Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Alphabetical Stories: A sample 26 sentence creative writing exercise



Alphabetical writing is something that was first introduced to me in a creative writing workshop as a way to improve your ability to express yourself within strict structural guidelines. Begin your first sentence with an 'A'-word, and complete a 26 sentence narrative using successive letters of the alphabet to begin each sentence. Coming up with a coherent story within these parameters is sometimes difficult, but can be rewarding if you choose your words carefully. During your story, you might find it advantageous to introduce key concepts, locations, or characters whose names begin with the more difficult letters of the alphabet (such as X, Y, and Z). Eventually, you will be comfortable enough with the limitations to express yourself freely in spite of the extremely specific format.

Furthermore, it is important to choose words that flow easily from one sentence to the next, rather than choosing a word that blatantly fills a requirement but sounds awkward. Generating specific words for each letter is much easier if you move the story along quickly, rather than talking in circles to thoroughly explain a few simple points as I am doing now. However, because this story serves as a tutorial in the exercise while at the same time meets the requirements that it in itself describes, I am forced to progress slowly. Including an Alphabetical story in the very format the instructions prescribe was an idea that came from an article that explained Socratic Dialogues through the use of Socratic dialogue. Just as easily, I hope this tutorial is serving the dual purpose of explaining the requirements while providing a sample piece.

Keep in mind that using the most common words will improve the overall flow of the story.  Look for ways to begin sentences in a variety of ways, or consider using common expressions that will make the reader forget they are reading from a rigid structure. More importantly, be sure your story is fun and expressive! Name your characters, use descriptive language, create plot lines, and wrap everything up in only 26 sentences. 

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, it's against the rules to use words from other languages unless the words are included in dialogue. Place quotation marks around the dialogue just as you would in any short story or essay. Questions always arise toward the end of the story, coupled with the inexplicable appearance of quails, xylophones, Volkswagen cars, and watermelons. Rather than sprinkling these in at the end, try your best to make them seem relevant to the plot. Since I’m never going to read your story, however, it's really none of my business how many quails you include. Try using quail for your Q sentence and just see how cheap you feel, and remember that I warned against it. 

Using challenging exercises to improve, we are all capable of becoming great writers. Varying your sentence structure alone doesn’t make you a great writer—you have to have an acrobatic command of your thoughts and vocabulary (damn, vocabulary would have been a better V word to use). Whatever your purpose for attempting this exercise, remember that no one has a good X sentence, and there are only so many times you can talk about xylophones and get away with it. X-rays and xylophones—the end to nearly every Alphabetical story ever written (unless your story takes place in Zimbabwe). You can sit there for hours trying to come up with a good ending, but the end of the alphabet doesn't give you much to work with. Zooming along at a carefree pace in the beginning is replaced by a disheartening let down when you realize you should have named your character Xavier.