The five stories below are told by children in crisis, children caught in the middle of adult situations, a child wrestling with aging and culture, and one child who plots to kill her sister.Channelling the voice of a child can be deceptively complex. What vocabulary is believable for, say, a three-year-old? What is the gulf between the adult writer’s memory of a childhood event and a child character’s observation? Does a writer need a degree in child psychology to write in a child’s voice?
Five from the Archive is a SmokeLong series devoted to providing creative writing instructors themed writing activities and prompts. You can find previous Five from the Archive posts HERE.
- The child narrator in Lori Sambol Brody’s “The Sky is Just Another Neighborhood” is positioned as actor/observer in this family’s constant crisis: becoming homeless in the wake of illness and unemployment. Read the text a couple of times, paying close attention to how many times the narrator reports what the adult characters say. This is a good technique to layer the narrative with insights from adult voices. Imagine how the narrative would be different told from the mother’s point of view. Which story elements would fall away; which would become more prominent?
Writing Prompt: Imagine a strong family unit struggling with a destructive outside force. From one of the children’s point of view show how this family overcomes (or doesn’t overcome) this crisis. Incorporate the technique of reporting what the adults say (but be subtle).
2. The narrator in James Braun’s “The Strings Between Us” lies somewhere between first-person plural and singular. The narrator, Sanora, often speaks for her sister, Latoya, and they are quite unified in terms of point of view. Their names/identities are so integral to the story, as if the narrative they are telling is just as much about who they are as the overarching story of their cheating father. Their diction is reckless and risk-taking–but also adherent to some rules. For example, the narrator speaks directly to the reader, making this complex story a second-person narrative as well. For more discussion, also read Leonora Desar’s “*69” and compare the stories in terms of voice, structure, and point of view.
Writing Prompt: Imagine a situation in which two siblings are eavesdropping on an adult situation that puts the children in the position of having to keep a secret. Experiment with first- and second-person points of view.
3. The narrator in Vivien Cao’s “There Weren’t Even Any Bubbles” is precocious and prepubescent. Maybe 11 years old? Young enough to need a babysitter, old enough to sport a smart tweenager’s vocabulary? She is at the curious age when she can understand the horror of aging but also playfully joke about it as a Grandma thing. This is a story very much about a grandmother adamantly trying to retain her family’s culture told by a child who doesn’t yet understand how important that is. And Vivien Cao really nails the voice.
Writing Prompt: Think about your own family, your own grandparents, but don’t think about them with your adult mind; think about what it means to be ‘old’ from a child’s point of view. Make a list of all the aspects of your grandparents’ culture that are foreign or ‘old’ to this child. Write about what it means to lose them.
4. Eileen Merriman’s “Prismatic” is a sinister tale about revenge. It’s also a numbered story, each section representing the age of the narrator as she grows older. The structure is compact, economical, and intuitive, its diction growing more sophisticated with the years.
Writing Prompt: In general, stories that employ such a specific concept are risky to emulate–so please don’t write a numbered story in which the narrator’s diction becomes more sophisticated with the years unless you have an amazing, fresh idea. Do, however, write a story about revenge. Siblings can be cruel, and you can make them crueler.
5. Our final story requires some content warnings. There’s the N-word. The father is a racist and a murderer. He’s probably killed all of his wives. Is the child narrator at risk? Not at risk? Is this child narrator somehow that friend-of-the-serial-killer character who is exempt from the horror (or destined to relive it over and over again)? Finally, is the serial killer father a good dad? At least to Lauren? At least Joshua Rupp in “Lauren Lights Out” writes the father as a complex sort of monster.
Writing Prompt: From the point of view of a child, write a story about a parent who is flawed. Explore the spectrum of ‘the flaw’: from mild to monster. Remember to place the parent and child into a moment full of action. Give them a common goal.
Christopher Allen is the editor-in-chief of SmokeLong Quarterly. He is also the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press). His work has appeared most recently in Fictive Dream, X-R-A-Y Literary Journal, and The Best Small Fictions.