An Exercise – Ideas for a Story, 500 word limit.

The following is a study piece for an online Future Learning course, “Start Writing Fiction”. I, um didn’t bother with doing the first exercise that was set. So, um, this time, I’d thought perhaps I’d better had.

I share the exercise with you:

Turn on the radio and take note of the first thing that is mentioned. Use it as the basis for either the start of a story or an entire story – whichever, it should be no more than 500 words. Imagine a character, someone who is central to what the story is about. Try to use clear, vivid language so that your reader can see the character. Use some of the characterisation techniques we have talked about so far:

  • physical description
  • thoughts and inner life
  • personality
  • where the character is located
  • the character’s back story
  • how the character acts in the world.

You might not wish to include all of these various aspects in your story but you might like to know something about them nonetheless.

The Old Man of Christmas
7 am, Nanjing Central Shopping Mall, located in a popular department store changing room: Originally hired as an elf and now barely able to recognise herself, Changying studied the uniformed reflection in a full length mirror, turning sideways several times and patting her artificially expanded waistline.
Inside the small compartment, she’d felt a little claustrophobic and the wiry white hair from the moustache already tickled the tip of her twitchy nose. Observing the character before her, mimicking every move, she allowed herself to feel a modest sense of achievement, given the circumstances.
The original Santa, with rosy cheeks but in a stinky mood, had arrived yesterday with the lingering smell of alcohol following him around. By mid-morning, the parents’ complaints set against a soundscape of traumatised wailing children, had reached management. What followed, resulted in an unsettling scene involving the shopping centre’s security guards hastily disrobing a resistant Santa, before roughly ejecting him from the grotto.
“嗬! – 嗬! – 嗬!” Changying called out, testing the deep end of her vocal range. Did Santa have to sound quite so masculine, she wondered, unsure how long her voice would hold out under such strain.
The design of the uniform appeared in strict compliance with the latest Chinese Communist Party directive. There would be no capitalist “Coca-Cola” Father Christmas here. Instead, the ‘old man of Christmas’ would reflect traditional Chinese tastes and values, encompassing quality and grace.
In practice, this meant fine silk: a blue silk jacket and pants, embroidered with gold coloured snow flakes and with white, arctic fox fur on the cuffs, lapel and hemline. The same silk material lined an upright conical hat; the same fur provided a band around the base of the hat. Sturdy, government-issue, black leather, military boots, several sizes too big for Changying, finished the costume.
The significant extra padding had caused her difficulties. She’d spent the best part of an hour making adjustments, with lumps eliminated and curves in all the correct places. This had left her feeling hot and sweaty and in desperate need of a long swig of water taken from the bottle she had brought in, originally intended to last for the duration of the shift.
As fast as she could waddle, Changying exited the changing room, out through the shop and into the air-conditioned, temperature-controlled environment of the mall. The bright-coloured plastic grotto, adorned with sparkling lights, lay up ahead. Within a surrounding fence, she could see several smiling, cartoon-styled reindeers on artificial grass dusted with fake snow. Two life-sized snowmen holding lanterns stood as sentries, either side of the grotto’s only door.
Nobody acknowledged Changying as she made her way across the plaza. Retail staff walked past, eyes looking down into phone screens, on towards shops where shutters were being raised. Maintenance staff shuffled along, hypnotised by the circular motion of their floor polishing machines, while a group of security guards considered the day ahead – expected to be far less interesting, than yesterday.

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