you wrote for an exercise in this book (Larry's scene or one from an earlier chapter). Identify which three of the seventeen qualities of voice you think you emphasized most in the writing of it. Write a paragraph describing the following:

• How each of the three qualities contributes to your voice in the story. (Use the questions in the Tip Sheet: Narrative Voice as a guide.)

• Why you approached each quality in the particular way that you did.

4. Write two new scenes based on the one you described in Exercise 3. (If you chose a story for that exercise, select a typical scene from it for this exercise.)

Scene 1: Concentrate on the same three qualities of voice, but approach them in a different manner (e.g., if you choose words as one of the three qualities you are working with, use a different kind of vocabulary).

Scene 2: Focus on three new qualities of voice to see the different effects that changing the voice can help you achieve.

5. From the lists below, choose two characters, a setting, and a situation. Write two scenes in which the people are in this place discussing this problem or circumstance. Think about how you can use various qualities of voice to create the effect you want.

Scene 1: Make the pace fast and the mood tense. Concentrate on action and dialogue—keep description and exposition to a minimum. Assume that the characters are eager to resolve the matter at hand.

Scene 2: Make the pace slower and the mood dreamy and relaxed. Add description and a little exposition to the mix of action and dialog. Assume that at least one of the characters is trying to avoid a discussion of the matter at hand.


A rebellious teenager.

A university student on the verge of flunking out. Someone who has been passed over for a promotion at work. An itinerant carpenter. A professional thief.

Someone who married for money and is unhappy with his or her spouse.

Someone with a new job who feels out of his or her depth.

A visitor from another planet who is disguised as a human.

A middle-aged person who finds his or her life boring. Someone whose work has been recognized with a substantial award or prize.

A pregnant woman whose child is due any day. An adult who has never forgiven his or her parents for perceived wrongs.

Someone who recently quit a corporate job to take up a career in acting.

The neighborhood busybody.

Someone who feels it is his or her mission to do good for humankind.


At a stable that boards horses.

In the posh head office of a prosperous corporation.

In the back room of a hardware store.

In a cheap hotel room in Paris.

In the stands at a college football game.

In the cocktail lounge of a luxury hotel.

In a Las Vegas or Atlantic City casino.

In a cabana at a Hawaiian beach resort.

At a truckstop lunch counter along the interstate highway.

On a crowded subway train at the commute hour.

In the backstage area of a college or community theater.

On an airliner during a cross-country flight.

Waiting in line to see Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland.

On a hiking trail to a waterfall at Yosemite.

Outside a church on Sunday morning. Situations:

Character A has discovered an embarrassing secret about Character B.

The two characters encounter each other for the first time in many years.

Character A becomes convinced he or she has seen a ghost. Bad weather has forced the cancellation of a long-planned and happily anticipated event.

A valuable piece of jewelry has disappeared. One of the characters arrived home to find something seriously amiss.

One of the characters has been caught sneaking around someplace where he or she doesn't belong.

One of the characters has just learned that he or she will be moving to a new home in a distant place.

Character A has caught Character B lying about a matter of great importance.

Character A is asking Character B to help him or her out of a serious jam. Providing help would require doing something illegal, immoral, or unethical.

Character A has just met Mr. or Ms. Right. Character B believes the new lover is really Mr. or Ms. Wrong.

The characters have just had a huge fight. Both regret it, but neither is willing to admit being wrong.

Character A has just won a $1 million lottery jackpot. Unbeknownst to Character A, Character B is about to file for bankruptcy.

An investment scheme has turned out to be a fraud, and the investors have lost everything. Character A had talked Character B into investing his or her life savings in the scheme.

One of the characters is planning to run away from home.


Exploring the Realm

Appendix A

Reading of Short Stories

The best way to learn about short stories and how they work is to read them—read lots of them, sampling a wide variety of authors and genres and styles. Every short story you read will help you understand the essential ingredients of fiction and the effective techniques for handling them.

To help you embark on this literary adventure, some possibilities for reading are listed here. These stories, by no means a definitive or comprehensive list, were chosen for the skillful or interesting way they present one of the five ingredients—characters, conflict, structure, setting, or narrative voice. Of course, during the writing process these elements blend together and influence each other, making it difficult to pull them apart once the story is completed. You can read any short story with an eye to any of the five categories. Each story in the Plot and Structure list, for example, can also be examined instructively for the way the author has handled the characters, conflict, setting, or narrative voice.

The list spans more than a century of writing and includes stories that are considered classics by acknowledged masters as well as new works by younger writers still making their mark. All the stories can be found in anthologies or collections at your bookstore or library. Ready for more reading? One good way to find inspiration and trace trends in the short story form is to seek out two series of anthologies that produce annual volumes: The Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories of the O. Henry

Memorial Awards. The editors collect what they consider to be the finest short stories that appeared in magazines and literary journals in the U.S. and Canada during the preceding year. Both series have been publishing for about eighty years.


Alison Baker, Better Be Ready Bout HalfPast Eight

Maeve Binchy, The Lilac Bus

John Cheever, The Five-Forty-Eight

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia

William Faulkner, A Rose for Emily

Tess Gallagher, The Lover of Horses

Ellen Gilchrist, Revenge

Ring Lardner, Haircut

James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Variations on a Theme


Stephen Vincent Benêt, The Devil and Daniel Webster

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Jack London, To Build a Fire

Margaret Lucke, Identity Crisis

Bharati Mukherjee, The Management of Grief

Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl

Amy Tan, Two Kinds

P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves Takes Charge


Donald Barthelme, The School

Lawrence Block, Some Days You Get the Bear

Janet Dawson, Little Red Corvette

Stanley Elkin, A Poetics for Bullies

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper

Shirley Jackson, The Lottery

Alice Munro, Miles City, Montana

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried


Ray Bradbury, There Will Come Soft Rains

Susan Dunlap, Death and Diamonds

William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

Lorrie Moore, Terrific Mother

Maxine O'Callaghan, Wolf Winter

John Updike, The Persistence ofDesire

Eudora Welty, Death of a Traveling Salesman

Tobias Wolff, Hunters in the Snow


James Baldwin, Sonny's Blues Toni Cade Bambera, Gorilla, My Love Raymond Carver, Are These Actual Miles? Louise Erdrich, Fleur

Ernest Hemingway, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place David Leavitt, Gravity

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Mary Morris, The Bus ofDreams

Appendix B

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