101 Creative Writing Exercises is a book of writing exercises that takes writers on a journey through different forms and genres.
Each exercise teaches a specific concept, and each chapter focuses on a different subject or form: journaling, storytelling, fiction writing, poetry, article writing, and more. All of the exercises are designed to be practical. In other words, you can use these exercises to launch projects that are destined for publication.
Today, I’d like to present one of the exercises to give you a taste of what to expect from the book. From “Chapter Six: Storytelling,” this exercise is called “Oh No He Didn’t!” I hope you like it!
Oh No He Didn’t! (from 101 Creative Writing Exercises)
Plot twists, cliffhangers, and page-turners. Oh my! These are the sneaky techniques writers use to keep readers captivated. And we’ve all been there: It’s late, and I’m tired. After this chapter, the lights are going out. Then there’s a cliffhanger, a shocking development in the story. Forget sleep! I have to find out what happens next.
Some writers are criticized for overusing these devices or for planting twists that are contrived or forced. But a good plot twist or cliffhanger is natural to the story and doesn’t feel like the writer strategically worked it in.
Some stories feature major twists in the middle of chapters. It’s placing such a twist at the end of a chapter that turns it into a cliffhanger. Soap operas and television dramas are known, loved, and loathed for their application of these devices. It’s how they hook viewers, and it’s a way you can hook readers.
Each writer has to decide whether to use these techniques in storytelling. You might think they’re too formulaic or rob your story of its artfulness. Or maybe you like the exciting edge that a good twist or cliffhanger brings to a story.
Write an outline for a chapter that ends on a cliffhanger. You can also use a TV episode as your model or a serialized short story. Approach the cliffhanger by building tension to the moment:
Bad guys are chasing the good guys. The bad guys are gaining on them. They’re getting closer! One of bad guys draws his gun, lifts it, cocks it, and aims right at our hero. He pulls the trigger. See you next week!
You can also plant a cliffhanger that comes out of nowhere. The chapter is winding down, everything is moving along as expected and suddenly a character walks into a room and tells her ex-lover that she’s pregnant and he’s the father. Uh oh!
Both types of cliffhangers work equally well.
Tips: The best cliffhangers leave huge questions hanging in the air. Who did it? What just happened? Will they survive? How is that possible? What will happen next?
Variations: You can expand on this exercise by writing out a scene that ends on a cliffhanger. To expand further, write the follow-up scene and satisfy readers’ curiosity by answering the big questions raised by your cliffhanger.
Applications: If you want to be a commercially successful author, you will probably find that mastering the cliffhanger is a huge asset to your writing skills. The cliffhanger is almost mandatory in horror and mystery genres, so if that’s what you want to write, you’ll need to be able to execute a good clincher.
Ah, the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. How do they relate to poetry writing?
We delight in the pleasures of the senses, but infusing poetry with sensory stimulation is not an easy task. It takes a deft and creative writer to forge images–using text–that trigger a reader’s senses.
So why bother?
When you engage your readers’ senses, your poetry becomes more compelling and more memorable.
Some scientists say smell is the strongest of the senses in terms of memorability. If you get your readers to physically experience scent (or any other sensation), you’ll have them hooked. Surely you’ve read a passage that described the delicious smells of home-cooked food and found your mouth watering?
Today’s poetry writing exercises are designed to help you write with more sense. Below, you’ll find a series of short poetry writing exercises that culminate with making a poem that is peppered with sensory stimuli.
Step 1: Prepare
- Start with a sheet of paper divided into five columns. If you prefer to do writing exercises on your computer, you can use a spreadsheet or word-processing program.
- Label the columns: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
- Spend a few minutes populating the columns with words and phrases that reflect the correlating senses. For example, in the smell column, you might write chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, a blooming rose, or the cat’s litter box. Be as descriptive as possible and avoid using only stimuli that please or entice; add a few that are unpleasant for balance.
Step 2: Review
- Review your list carefully, testing each item on your list to see how it affects you. When you read something like throbbing bass coming from the car in the next lane, can you feel the boom?
- As you go through your list, cross out anything that doesn’t engage your senses.
- Highlight those items that really affect you–when you can feel the soft slick of silk or hear the sound of a quiet breeze rustling dried leaves, you’re affected.
Step 3: Poetry Writing Exercises
- Write one sentence for each of the five senses. Make sure it’s a complete sentence, and try to generate a sentence that evokes a scene. In other words “The roses smell nice,” won’t cut it. Try for something like: “I bent down, beckoned by the rose’s sweet perfume and dazzling red hue.” Note that this sentence affects two senses: smell (sweet perfume) and sight (red hue).
- Next, try to do what I did in the sample sentence above. Combine two or more senses into a single, complete sentence. When you read it back, does your nose tingle? Do you see bright colors in your mind?
- Look for sentences that you can link together, words and phrases that can be joined together under a common theme. For example, if a lot of your words, phrases, and sentences could be set outside, then they can be grouped together.
- Finally, using the material you’ve generated, write a poem that stimulates each of the five senses. As a bonus, you can work in the sixth sense as well.
- You can also work backwards. Start with a theme, then populate your lists with things that will trigger the senses and that correlate with the theme you’ve chosen.
- Need some ideas? Start by choosing a setting, such as an event, where it’s likely all fives senses would be stimulated. For example, at a wedding, there will be the scent of fresh flowers, the taste of a wedding cake, and the sound of “Here Comes the Bride.” Other likely events include concerts, parties, meetings, vacations, and–try this one–cleaning day.
- If you get stuck, refer to your brainstorming lists or practice sentences and use that material for inspiration.
- Try not to make it too obvious that your goal for the poem was to stimulate the reader’s senses. Be sure it flows naturally.
You should have fun with poetry writing exercises but they should also challenge you. If you try these sensory-stimulating poetry writing exercises, feel free to post excerpts from what you’ve written in the comments. Also, If you have any favorite poetry writing exercises of your own, feel free to share them as well.
And keep writing sensibly!
Looking for more poetry writing exercises? 101 Creative Writing Exercises features two full chapters on poetry writing:
Today’s poetry writing exercise is from 101 Creative Writing Exercises. The exercises in this book encourage you to experiment with different forms and genres while providing inspiration for publishable projects and imparting useful writing techniques that make your writing more robust.
This exercise is from “Chapter Eight: Free Verse.” It’s titled “Cut-and-Paste Poetry.” Enjoy!
Most poetry writing exercises are designed to help you focus on one particular area of poetry writing, such as rhyme, alliteration, or imagery. This one works on several levels.
First, this exercise provides a nice, Zen-like break from your daily routine because it involves more than writing. You’ll get to search through clippings and do a little cutting and pasting (the old-fashioned cutting and pasting with scissors and glue, not the computer-based cut-and-paste).
Second, this exercise provides an excellent alternative to recycling those growing stacks of old magazines, newspapers, and brochures that are sitting around collecting dust.
You can come back to this exercise again and again for future poetry writing sessions.
You’ll need some supplies and some time. Try to set aside an hour or two (and note that you can break this exercise up over several days or even longer).
What You’ll Need (Supplies)
- Old printed material: magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, ads, photocopies, junk mail, etc.
- A small box, basket, jar, or other container
- A pair of scissors
- A glue stick or a roll of clear tape
- A piece of blank paper (construction paper works well; you can also use a piece of cardboard or a page in your notebook)
- Highlighter (optional)
Step One: Go through old magazines, pamphlets, printouts, and photocopies. Any printed material will do. Scan through the text to find words and phrases that are interesting and capture your attention and imagination. You can highlight the text you like or move ahead to step two.
Step Two: Cut out the phrases you’ve chosen and place them in your container.
Step Three: When you have a nice pile of clippings, pull some out and spread them across a flat work surface. Sift through the words, pairing different clippings together to see how the phrasing sounds. Place the ones you like best on a piece of paper, arrange them into a poem, and use glue or tape to adhere them.
Tips, Variations, and Applications
Tips: Look for words and images that pop. When you’re all done, save the leftover clippings so you can repeat this exercise again later.
Variations: If you find it difficult to cobble together an entire poem from your clippings, then use a pen or pencil to add words and phrases to complete your poem. You can also clip images and incorporate them to create a multimedia poetry collage that is also a piece of art.
Applications: This exercise reminds you to focus on word choice and language. It encourages you to go outside yourself for inspiration by piecing elements from different sources together to make something new.
Don’t forget to pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available in paperback and ebook.
I recently shared a writing exercise that encouraged you to get into a character’s head. Today’s exercise asks you to go a step further and explore characters and ideas that are your polar opposites.
One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of being a writer is creating characters. It is an opportunity to step outside of your own reality and take on a completely different persona.
Unless you’re an actor, an undercover agent, or just plain crazy, you don’t get many chances in life to do that.
Writing also lets us explore ideas and share our thoughts, opinions, and feelings on a wide range of topics. To Kill a Mockingbird addressed racism, The Da Vinci Code critically explored religious doctrine, and The Hunger Games examined troublesome aspects of our society, particularly glam culture, class systems, war, and violence among teenagers.
As a fiction writer, there will be times when you need to get into the head of a character who is your polar opposite. You’ll need to have a deep comprehension of ideologies that are not aligned with your own. If you can’t do that, then your story will lack believability.
Today’s fiction writing exercises give you practice in stepping out of your shoes so you can walk in someone else’s.
For characters to truly resonate with readers, they must be vibrant and stir the audience’s emotions. Readers have to become attached to the characters, feel sympathy, compassion, even love (or hate) for them. It’s not easy to fabricate people (or other beings) that don’t really exist, have never existed, yet make them seem real. But it can be done.
So how do writers achieve this great feat?
Much credence has been given to the old adage write what you know. Base a character on a friend or family member or yourself. But what fun is that? If you’re an accountant by day, do you really want to play an accountant in your fantasy world too? Probably not. And when you create a character, that’s pretty much what you’re doing, playing a role. You have to get into the character’s mind, live the life, absorb the environment in which the character lives. You have to be your character, even if you have absolutely nothing in common with that character.
Fiction Writing Exercises
Each fiction writing exercise below encourages you to get into a mindset that opposes your own way of thinking or existing. Try one exercise or try them all–just make sure to have fun.
Exercise #1: Write a personal essay from the perspective of someone who is your polar opposite.
If you grew up in the big city, write as a country dweller. If you grew up on a farm or lived in a small town all your life, write about an army brat who was raised living in dozens of towns, going to different schools each year. Are you a stay-at-home, married parent? Write as a swinging single making it big in the big apple. If you’re a successful businessperson, write as a prison inmate who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.
You can also write as your ideological opposite. If you’re Buddhist, write from the perspective of a Christian. If you’re Christian, write from the perspective of an atheist. Are you a political junkie? Write from the viewpoint of the political party you oppose.
For the essay, focus on something you have never experienced or that you disagree with. If you are from the city and you’re writing about the country, write a descriptive essay about a farm setting. If you’re a liberal writing as a conservative, choose an issue and write an essay arguing for the conservative position on that issue.
The idea is to get outside your comfort zone, and explore a different way of life or mode of thinking than the one you know. You can then use this exercise to develop a character who is wildly different from you.
Excercise #2: Write a scene with two characters who are opposites.
Create two characters: one who is just like you (write yourself into the scene if you want) and one who is not like you at all. Write a scene that explores their differences. Here are some suggestions:
- An old-fashioned rancher and a highly successful, modern urban businesswoman are seated next to each other on a plane.
- A Democratic state politician and a Republican lobbyist get stuck in an elevator together.
- Someone who is devoutly religious gets into a deep conversation with an atheist at a party.
There is only one rule here: Both characters must be sympathetic. In other words, you cannot make the character who is your opposite into any kind of villain or antagonist, and neither character will change his or her views or lifestyle by the end of the scene. Your goal is to gain understanding, not make a statement.
Exercise #3: Live your dreams and realize your nightmares.
A lot of people are terrified of public speaking. They may or may not have the desire to get up and talk to a crowd, but it doesn’t matter because their fear inhibits them from doing so. And we all have dreams–some are goals that we can or will pursue but other dreams are far-off fantasies that we know will never come to fruition.
For this exercise, you’ll write a short story or scene in first person. In the scene, you’ll do something that you’ve never done–something you may never do in reality but can certainly tackle in a piece of fiction.
Here are some examples:
- Greatest fear: Either write a scene where you overcome your greatest fear and face the thing that terrifies you or write as a character who does not have this fear and therefore faces it with ease. For example, if you have a fear of flying, write as an airplane pilot.
- Dreams and goals: Have you ever wanted to travel somewhere but haven’t gotten around to it? Do you hope to someday find the love of your life or become a star in your career field? Are you working toward your dreams and goals? Write as a character who is living the life you hope to live someday.
- Fantasy: Did you ever want to be a rock star? An astronaut? A wizard? Write as a character who is living out your greatest fantasies.
The idea here is to do something in writing that you’ve never done in real life. It can be something you may still someday achieve or it could be something impossible or unlikely.
Fiction Writing Exercises for Fun and Focus
Fiction writing exercises like these will help you when you’re writing about characters who are not like you in significant ways. These exercises will also expand the types of characters you feel comfortable bringing into your stories.
If any of these exercises stick and you get really into it, write several pages, or try doing the exercise again with different characters. You might unveil a new side of yourself that you didn’t know you had. You might find it completely uncomfortable and decide to go back to writing what you know, but at least you will have tried something new.
Remember, fiction writing exercises are supposed to be fun, but their purpose is to challenge you to try new things and think in new ways, so be sure to truly step out of your shoes and go beyond your comfort zone.
Feel free to post comments about your character. Who or what will you become? What shoes are you going to step into when you step out of your own?
If you have any fiction writing exercises to share, feel free to post them in the comments.
In honor of next week’s launch of the third and final book in the Adventures in Writing series, I’d like to share an entire chapter from the first book in the series, 101 Creative Writing Exercises. “Chapter One: Freewriting” includes instructions for freewriting plus several variations and applications that you can use to make freewriting work for you.
Freewriting is one of the simplest, fastest, and most flexible creative writing exercises you can do. Use it for daily writing practice, idea development, and problem solving. I encourage all writers to give it a try.
Chapter One: Freewriting
Freewriting is one of the most creative and liberating writing exercises you can do.
Also called stream-of-consciousness writing, freewriting allows you to let your thoughts and ideas flow onto the page without inhibition. Anything goes. Turn off your inner editor and allow your subconscious to take over. The results can be inspiring, enlightening, and thought provoking.
Freewriting is ideal for daily writing practice. A twenty-minute freewriting session in the morning is a great way to capture your dreams or record your ideas before your head becomes cluttered with the day’s activities. A nighttime session is perfect for clearing your mind of the day’s clutter and for noting new ideas that have occurred to you throughout the day.
Guided freewriting is a bit different. As you write, you focus your attention on a specific idea, topic, or image. There are a number of variations on guided freewriting, which are explained in the variations section after the exercise.
With any kind of freewriting, you write quickly and let your thoughts flow freely. Remember, anything goes, even if it doesn’t make sense. Thoughts that sound ridiculous as you’re writing may gain meaning or clarity when you read the piece back later.
The process is simple. First, set a limit. Your limit is the minimum amount that you will write. Limits can be set in time, word count, or pages. Then write whatever comes to mind, no matter how outrageous. You will write up to your limit and if you want, you can exceed it. In other words, if you set a limit of ten minutes, you must write for at least ten minutes, but you can write for longer if you want.
The first few times you try freewriting, you might find that your mind goes blank at different points throughout your writing session. When this happens, don’t stop writing. Your pen should always be moving. If nothing comes to mind, write the word nothing over and over until your thoughts start flowing again. Just keep writing.
What limits should you set? If you have a timer, try setting it for twenty minutes, which is a good amount of time for any writing session. Or, fill two pages in your notebook, writing in longhand. If you’ll be writing electronically, then aim for five hundred words. You may want to experiment with how you set allotments for your freewriting sessions. Some writers find that anything beyond thirty minutes of freewriting becomes garbled; others find they hit their stride after the ten-minute mark.
Experiment with different writing tools. Many writers like writing in longhand for better creativity. If you write primarily on a computer, then give paper and pen a whirl for a few of your freewriting sessions.
Also, don’t give up after your first attempt at freewriting. Most writers who are new to freewriting find that it takes a few tries to get the hang of it.
Below are a few examples of guided freewriting for creativity and problem solving:
Focused freewriting is writing around a certain idea or concept. If you’re working on a novel and your characters are stuck, a focused freewrite might help you break through the scene or move your characters to the next step. This is a bit like brainstorming except you write freely and continually, letting ideas stream instead of pondering them before committing them to the page.
Topical freewriting is writing about a specific topic or subject. If you’re working on an essay, you might engage in focused freewriting about the subject matter. This allows you to explore your thoughts and feelings and figure out which ideas and aspects of the subject you want to examine or address.
Words and imagery freewriting is great for poetry writing and useful if you’re writing nothing a lot in your general freewriting sessions. Choose a word or image and while you’re freewriting, keep your mind focused on it. If your mind goes blank during the freewrite, come back to the word and write it over and over (instead of nothing). Some examples: my body, apple tree, hummingbird, war, freedom, family, library, or museum.
Character freewriting helps you get to know your characters. There are two ways to do character freewrites. The first is to freewrite about the character. Write the character’s name across the top of the page, set your timer, and then write whatever comes to mind about the character. The second method for character freewriting is to write in first person as if you are the character. This brings you inside your character’s head to better understand his or her goals and motivations.
Solution freewriting is a technique for solving problems in your writing projects. Start by writing the problem across the top of the page. Try to form it into a question. Then write. Allow yourself to explore tangents and be emotional. You may find that you write yourself right into a solution. Some examples include the following: How can I explain the mystery I created for my story? What is missing from this poem? How can I better argue my position in this essay?
Freewrites are perhaps best known for generating raw material that can be harvested for poetry. The nature of stream-of-consciousness writing lends itself well to poetry because freewrites tend to produce unusual or vivid images and abstract ideas.
Freewrites are also perfect for daily writing practice, especially when you don’t have a larger project underway or need a break from your regular writing routine.
Looking for more creative writing writing exercises that will inspire you and sharpen your writing skills? Pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available at your favorite online bookstore.
Writers are not actors, but sometimes we need to get into character.
To truly understand the nature of a character, a writer must step into that character’s shoes. You can use character sketches and descriptions while you’re creating a character, but the character will remain two dimensional until you can get into the character’s head and understand what makes him or her tick.
It’s harder than it sounds. Your first impulse might be to act like a puppet master, pulling the character’s strings and controlling every action and line of dialogue. But what you really need to do is scoot over and get in the passenger’s seat. Let your character do the driving and ride along as an observer. And that’s exactly what today’s fiction writing exercises will help you do.
Tips for Getting Into Character
Many artists and creative people talk about entering “the zone.” This is a state of mind in which you’re running on automatic pilot. Your right (creative) brain is fully engaged and your left (logical) brain is snoozing with one eye open. It is in this state that people often get lost in an activity, lose track of time, and produce some of their best creative work.
When you’re getting into character, it’s best to be in the zone. Tackle these fiction writing exercises when you’re calm and relaxed and willing to let your imagination override your logical thinking.
Fiction Writing Exercises for Getting Into Character
Exercise #1: Chat
Launch your word processing software and start a conversation with your character. Most of us have engaged in online chat or text messaging. This is the same idea. If chat is not a comfortable medium for you, then try composing emails back and forth between you and your character.
Before you start, you might want to come up with a list of questions to ask your character. Also, this is a great exercise to use when you get stuck in a story that doesn’t want to move forward. Simply chat with your character to try and find out what’s holding him or her back from taking the next step.
Your chat might look something like this:
WRITER: You’re just sitting there, doing nothing. What’s your problem?
CHARACTER: I don’t know what to do.
WRITER: What are your options?
Exercise #2: Stand-in Situation
Take your character out of the story you’re writing and put the character in a difficult situation. Think of riveting scenes from books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen or use scenes from your own life.
A few quick ideas for scenes that will reveal how your character handles challenges:
- Your character is standing on the corner trying to hail a taxi when there’s a sudden distraction. This could be an accident in the street, a beautiful man or woman walking by, or an emergency phone call from a desperate friend or family member. Does your character hop in the cab or stop to help? Does it depend on where the cab is going?
- Your character’s arch-enemy is in grave peril and the only person around who can save him is your character. Does your character let the enemy die or save his life?
- Your character has been grossly betrayed by a close friend or family member. Does your character forgive, seek revenge, or walk away?
Notice that all these scenarios test the character’s integrity. This is a great way to get a handle on what kinds of choices your character makes. Remember: people are not perfect and characters needn’t be either. The most interesting characters are easy to relate to, and that means they are flawed in some way.
Exercise #3: Monologue
Monologues are a great way to get inside your character’s head, especially if the story you’re writing will be in third person. This is your chance to let your character’s voice be heard.
Write a piece in first person from your character’s perspective. Choose a general theme for the monologue and start writing in the character’s voice. Some ideas for themes:
- The character is relating a significant event from his or her past: the loss of a loved one, a major life transition, or one of those everyday moments that change everything or stay with you forever.
- The character is faced with a serious challenge or decision and is discussing the options and what the effects of either choice might be.
- The character is in the middle of an emotional crisis and is overcome by grief, rage, envy, or some other intense feelings.
In a monologue, you can include action cues, but try to write them into the dialogue. For instance, if the character starts crying, make that evident through the narrative. If you’re feeling really brave (or if you’re an actor at heart), try recording yourself reading and acting out the monologue. That will add another dimension and allow your character’s speech, intonation, and inflection to come through.
How to Use These Exercises
Try to pinpoint any areas where you’ve stepped in and taken over. Maybe your character said something that you normally or frequently say. Or perhaps the character did something that is out of character. You can edit and revise until you feel your piece has truly captured your character’s behavior and personality.
Later, when you’re working on your story, you can revisit these fiction writing exercises to see if there are any clues about your character that you want to use. You may also use these exercises as you’re writing a story to help you get a better grasp on your characters.
As always, the most important thing when working through creative writing exercises is to have fun, and keep writing.
If you have any fiction writing exercises to share, feel free to post them in the comments or send them in as a guest post.
Are you looking for more fiction writing exercises? Pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available in paperback and ebook.
Do you ever feel like the story you’re writing is bland? Like it needs to be spiced up? Or maybe you want to write a story but you’re fresh out of ideas. Perhaps you need to practice storytelling?
Fiction writing exercises are perfect for toning your storytelling muscles. They can also provide you with a wealth of ideas for writing projects.
Today’s fiction writing exercises are designed to stimulate creativity and get you thinking about story from fresh angles.
Stimulate Your Creativity with These Fiction Writing Exercises
Below, you’ll find a list of simple scenarios. Each one could form the basis for a story. Your job is to come up with three story premises for each scenario. Be creative and try to avoid the most obvious premises.
Let’s use the following scenario as an example:
While hiking alone in the woods, a character comes face to face with a bear.
The obvious premise might show the hiker getting attacked by the bear or dropping and rolling to avoid getting attacked by the bear, but how could you put an unexpected twist on this scenario? Maybe the bear and the hiker strike up a conversation (fantasy or children’s literature). Maybe the bear is sick and weak, so the hiker decides to nurse it back to health. Maybe the bear isn’t a bear at all. Could it be someone in a bear suit?
For each scenario below, come up with three different premises that could be used to build a story. Try to stretch your story premises across a range of genres, including literary fiction, mystery, thriller, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, horror, romance, historical, humor, satire, children’s, and young adult.
- A cruise ship gets caught in a storm, veers off course, and then sinks far from the mainland, but many of the passengers survive and make it to a deserted island.
- A man and a woman are sitting across from each other at a small table in a dimly lit restaurant.
- A family watches as their cat gives birth to a litter of nine kittens.
- Moments after arriving home from a long and difficult day at work, a character is shocked when the police show up with an arrest warrant.
- In a mid-sized town, somebody is dressing in disguise and fighting crime–a real-life superhero or a masked vigilante?
Feel free to change these scenarios or mix them up. Maybe instead of a cat having kittens, the family’s dog is having puppies. Maybe the character who is served with an arrest warrant is either the man or woman who was dining in the dimly lit restaurant.
If you try any of these fiction writing exercises, come back and tell us how they worked for you.
When we writers discuss fiction, we usually focus on plot, setting, dialogue, and especially characters. These, of course, are the essential elements of decent storytelling. But what we often forget to address is the prose.
The words we choose to depict action, express characters’ thoughts, and render their dialogue is another important, albeit often overlooked, element of writing–and that’s true of any form of writing, including storytelling.
Language can raise a story to new heights or it can make a story sink. If readers are struggling to understand words and phrases or if they’re constantly distracted by unnecessary words and repetition, the story will take a backseat to the poorly constructed prose, and you’ll risk losing the readers.
No matter how compelling your story is, if you can’t convey it through well crafted prose, it will get lost in the slush pile and end up in the discount bin. Today’s fiction writing exercises encourage you to set story aside and focus instead on the language, which is at the very heart of the craft of writing.
Fiction Writing Exercises: Practice in Prose
These fiction writing exercises encourage you to dig into the marrow of your writing–the language. You’ll need a few pieces of your own writing; they can be drafts or polished pieces. Choose one exercise below or tackle all of them.
Exercise One: Modifier Madness
Start with a short story or a scene you’ve completed. Use about five pages of narrative. Go through the piece and highlight all adjectives and adverbs. Now read it back without those modifiers. Did it lose meaning? Did some sentences gain strength because they weren’t weighed down with unnecessary detail? Look for adjective-noun and adverb-verb combinations that you can replace with more vivid nouns and verbs. For example, running quickly becomes sprinting. If you’re struggling to replace words that aren’t working, use the thesaurus.
Exercise Two: Dialogue Diversions
Find a dialogue scene in a story you’ve written. Make a copy of the scene and strip away the action and description, leaving only the dialogue. Use a different color of highlighting for each character’s dialogue so you can easily distinguish them from each other (for example, yellow for character A, green for character B, etc.).
- Read one character’s dialogue aloud, skipping the other characters’ lines. Is the character’s manner of speech consistent? Does the character use any dialect or catch phrases that make his or her speech patterns distinguishable? Is the dialogue peppered with filler words like um and well? Does it sound like natural speech? Does it reflect the character’s background, education, and social status?
- Read all of the characters’ dialogue aloud (better yet, get a friend to help so each of you can read different characters’ lines). Is each character’s dialogue distinct from the other characters? Does the conversation flow? Does it stay on topic or go off on tangents? Do the characters refer to each by name too often (people don’t usually refer to each other by name in real life)?
Exercise Three: Rhythm and Pacing
Pull one to three pages of narrative from a story that’s in progress or completed. Make a copy of it and format it with double line spacing so you have plenty of room to work between the lines. Print it out. Now go through and count the words in each sentence and make a note of the word count at the beginning of each sentence. Then go through and count the syllables in each sentence and make a note of the syllable count at the end of each sentence. Use different color pens for word count and syllable count or use highlighters so you can easily tell the difference.
Do you tend to write short or long sentences? Do your sentences vary in length or does the rhythm drone in a repetitive manner? Could you link two short sentences together to make a single, longer sentence? Can you break up any long sentences into two or more shorter sentences?
Did these fiction writing exercises help you view your prose in a new light? Which exercise did you tackle? Do you have any tips for crafting compelling prose? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
101 Creative Writing Exercises is jam-packed with fun and practical writing exercises.
You’ll learn useful writing techniques while gathering ideas and inspiration for all your creative writing projects.
Experiment with fiction, poetry, freewriting, journaling, memoir, and article writing.
Today, I’d like to share an exercise from “Chapter Five: Fiction.” This creative writing exercise is titled “Potter Wars.” Enjoy!
A lot of artists struggle with the desire to write original material. Of course we all want to be original, but is that even possible?
Some say there are no new stories, just remixed and rehashed versions of stories we’re all familiar with. When we say a piece of writing is original, a close examination will reveal that it has roots in creative works that preceded it.
Most of us writers have had ideas that we shunned because we thought they were too similar to other stories. But just because your story idea is similar to another story, perhaps a famous one, should you give up on it?
Look at this way: everything already exists. The ideas, plots, and characters—they’re already out there in someone else’s story. Originality isn’t a matter of coming up with something new, it’s a matter of using your imagination to take old concepts and put them together in new ways.
To test this theory, see if you can guess the following famous story:
A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger. This leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he receives training to learn superhuman skills. Along the way, he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. Our hero is also helped by a number of non-human creatures. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves.
If you guessed that this synopsis outlines Harry Potter, then you guessed right. But if you guessed that it was Star Wars, you’re also right.
This shows how two stories that are extremely different from one another can share many similarities, including basic plot structure and character relationships, and it proves that writing ideas will manifest in different ways when executed by different writers.
If it’s true that originality is nothing more than putting together old concepts in new ways, then instead of giving up on a project that you think has been done before, you should simply try to make it your own by giving it a new twist.
Use the synopsis above to write your own short story. However, do not write a space opera or a tale about wizards.
Tips: One of the key differences between Star Wars and Harry Potter is the setting. One is set in a galaxy far, far away; the other in a magical school for wizards. One is science fiction; the other is fantasy. Start by choosing a completely different genre and setting and you’ll be off to a good start. For example, you could write a western or a romance.
Variations: Instead of writing a short story, write a detailed outline for a novel or novella.
Applications: This exercise is designed to demonstrate the following:
- It’s not unusual for two writers to come up with similar ideas.
- A vague premise or concept will be executed differently by different writers.
Instead of worrying about original characters and plots, focus on combining well-known elements in new ways.
These fiction writing exercises are designed to help fiction writers gain a better understanding of their characters, including antagonists, by learning how to relate to contradictory or opposing viewpoints.
Remember, an antagonist is not necessarily a villain. An antagonist is anyone whose purpose is at odds with the protagonist’s goals.
In addition to antagonists, we should be writing characters who are unique and complex, not characters who are all cardboard cutouts of ourselves. That means we have to get into the heads of people who are strikingly different from ourselves.
These fiction writing exercises will help you do just that. The idea is to try and view the world from a perspective that is completely different from your own and to get inside the head of someone who is not like you.
Fiction Writing Exercises
Fiction writing exercises are a great way to work your writing muscles, especially when you’re feeling uninspired. Like all good fiction writing exercises, these are great for aspiring novelists and folks who enjoy penning short stories. Characters are the heart and soul of any story, and to make them real and vivid, you have to be able to get inside their heads. And that’s a challenge–especially when dealing with antagonists and characters whom you have little in common with.
By stepping into a villain’s shoes or writing from a viewpoint that contradicts our own, we can learn to generate characters that are more realistic. For these writing exercises, you will select a person, position, or belief with which you are at odds. Do you have a neighbor who argues that he should not pay his share for the fencing on your shared property line? Are you for or against the death penalty? What’s it like to be the villain?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Think of a person who constantly makes you grit your teeth. It could be someone close to you, perhaps a relative. Or it could be someone in the media–a politician, celebrity, or sports star. It could even be a character from a book or movie. It needs to be someone with whom you feel inner conflict and who possibly makes you uncomfortable.
When you sit down to write, you will write as if you are this individual. Write an essay, in first person, from this individual’s perspective, and make a concentrated effort to address those things that bother you.
Many of us have very strong positions on various issues. Some are serious and others aren’t very important in the grand scheme of things. Do you eat meat or are you a vegetarian? Are you a conservative or a liberal? Do you support stem cell research? Are you for or against the war? Look at some of the top news stories this week for more ideas. For a more lighthearted approach, look to lifestyle differences. Do people outside the mainstream intrigue or offend you? How important are table manners? Mac or PC?
Whatever your personal stance is, write as if you held the opposite position. Argue against your own arguments and discover what the other side is thinking. This can build empathy and lead to discovery and insight.
What religion or philosophy do you adhere to? Chances are, whatever it is you believe with regard to ethics and spirituality, there are a whole bunch of people out there who see things in quite a different light. Are you an atheist? Write as a Catholic. Do you believe in evolution or intelligent design? Write as an agnostic.
Use this exercise to better understand the similarities and differences between contrary ways of thinking and believing.
Tips for Tackling These Fiction Writing Exercises
In tackling these exercises, write at least 1000 words. The piece can take the form of a letter, an opinion editorial, or personal essay written in the voice of a character who significantly different from you. Don’t be afraid to get creative! Try writing a monologue or a poem (great approach if you’ve chosen to write about beliefs).
This is a great writing exercise to revisit, especially if you get stuck with one of your fictional characters. Can’t figure out what your villain would do next? Write a short piece in first person point of view from your villain’s perspective.
Remember, you’re not mimicking the character, you are stepping into his or her head. Try to relate to the way the character thinks and feels, and remember that each of us is shaped by our life experiences.
Good luck and have fun with these and other fiction writing exercises!
If you have any fiction writing exercises to share, feel free to post them in the comments.
Are you looking for more fiction writing exercises? Pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available in paperback and ebook.
Whenever I’m working on a story idea, I spend a lot of time during the development stages making character sketches and writing backstories for my characters. I usually end up with too many of them and some characters get cut. The lucky ones get resurrected in some other story.
Some of my favorite stories are plot-driven, but character-driven stories tend to resonate with me on a deeper level, which is why I believe that regardless of plot, stories with strong and compelling character arcs are the best. They start with a character who wants something and we see the character through conflict after conflict until he or she emerges changed, usually stronger and for the better.
The most compelling characters are unique in some way and brimming with personality. But they are flawed too, and I think that oftentimes, readers find themselves more in the characters’ flaws than in their strengths.
Conversely, the least interesting characters are boring. They lack personality or their goals aren’t clear. Oftentimes, they act “out of character,” doing things that are inconsistent with their established personalities and behaviors.
Character exercises can help with all that.
Create Characters with These Fiction Writing Exercises
You can use these exercises all by themselves–create a character just for fun, and who knows? Maybe one of these exercises will lead to your next big writing project. Or you can use them to develop a character for a story you’re already working on, but keep in mind that the story itself often shapes characters, so be flexible and allow your character to change with the story. In other words, you don’t have to stick to the profile you’ve created for your character.
1. Character Backstory
I define backstory as everything that happened to the character up to the point where the narrative begins. Sometimes it helps to start at the beginning:
This character was born in a small town south of San Francisco just a few days before the 1906 Earthquake. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father ran a general store…
The character backstory can be simple, covering the highlights and important events throughout your character’s life. It can also become rather elaborate, depending on how much detail you want to put in and how clearly the character speaks to you.
For this exercise, write a character backstory starting with your character’s birth and hitting all the major events of your character’s life up to the point where the story starts. Try to write a minimum of 1000 words.
2. Psychological Profile
As with backstory, a psychological profile can be minimal or detailed: What is your character’s greatest fear? What traumas has your character experienced and how did it shape his or her personality? Does your character have any psychological disorders or conditions?
But the most important question you ask in a psychological profile is this: What does the character want and why?
If you really want to create a character who is complex, then try identifying an internal goal, an external goal, and figure out what the stakes are. If you can come up with an internal goal and an external goal that are at odds with each other, all the better.
For example: let’s say your character’s internal goal is to improve his community and his external goal is to become a politician so he can accomplish his internal goal. In his mind, his community is at stake. Those are big stakes if the character loves the community and has deep ties to it. What happens when the character gets into politics and has to start wheeling and dealing? With he sacrifice another community’s well-being to make things better for his own? Will he hang his city’s factory workers out to dry so he can do something to benefit the town’s small businesses?
For this exercise, list your character’s internal goal, external goal, and what’s at stake. This is an especially useful exercise to do with a protagonist. Whenever your story gets stuck, remind yourself what the protagonist’s goals are, and that will often get you back on track.
Bonus: if you’re creating a character who is not the protagonist, write a short description (it might be just a single sentence) stating the character’s purpose to the story.
3. Coping with Conflict
Some say that story is conflict–just one conflict after another. These conflicts are constantly pushing characters toward their goals and pulling them away from their goals.
For this exercise, you’ll experiment with writing scenes that show your character coping with conflict. Write one scene where your character faces conflict and gets defeated. Write another where your character overcomes some conflict. If you’re working on a short story or novel, write scenes that take place outside of your story. Try to write a minimum of 1500 words per scene.
A Few More Activities for Creating Characters
- Sketch picture of your character; search the web for images that resemble your character; or find video showing an actor, actress, or other public figure that you can use as a model for your character.
- Create a character journal and write a few entries in the character’s voice about his or her daily life.
- Write a letter from your character to a loved one (or write a letter from a loved one to your character).
Got any fiction writing exercises or activities that will help writers create characters? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.
Are you looking for more writing exercises? Pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available in paperback and ebook.
Today’s creative writing exercise comes from 101 Creative Writing Exercises, a book I wrote on the craft of writing.
This book guides writers through an adventure in writing. You’ll explore different forms and genres of writing, including freewriting, journaling, memoir, fiction, storytelling, poetry, and article or blog writing.
101 Creative Writing Exercises imparts proven writing techniques while providing writing practice and creative inspiration.
Today, I’d like to share an exercise from “Chapter Nine: Philosophy, Critical Thinking, and Problem Solving.” This exercise is titled “Moral Dilemmas.” Enjoy!
We each have our own personal philosophies and values. Our values come from our families, religions, and cultures. They shape our morals and the decisions we make.
People are complex. What we believe is right or wrong changes when we find ourselves in real situations. Consider an honorable character who believes that one’s highest loyalty is to his or her family. Then, that character learns his brother is a serial killer. Does he turn him in? Testify against him? Stories get interesting when characters’ morals are put to the test.
We all know the knight in shining armor should risk his life to save the damsel in distress. If he doesn’t, then he loses his status as hero and becomes a coward. What if the knight is forced to make a more difficult decision? What if his true love and his beloved sister are both in distress but he only has time to save one of them?
For this exercise, you will put a character’s morals to the test. Below, you’ll find a short list of moral dilemmas. Write a scene in which a character faces one of these moral dilemmas and has to make an agonizing decision.
- In the novel Sophie’s Choice, a young Polish mother and her two children are taken to a concentration camp. Upon arrival, she is forced to choose one child to live and one to die. If she doesn’t choose, they both die. Write a scene in which your character must choose between the lives of two loved ones.
- A single woman is close friends with the couple next door and has secret romantic feelings for the husband. She discovers that his wife is having an affair. Normally, this woman minds her own business but now she sees an opportunity to get closer to the man she wants.
- Some countries have strict laws regarding drug possession. A family has traveled to one such country for vacation. Upon arrival (or departure), one of the teenagers’ bags is sniffed out by a dog. The bag is opened, the drugs are identified, and the guard asks whose bag it is. Both parents are considering claiming ownership. Everyone in the family knows the sentence would be death.
- Your character gets to travel through time and face this classic moral dilemma: the character finds himself or herself holding a loaded gun, alone in a room, with a two-year-old baby Hitler.
- A plane crashes into the sea. Most of the passengers escape with inflatable lifeboats but they do not board them correctly. Your character ends up on a lifeboat that holds eight people but there are twelve people on it, and it’s sinking. Your character can either throw four people overboard and eight will survive or they will all die except your character, who will get rescued after the others drown.
During the scene, the character should agonize over the decision and reveal his or her reasons for the choice that he or she makes.
Tips: Search online for “lists of moral dilemmas” to get more scenarios.
Variations: If you don’t want to write a scene, challenge yourself to come up with a few moral dilemmas of your own.
Applications: These moral dilemmas also work as story prompts. They force you to put your characters in situations that are deeply distressing, thus creating conflict and tension.