FFFFLast year’s free fiction selections consisted of a 12-part serial piece. I had great fun with that, and I hope you enjoyed it. Those pieces, and all my First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF on Twitter and Facebook), can be found under the Freebies tab, a sub menu of the My Work tab. This year, I’m going to try something a little different. If it works, great; if not, we’ll try something else.

How else can you learn and grow except by trying new things? (Like this? Tweet it.)

So I’m taking a writing prompt and writing a story. Or a scene. I guess we’ll see what happens.

The work itself will be free-standing, no annotations. Afterward, however, in the “For Writers” section, we’ll dissect the piece for different fiction elements. And of course, we’ll end with comments (from anyone, not just writers).

And I will take suggestions for new prompts.

Today, however, the prompt has already been determined. So, without further ado… the writing prompt. It’s Valentine’s Day, and…

Here’s what I wrote:

Valentine’s Dinner

dinerSo, it’s obvious Satan works for the greeting card industry.

I hate this day. The rest of the year, I’m relatively well adjusted. But for some reason, February 14—every year—I’m a red hot mess.

My married friends are at home, having intimate dinners with their spouses. They’ll get long-stemmed red roses and tiny boxes of jewelry.

My friends with long-term boyfriends are at romantic restaurants as we speak. One—or more—will probably come home with a ring on her finger and a request for me to be yet another bridesmaid. Never a bride, oh no, not me. Just the perennial attendant. I can picture the hideous gown now, red satin and puffy sleeves. Why?

And my friends who are casually dating? They’re also out, probably at jazz bars where the lighting is low, the music is sultry, and the drinks flow freely. Expensively, but freely. They’ll dance with their men, a sensual hint of what’s to come tonight.

My dinner tonight is also intimate. It’s just me. And the restaurant has atmosphere, all right. It’s my favorite diner. It smells like strong coffee, fresh baked pie, and hot grill grease. The fluorescent lights really do wonders for my coloring—they make pale look ghastly.

And I’m also at a bar. Or should I say counter? I’m perched on the cracked red Naugahyde stool, listening to 50s music from the old jukebox in the corner. It’s just me, an old couple in the corner, Pearl, and Sid. Pearl flirts with Sid through the peek-a-boo window that affords a glimpse of the kitchen. He works at the grill and makes lewd comments about the heat.

Even my freaking waitress and the fry cook are an item. Between them and the Cleavers in the corner, I’m about to go ballistic.

“Here, hon.” Pearl hands me a few napkins and refills my water. When I raise my eyebrow, she points to the corner of her mouth.

I reach up, touch my lips, and pull my fingers away, sticky with cherry syrup from the pie I simply had to have. And the gloppy mess promptly falls on my white t-shirt. Pearl just smiles a sad, half smile… the smile that says, ‘Poor Katie. All alone on Valentine’s Day and a slob to boot. No wonder…’ And she slides a glass of water my way before turning back to the window to talk with Sid.

Scrubbing at my shirt proves fruitless. I’ve taken a small dark red spot and created a larger, wetter, lighter red spot.

So much for my plan to head to the movies. I’d probably just run into a plethora of couples lined up to see Fifty Shades of Grey. I want to see American Sniper—I’m feeling militant and violent at the moment and crave someone’s blood—but no way will I risk it wearing my dinner on my clothes.

I should have stayed home.

In Fifty Shades, the heroine gets the man of her dreams. Who happens to be a rich hottie. Who needs that kind of pressure on Valentine’s Day?

Of course, he also has a red “playroom” full of… devices. So no man is perfect.

The bell jingles as the door opens. I stop scrubbing at my shirt and look up.

So, maybe one man is perfect.

He walks in, shaking the snowflakes from his thick wavy hair. Stripping off his coat, he places it on the stool two down from me, then gestures to the empty one beside me. “Is this seat taken?”

Does it look taken? I guess I could have a companion in the restroom… I glance down at my yoga pants and stained shirt, lift my hand to my messy ponytail. Who am I kidding? He knows I have no one.

I lean forward, trying to hide the stain behind the counter and my coffee mug. “All yours.”

red chairsI picture it… He’ll make small talk, I’ll laugh. Then he’ll say that cheesy line, ‘I can’t believe a beautiful woman like you is all alone. And on Valentine’s Day!’ And I’ll demure, but he won’t have it. He’ll put a quarter in the jukebox and play something romantic, like ‘I Only Have Eyes for You,’ then we’ll dance between the rickety tables on the scuffed linoleum floors. He’ll invite me back to his place, and I’ll leave my car, riding with him because I feel so safe. Hell, if he has a playroom, I’ll happily enter.

I turn toward him, ready to make my fantasy come true, when the bell over the door rings again.

He turns toward the sound before I make my move, leaving me to stare at his back. His broad-shouldered back, with the wet curls of his hair tickling the collar of the red shirt he wore under an expensive, tailored suit jacket.

Then I hear her voice.

“Darling.” She walks over to him, and he embraces her.

I sit, glaring at my pie, while they discuss the lateness of the tow truck and whether they’ll make it to the opera before curtain.

Yellow flashing lights signal the tow truck driver’s arrival. Mr. Right throws money on the counter, despite not having ordered anything, and leaves with the woman. Whom I hate, just on principle.

Pearl picks up the cash and looks at me. “Your dinner’s covered, honey.”

I put on my jacket and slink out to my car. I’m headed to the comfort of my home. And my cat. And my bottle of cabernet sauvignon.

You’ll never convince me Satan’s not behind this whole godforsaken holiday.

# # #

For Writers:
So, a little over 900 words. Okay for a writing exercise. Not flash fiction, but not a substantial story, either. Was it enough, or is it merely a scene? Let’s look.

Character: —The beginning establishes character right away—a (temporarily?) bitter woman, alone on Valentine’s Day. Is she always bitter, or just that one day a year like she says? We don’t know, because we don’t have anyone else’s opinions of her, and we don’t see her on any other day. She could be telling the truth, but she could also be an unreliable narrator.

Plot: —Plots require conflict and follow a pattern, escalating to a climax and then tapering off in the denouement. We typically look for five points:

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising Action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling Action
  5. Resolution

Exposition is the beginning. Did we establish the character and the problem? In this case, yes. Katie is alone on Valentine’s Day. Everything reminds her of that. She’s upset at her situation.

Rising Action is the main problem coming to light and the complications that arise in the character’s attempts to overcome her situation. Did we meet this criterion? In this case, more or less. This is more of a psychological/emotional story, so the plot won’t be action-packed and fast moving. But we do see Katie making plans to go out anyway, and then changing her plans when something (she perceives as) better comes along. So she does encounter a change in her situation and attempts to do something about it.

Climax is the high point of the story, although not necessarily the most positive place the character can be. This is the dark moment, the time when it all hits the fan. Did we have a climax? Yes. Katie’s visions of a happily-ever-after ending is shattered when Mr. Right’s Woman walks in the door.

Falling Action is the result of what happened in the climax. Did this exercise have falling action? Yes. The couple leaves, discussing their perfect life—the life Katie envisioned. Katie is again alone, and now hurt even more than in the beginning.

Resolution: This is the end, where the fate of the character is resolved. It can be a happy or sad ending, but the character must have changed and loose ends must be tied up. Did this passage have a resolution? Yes. Katie goes home, alone, to drink her sorrows away.

So is this a complete story? I’d have to say yes, it is. That doesn’t mean it can’t be turned into a longer piece, even a novel-length work. This could be the opening to a romance novel or a pivotal moment in a dramatic piece. We’d have to do much more character and scene development, but this could definitely be expanded.

It can also stand on its own.

Other points to note:

The Prompt: The prompt does not have to be the opening sentence of the written work. It doesn’t need to be included in the story at all. But it does have to inspire the story.

POV and Tense: I am most comfortable writing in third person, past tense. But this is a writing exercise; I can explore new things, practice different options. I wrote this in first person, present tense. Not my most comfortable writing style, but it was fun to play with. We get deep in Katie’s POV and the action happens real-time, right along with her. I think, for an exercise, it works.

Setting is explored sparingly. We learn of the jukebox, the red stools, the counter and the pass-through to the kitchen. We hear the 50s music and smell the food. I didn’t devote long passages of description to this (and in fact, I shouldn’t have), but rather reveal these details in snippets as Katie experiences them. Could I have done more? Sure. But I don’t think I need to. If I turned this into a longer piece, I would.

Theme is pretty obvious. The lonely need love to thrive. Did you notice anything else in the story? Anything subliminal, maybe, that you picked up on? What about the color red? Red represents everything making her miserable in the story. She’s a “red hot mess.” Valentines, roses, bridesmaids’ dresses, the stool, the cherry glop, his shirt (because she can’t have him), the wine she’ll drink at home… Even Satan is often drawn red. Red becomes a metaphor for all the evil in her life, all that’s making her sad.

So, all told, despite the short length, this passage does meet the criteria for a complete story, even though it could become a scene in a longer work.

For Everyone:
So, what do you think? Is it a story or just a scene? Did it work for you? Did it remind you of any of your Valentine’s Days or of anyone you know? Let’s talk about it.

8 Responses

  1. Staci I hate Valentines day I don’t need a day to remind me to tell my hubs I love him and so we celebrate the day before. My daughter was born a minute before valentines day. Now that day is all about love. Enjoyed your short story, glad you kept it real, I remember being single and my nights probably ended like this lol.

    • Hi, Kath. It’s so nice that you have an almost-Valentine baby. Now that’s a great way to celebrate the day… far better than the Hallmark holiday that it is. In my family, it’s basically just another day. We try to show our love every day, not just on the days that the calendar says we should. I hope you have a good one!

  2. Hi Staci.
    This is a very visual story despite being a short piece. I got the colour theme! I think it is both a story in itself and could be developed into a full novel or novella. Does Katie spend her life a ‘slob’ on her own, or does she turn her life around? She doesn’t have to do that by getting the man of her dreams, she could do it for herself.
    I love the ‘for writier’s’ idea.
    Looking forward to next month.

    • I’m so glad you got the color theme. And I’m glad you were left with some questions to ponder. Makes for good reading and good writing, if I continue on with the story.

      And you’re welcome to use the “For Writers” segment in your own blog, if you want. I thought it was a good way to appeal to both readers and writers.

  3. Staci – I loved the story and the voice you gave your character – very compelling! I think this could definitely be the first chapter in a book – and then all the readers would be hooked to read on:) Also the references to red and how that’s all that’s evil in her life – lots of great added touches to your story Staci – loved it !

  4. I think it can be both. You have a “complete” story, yet as you say it could also be the opening of a novel. I felt you captured the feelings of many single women. Once, before I met and married my husband, I decided to eat dinner out – alone. I felt everyone was staring at me and thinking, “Poor her. Single with no one.” (I wasn’t even at a fancy restaurant.) Now that I’m married (and have been for 30+ years) I have no problems eating an occasional meal alone at a restaurant. In reality, the people years ago probably didn’t pay attention to me. However, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, so I relate to Katie’s thoughts.

    • I’m so glad to hear her thoughts are relatable. It’s funny you mention restaurants… When I eat alone, I just feel peace. No kids whining because they can’t use their phones. No talking with my husband about the tedium of managing our household. Just a quiet meal. If I wasn’t married, though? That same meal would be eaten under a cloud of perceived judgments. It’s all in our heads, sometimes, isn’t it?

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