I give an exercise to my writing classes called "10 Defining Moments of my Life." It is inspired from a short story by Canadian Author Anne Fleming called "The Defining Moments of my Life."
It's a fabulous story first told from the perspective of protagonists' mother before she is born. What her mother fantasizes her daughter's perfect life will be like. It is then told again from the protagonists' perspective. Well, we all know, life is messy and doesn't happen the way we, or our parents, always fantasize it does.
The story is told in list form, each "defining moment" numbered. As the protagonist's life journeys on, the numbers get a little wonky. As does her life.
I've asked elementary school students to write the 10 defining moments of their lives and they come up with great stuff like getting their pet iguana and coming in first place in the school spelling bee.
When I give the exercise to my older students, they usually groan a little and feel slightly uncomfortable. But more than any other exercise I've given, the students tell me later it was their favourite assignment.
You can do this for yourself, as a personal journey. It's a really great exercise. Have you ever thought about the moments that have defined who you are and why you do the things you do?
Today, I'm recommending you write these moments down for any characters you'd like to develop. These defining moments are all backstory, the joyful moments, the painful moments, the wounds that make them who they are in your current story. Some of these things may never even be mentioned in your actual story, but keep them in the back of your mind. It will give this person a life before you met them on the page.
Here's how it works:
1) Make a list of the 10 Defining Moments of your character's life (or yours if you'd like to try this yourself)
2) From each moment, write at least 3 images that go with that moment. I want you to SEE it happening, as if on a movie screen.
Father's suicide: briefcase, crystal bird, open door to balcony
Ran away from home: black limousine, red "otel" sign, stained carpet
Met Gary on-line: library, broken blue umbrella, wet streets
3) Now, for each defining moment, show us what happened. Write a paragraph or two. make sure to SHOW the story, don't explain what happened. Do it in visuals. I try to get my students to think this way, in images, as much as possible. It will make it more "real" in your mind if you can see it. And showing in your writing is always good practice.
You can tell it in 3rd person OR 1st person as the character.
Casey opened her eyes. She was lying on the couch. Her father's black leather briefcase, the one he had taken on his business trip, sat two feet from her face next to the coffee table. The room was cold and quiet. Someone had left the patio door open and the white curtains were blowing in and out like delicate sails. She had goosebumps on her bare arms. She looked down. Her bird, the crystal bird her father had given her, lay broken on the marble floor... (and so on)
Have a great weekend and Happy Thanksgiving to all Canadians out there.