Olga Wojtas on short stories

The FWS Scriever Olga Wojtas has kindly made the notes she used for the May 3rd workshop in Dundee available to us. So here they are!

Using Real Life As A Short Story Prompt

Basing a short story on your own experience can be tricky, because you tend to be over-influenced by what actually happened. Here’s a suggestion for how to use your own experience as a starting point, but then free yourself from real events.

A key element for a short story is conflict. Think of a time when someone said something to you that irritated/upset/annoyed you. It could be a shop assistant, a police officer, a colleague, your best friend, a relative – or how about a school teacher?

What did they say that made you react so badly? Hone it until you’ve got a really punchy piece of dialogue, preferably a single sentence, and use that bit of direct speech as the first line of your short story.

Continue the story from “your” point of view, writing about “your” reaction to what’s just been said to you. Except it’s no longer you. Change gender. If you’re female, make your character male, and vice versa. That automatically creates a distance between the incident and your story, and lets you explore different reactions and possibilities. The new “you” can have a completely different personality from you, can take a hideous revenge that you’re much too law-abiding to consider, can be overwhelmed, disbelieving, threatening.

And you can also change the gender of the person saying the first line – if you had a horrible female teacher, make it a man. Describe the new character – are they scowling, sneering, laughing? What do they look like? What are they wearing? You’re creating someone quite distinct from the real person, which will free you from simply reporting actual events.

You can also tackle this in another way which really frees you up from how you felt and what you did. Keep that same first sentence, the piece of snappy dialogue which may be insulting, insensitive, immature. Then continue the short story from that character’s point of view. Why did they say what they did? How do they feel about the other person? Is that first sentence as bad as they get, or do they up the ante as the story goes on?

Writing based on something real gives you control of a situation that perhaps was uncomfortable at the time. You’re in control over what happens, and you’re crafting a narrative, not producing a memoir. It can be quite therapeutic!

Happy writing,


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