1. Choose an emotion from the following list:
2. Write a short paragraph describing someone entering a room feeling like this.
3. You are not allowed to tell the reader which emotion it is.
4. Describe: body language, facial expressions, behaviour, fidgeting, etc.
5. You could also think about something that your character DOESN’T do. For example, he/she might not make eye contact with anyone.
Wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her quivering frame, she stepped gingerly out of the bathroom. Despite the warmth of the room (it was almost too warm, now) her hand, barely visible in the gloom, trembled violently as she extended her arm in search of the light switch, and as the room was flooded with sudden light, it became clear why. Her face was drained of blood, and her eyes had the glazed look of one who is staring up at the stars. She sank to her knees.
Now ask yourself the following three questions:
1. What kind of room is it? A bedroom? A sitting room? A waiting room? Or is it more of a space? Is it private or public? Is it a platform at a train station? Is it in a church?
2. Why has your character entered this space? Are they looking for something? Have they arranged to meet someone? Are they waiting for something to happen?
3. Who else is in the space with them?
Whatever you do, don’t tell the reader the answer to these questions, for heaven’s sake. They are only for you to know at the moment.
Now, introduce some dialogue between the person who has entered the space, and the person (or one of the people) who is already in it. Something like this:
“Helen? Are you ok?”
The unknown voice sounded far away as she stared at the carpet. “Can you open the window?”
She heard the footsteps cross the room, felt a gust of wind blow across her face.
“Who are you?”
There was a pause. When he spoke, his voice sounded raspy, underused. “Can I get you a glass of water?”
“Who are you? Tell me who you are!”
“Sparkling or still?”
As Helen looked up to face her intruder, the thought came. “This is something to do with Matilda, isn’t it?”
At this point in the story we are starting to ask questions about what’s going on. Who is Matilda? Who is the intruder, and what is the ‘something’ that he has to do with her? Why has he appeared in the room without knocking? What does he want?
Let’s answer some of them with a flashback. This is when the story shifts to something that happened in the past. Because this story is told from Helen’s point of view, this flashback will take the form of Helen’s memory, like this:
It was just over three years ago that Matilda had phoned to say she had missed her train at Farnham and would be late home. Christmas, 1994. The cat was sick, and had been making a mess of the living room carpet. Mike was cleaning it up when the phone rang. I’m going to be late. Don’t wait for me. Three years later, they were still waiting.
Don’t let the flashback go on too long (we’re not writing a novel here, just a short story.) The flashback above answers the question of who Matilda is: she is Helen’s daughter. It also informs us that the year is 1997 (1994 was three years ago). It raises a number of new questions, too, the main one being that of Matilda’s disappearance. Why did she not make it home that Christmas? What has happened to her?
Don’t answer these. Return to the room and the action that is happening there:
“I’m sorry to have frightened you.” He handed her the glass of water, and she noticed his hand, too, was unsteady. “I didn’t want anyone to – I mean – she – didn’t want anyone to – “
He spread out his palms, face up, clammy. “I was in halls with Mattie, Mrs. Sanders. We – “
Helen put the glass on the floor.
“We were friends. I was – I – we…”
So this was him then, she thought. Jason, her daughter’s boyfriend, whose parents lived in Cambridge and owned a drycleaning company. Jason with the Ford Fiesta and the expensive jeans, who was going to graduate in Business and set up a car rental company.
“Do you know where she is?”
His mouth twitched. She held her breath.
“Yes. Well – yes. But she’s not – I mean – “
Helen exhaled and an involuntary sound, childlike and whimpering, escaped her. “She’s alive!”
He said nothing, but slowly knelt on the floor, awkwardly, and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“No, Mrs. Sanders. No, I’m afraid she’s not.”
About now is a good time to think about the atmosphere in the room. Something like his:
A sudden gust of wind blew though the window, causing the papers on the desk to fly up in the air. She could smell Jason’s washing powder, and a faint trace of something vinegary. From the street below came the sounds of the world plodding on, making its monotonous way through time: a car horn, blaring angrily, and someone shouting. The drone of traffic formed the backdrop to their little drama, and she knew, suddenly, that Helen was out there, still, despite whatever this boy might have to say about it. She, too, could hear the hum of the traffic, could feel the wind in her hair.