Setting is one of the most important elements in fiction writing. If your readers don’t know where the story is taking place, they’ll get lost and confused, and it will be hard for them to enjoy your tale.
Some stories have simple settings based on real places. You can use your hometown or a major city. A setting can also be completely dreamed up, which is often necessary in speculative fiction writing (Wonderland and Never Land, for example). You can keep a setting in the background, referring to it only when necessary, or you can bring it to the forefront and allow it to function as a character in your story.
Some authors go to great lengths to take the reader through a story’s setting. Just last year, I read a book in which the character drove around Los Angeles. The author took us down L.A. streets, past parks, and into real neighborhoods and establishments. It was a bit much, but I’m pretty sure if I were a resident of L.A., I would have gotten a little thrill out of the familiarity.
Today, we’ll take a deeper look at setting with a few fiction writing exercises designed to help you establish the settings in your story. Read More
Today’s creative writing exercise comes from my book, 101 Creative Writing Exercises, which takes you on a adventure through various forms of creative writing: fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.
This exercise is called “Everyone Has an Opinion,” and it’s from “Chapter Nine: Philosophy, Critical Thinking, and Problem Solving.”
Enjoy! Read More
Poetry writing exercises are an excellent way to develop writing skills, especially skills that are essential to writing compelling poetry. Writing exercises can provide us with new perspectives, techniques, and ideas that strengthen and improve poems we’ve written and poems we have yet to write.
Words are the most basic building blocks for writers, and words have meanings. Often, words have multiple meanings or layers of meanings.
Connotation refers to the often subtle nuances that exist within a word’s definition. Consider the words childish and childlike. These words are synonyms — they have the same basic meaning. But childish has a negative connotation and is often used as an insulting way to describe immature behavior, whereas childlike is often used to describe behavior that is innocent or full of awe and wonder. Both words means someone or something is like a child, but childlike implies that’s a good thing while childish indicates it’s a bad thing.
Today we’ll use connotation to unearth the potential of a poem. Using a thesaurus, we’ll find synonyms for key words in the poem, and then examine how the connotations of the synonyms change the poem’s meaning.
To get started, you’ll need a poem that you’ve written or one you’re working on. The exercise will be easier and go a lot faster if you use the poem in electronic format (such as in Microsoft Word), since you’ll need to mark it up and make copies. It’s also helpful to keep drafts and originals separate from working copies.
Here are the steps for this poetry writing exercise:
- Highlight all the adjectives, adverbs, and nouns in the poem.
- Transfer all the adjectives, adverbs, and nouns to a list.
- Look up each word in a thesaurus to find its synonyms. Using an online thesaurus will make this work go quickly and allow you to copy and paste. List the synonyms for each word. You don’t need to list all of the synonyms; pick the ones that strike you as most interesting. Look for synonyms that evoke various shades of meanings or that change the meaning of your original words.
- Now make a copy of your poem (with the highlights) and start replacing words with their synonyms. Try focusing on one line of the poem, replacing words to see how the meaning changes. Then try it with an entire verse. Save the versions you like by copying and pasting them into a new document.
- Finally, take a look at the variations you’ve come up with and form them into a new version of your poem (or maybe several versions).
When you’re done, set the poem and its variations aside for a few days and then come back with fresh eyes to answer the following questions:
- Does swapping words for their synonyms give the poem new meaning? Did you change the meaning or deepen it?
- Did you use any synonyms that retained the original meaning but changed the rhythm, flow, or sound of the poem?
- Did you use any synonyms that had multiple meanings?
- Were you able to improve your poem?
The Perfect Word
As you go through the thesaurus, you’ll soon find that some words have dozens of synonyms while others have only a few. Sometimes all the synonyms are the same in meaning, but other times, the words’ meanings will differ greatly. And you’ll find various shades of meaning that will give your poem a different flavor or emotional undertone.
Hopefully this poetry writing exercise gave you some new tools and techniques for finding the perfect words.
What strategies do you use to find the perfect word? Have you ever stopped to think about a word’s connotations? Do you find poetry writing exercises like this one helpful? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.
Art Begets Art
A compelling story speaks to us much the same way music does, communicating thoughts, feelings, and ideas in ways that go beyond concrete language.
Something clicks. When you hear a song or read a story that resonates in this manner, you connect with it on a deep level. It almost feels like the author or songwriter was speaking for you, about you, or to you.
Some say that truly great art communicates directly with the subconscious. That’s why the arts coexist so naturally. Where you find a buzzing music scene, you can be sure a booming literary crowd is nearby. And where filmmakers toil with scripts and cameras, you can bet dancers aren’t too far off.
Creativity breeds creativity, and we are like magnets, drawn not just into our own passion, but those that complement and support our passions. Music, film, and art all enrich and inform one another. So do the musicians, filmmakers, artists, and of course, writers.
Fiction Writing Exercises
Some people say that everything has been written, every story told. But that’s not true. There’s always another angle, a different perspective that can be explored. And writers have all the tools they need to grab that perspective and run with it. You just need a starting point, and these fiction writing exercises can help you find it. Try starting with a song.
Before you get started, here are a couple of tips to help you work through these exercises:
- Make sure you aren’t familiar with the song’s video.
- Pick a song you like, something you can tolerate listening to several times. In fact the more you enjoy the song, the greater the chance you’ll have fun with this experiment.
- Bonus if you know the lyrics by heart.
Exercise 1: A Story for a Song
Some of the greatest stories of all time have been told through song. Remember Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee?” John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane?” What about Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff?” Each of these songs tells a clear and distinct story.
Choose a song that tells a story and write the story behind it. This is kind of like traveling backward and trying to find those one thousand words that represent the value of a picture.
Exercise 2: Ambiguous Tales
On the flip side, we have ambiguous lyrics, like “Hotel California,” by the Eagles or “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. Tunes like these have inspired lively debates that ask, what are these songs about, anyway? And if we don’t know what the songs are about, why do they succeed at speaking to us? How do they become enormous hits?
Choose a song that tells a vague story and write about what really happened. Your goal is to take a hazy story and make it clear.
Exercise 3: Who Needs Lyrics?
This is the biggest challenge of all: choose a piece of instrumental music (with no lyrics) and find the story in the melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Music and Fiction Writing Exercises
Throughout history, great artists have collaborated and mixed media to come up with fresh takes on ancient truths. These fiction writing exercises provide a new source for inspiration, get you working in collaboration with other artists (musicians), and give you creative license to put a new spin on something that’s been around for a while.
You can write a paragraph, a few pages, or an entire novel. You could also write a script for film or stage. If you’re strapped for time, just write an outline or a few character sketches. And if you don’t feel like writing it down, just work it out in your head. Find the connection between music and storytelling and let it capture your imagination.
If you have any fiction writing exercises to share, feel free to post them in the comments.
101 Creative Writing Exercises takes you on an adventure through the world of creative writing. You get to experiment with fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction while learning useful writing techniques.
Today I’d like to share one of the exercises from the book. This is from “Chapter Three: People and Characters.” The exercise is titled “People are People,” and it offers tips and ideas for writing characters and writing about real people as subject matter.
People Are People
People and characters are among the most important elements in a piece of writing. In nonfiction, you need to treat subjects fairly, and in fiction, you need to make your characters believable.
To create the effect that a character, a made-up person, is real, a writer must have a deep understanding of people. What motivates them? What are their fears? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
Writing about real people presents its own set of challenges. If you’re writing about someone whom you adore or respect, how do you deal with their flaws, mistakes, and weaknesses? If you are writing about someone you despise, how do you treat them fairly or objectively?
When you’re telling someone else’s story, you take on a huge responsibility. Whether the people you write about are real or imagined, it’s a tough job.
Choose a real person and write a short story from that person’s life. This piece will be nonfiction, written in third person. Your mission is to tell a story rather than write a biographical piece. Use the prompts below if you need ideas:
- Some relationships are complicated: siblings who don’t speak to each other, couples who sleep in separate rooms, exes who still come to holiday dinners.
- Choose a celebrity or historical figure to write about. It can be someone living or dead. Do a little research about the person and then write a short piece telling a part of his or her story.
- There’s always a bad apple in the barrel: the bully on the playground, the snitch in the office, and the drama queen who stirs up trouble at every opportunity. They have stories, too!
- Authority figures: parents, bosses, and government officials. You know them; they’re in charge of the world. What’s their story?
- Bonus: for this prompt, you get to mix in a little fiction. Everybody loves a mysterious stranger. The cute barista. The handsome doctor. The eccentric woman who sits on the park bench every Thursday afternoon. Think of an interesting stranger you’ve seen around and concoct his or her story.
Tips: To add realism to your story, use dialogue, mannerisms, and gestures. Don’t spend too much time on physical descriptions; a few, choice details will suffice. Focus on revealing the inner conflict and struggles of your subjects through their words and actions.
Variations: Instead of writing a nonfiction piece, write fiction, but use a real person as inspiration for your main character.
Applications: If you can tell a good story about someone, you can probably get it published, whether it’s fiction or not.
In his book, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder recommends writing a logline for your story before you tackle the first draft. Today we’re going to apply this concept with fiction writing exercises that force you to dig into your story and unearth its core, so you can find out what it’s really about and whether it’s a compelling concept.
A logline is a one- or two-sentence description of your story, similar to an elevator pitch. The idea is to write a logline that inspires interest in your story. Because loglines are primarily used to market books and movies, it may seem like you should write your logline after your book is completed. However, writing your logline in advance has several benefits.
Through the process of fine-tuning and polishing the logline for a story you’re working on, you will pare the story down to its core by identifying what makes it interesting and why people should want to read it. Since you only have one or two sentences to work within, you end up with a crystallized description of your story. Read More
Charles Dickens invented the word boredom. Sylvia Path coined the term dreamscape. William Shakespeare gave us bandit, swagger, and gossip, along with over 1700 other words that previously didn’t exist in the English lexicon.
Writers have a long history of inventing new words, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. When we encounter an idea or concept and no clear way to express it, creating new language is a practical solution.
Plus, making up new words is fun.
But we’re not limited to inventing new words. Poets, in particular, are always looking for fresh ways to use language. Consider the following line’s from E.E. Cummings’ poem, “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town”:
children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
Cummings also played with grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The lack of spacing around the parenthesis is not a typo!
Let’s look more closely at the phrase “down they forgot as up they grew.”
It’s not a conventional way to arrange words. Cummings flouted conventional syntax with the word order (“up they grew” instead of “they grew up”), and he combined words in surprising ways (“down they forgot”).
We know that according to the rules of our language, this excerpt shouldn’t make sense, especially the notion of “forgetting down,” yet as we read the lines of the poem, we know exactly what the poet is saying.
That’s the magic of wordplay in poetry.
Poetry Exercise: Creative Wordplay
Today’s poetry writing exercises encourage you to invent fresh and interesting words and phrases by using language in unexpected ways. To get started, you’ll need some words to work with, so make four lists of about a dozen words each:
- Nouns (examples: cat, sky, food)
- Adjectives (examples: blue, jolly, flat)
- Verbs (examples: dance, squat, bite)
- Suffixes and prefixes: (examples: non-, anti-, -er)
Once you’ve got some words to work with, you can start playing with them. As you work through the steps below, don’t confine yourself to the words you’ve pre-selected. Bring new words into your lists as needed or as you feel inspired to do so.
- Combine one of the nouns with one of the suffixes or prefixes to form a new word (example: desker).
- Combine any two words to form a new word (example: jollysquat).
- Turn one of the nouns into a verb and use it in a sentence (example: They’re catting through the club).
- Use an adjective as an adverb in a phrase or sentence (example: She’s running blue).
- Rearrange the words in one of the sentences or phrases you’ve written (example: Through the club they’re catting).
You can repeat these exercises infinitely, always bringing new words and ideas into the mix. You’ll find that the more time you spend on creative exercises like these, the more your mind will open to experimental language and wordplay.
Can you think of any other strange and interesting ways to combine words? What about common expressions that already use words in unconventional ways, like using a preposition as a verb (“We’re upping the ante”)? Did you find any words or combinations that worked especially well for this exercise? Share your wordplay by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
Good fiction is comprised of many parts: plot, characters, setting, scenes, and dialogue. But we rarely talk about theme, even though it’s critical to good storytelling.
There’s no clear and easy way to define theme. It has been called the worldview, philosophy, message, moral, and lesson within a story. However, these labels, taken alone or together, don’t quite explain theme in fiction.
We can think of a theme as an underlying principle or concept. It’s usually universal in nature. Some common themes include redemption, sacrifice, betrayal, loyalty, greed, justice, oppression, revenge, and love.
Themes can be philosophical; they can ask questions or pit two ideas against each other: science vs. faith, good vs. evil, why are we here and what happens when we die?
Themes in Storytelling
You need look no further than some of your favorite stories to explore and identify themes. Keep in mind that most stories have multiple themes. For example, in Harry Potter, I would say the most significant themes are good vs. evil and the power of love. However, there are also themes of friendship, sacrifice, and redemption. One theme might stretch across an entire series while other themes appear at the novel or chapter level.
And themes are not unique to fictional literature. Any form of storytelling can (and should) contain thematic elements, including movies, television shows, songs, and poetry. Themes will also be present in nonfiction, and in some cases themes will drive a work of nonfiction, whether it is a memoir or documentary. For example, a documentary about the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton will focus on the theme of justice in the context of a woman’s right to vote. Such a documentary won’t look closely at their personal lives but will focus on their founding of the women’s suffrage movement, keeping to the theme.
Today’s fiction writing exercises encourage you to explore themes by identifying them in some of your favorite stories.
Fiction Writing Exercises: Exploring and Developing Theme
Once you understand theme and have learned to identify it, you can start bringing it into your own work. There’s a good chance that themes will manifest even if you don’t put any special effort into theme development. Themes are so closely tied to human nature that it’s almost impossible to tell a story without a theme of some kind. But if you approach theme with intent (even vague intent), your work might have greater depth and meaning.
Exercise 1: Study in Themes
If you and I both watch the film Titanic, we might identify different themes in the film. I might identify wealth disparity or materialism as a theme, and you might say liberty is a theme. In this case, we’d both be right. For this exercise, you will choose one of your favorite stories and identify its themes.
- Choose a favorite book, movie, or television show (for a TV show, you should just choose one episode). Make a list of all the themes you can identify in the story. Try to find three to five themes. Go over your list a few times to make sure you’re identifying themes (big, sweeping concepts) rather than conflicts or plot twists.
- Next, determine one key theme that is woven through the entire story. You might find there are two or three major themes. List them all but choose just one to explore in the next step.
- Finally, explain how the storyteller presented this theme through plot, character, and scenes. Make a list of events and situations from the story that embody the theme.
As an alternative, choose one of your completed poems, stories, or essays. The exercise will work better with a story, but poetry and essays will do. Now go through the steps above to list all the themes in your piece, identify the main theme(s), and examine how you executed the themes. If you’re already working on a story, try to identify a few themes that are appearing in your work and elaborate on them. Look for ways to integrate the theme with your plot, and ask how your main conflict can be connected with a primary theme.
Exercise 2: Starting from Theme
Choose three themes and for each, sketch ideas for how you could make the theme manifest through character, plot, or scenes. Here’s an example using revenge as a theme: A thieving woman is fired because a co-worker reported her for stealing. Instead of accepting responsibility, she blames the co-worker and frames him so he gets fired too, even though he is innocent.
Exercise 3: Theme Master
Now that you’ve learned how to identify themes and integrate theme in your own work, make a master list of themes that can be used in storytelling. Whenever you come across an interesting theme, add it to the list. You can refer back to your list whenever you need a theme for one of your writing projects.
A Few Final Tips for Bringing Themes into Your Writing
Theme is not cut and dry, and it shouldn’t be overly obvious. If you’re working on a theme involving sacrifice, you don’t want to show your characters making sacrifices in every chapter. Theme works best when it’s subtle.
Since themes can contain messages and morals, make a conscious effort not to force your personal beliefs and values onto your readers. There’s a difference between making a statement and being preachy. Most readers don’t like novels that preach at them. In fact, some themes work best when they work as questions and the reader gets to experience contrary viewpoints. For example, we all accept that stealing is wrong, but we feel differently about it when it’s done by a small child who is starving.
Finally, have fun with theme. You can go through your outline and make notes about where themes are addressed. Or you can look for opportunities in your story where theme could be expanded. You can do these exercises over and over for various stories until you get a good handle on theme, and then you can use theme to enrich your own writing. You might also use the Internet to look for other people’s ideas about theme for any given story.
Let’s Talk About Themes
How do you approach themes in storytelling? Do you purposefully develop themes, or do you let them happen naturally? Did you find today’s fiction writing exercises helpful in understanding and exploring themes? Got any theme-related resources or ideas to share? Leave a comment!
And keep writing.
Are you looking for more fiction writing exercises? Pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available in paperback and ebook.
Today’s writing exercise is an excerpt from 101 Creative Writing Exercises, a book packed with writing exercises and ideas. Enjoy!
Writer, Know Thyself
This exercise asks you to look in the mirror and ask yourself a critical question:
Why do I write?
There are many forces that drive writers to the page. Some do it for love, for creative expression, or because writing is simply something they must do, a compulsion. Others do it for riches, prestige, or to make a living.
It’s not easy to succeed as a writer. Most writers have day jobs and write during their free time, chipping away at novels, drafting essays, or penning articles, short stories, and poems. They spend their evenings polishing their work, and they spend their weekends submitting it to agents and editors. Some plan to self-publish. Many already have.
Writing professionally requires an immense amount of self-discipline, because in the early years, you’re hustling. Trying to land gigs. Building up clips.
On top of self-discipline, writers are competing in a field that’s saturated with dreamers and overrun with talent. Creativity is fleeting; gigs are scarce. Far too many novels end up half-finished and buried in a bottom drawer.
For those who intend to succeed, finish that novel, get that poem published, or earn a living wage as a freelance writer, staying focused is imperative.
Those who succeed are not the most talented or the smartest. They are the ones who refuse to give up. They have good writing habits; they are focused and motivated and consistently work toward their goals.
As a writer, it’s important to know where you are in relation to your goals.
This exercise presents a series of questions about your goals and motivations as a writer. Your job is simple: Write a short paragraph to answer each question. Keep your answers concise and try not to go off on tangents.
You can revisit this exercise at least once a year to see how you’re progressing, to stay focused and motivated, and to remember why you write.
- What do you write, or what do you want to write? Think about form (fiction, poetry, memoir, etc.) and genre (literary, speculative, romance). Be specific.
- How often and how much do you write? Ask yourself whether you have enough time to write and whether you could make more time for your writing.
- What are your top three goals as a writer?
- Why are these three goals important to you?
- What is your five-year career plan as a writer? What do you need to do over the next five years to achieve one (or all) of your top three goals?
- In the past year, what have you accomplished in working toward your goals?
- What can you do over the next year to move closer to your top three goals and your five-year career plan?
Tips: Keep your goals separate and specific. If you want to publish a novel through legacy (traditional) publishing, you don’t need an additional goal of getting an agent. Getting an agent is implied in the greater goal of legacy publishing.
If you have more than three goals, then list up to ten, but highlight your top three priorities.
If you’re not sure what your goals are, then make goal-setting a goal. Give yourself some time to set goals (a few weeks or months).
Variations: Instead of answering all the questions in a single session, you can spread them out and answer one question a day. While concise answers will be the clearest, the first time you do this exercise, you might want to write a full-page response to each question. You can also use these questions as journal prompts and write your answers in your daily journal.
Applications: These questions help you clarify your intentions. When you know what you want to accomplish, it becomes easier to attain. In addition, articulating your goals ensures that you can discuss them intelligibly, which comes in handy when submitting query letters, in meetings and interviews, and in discussions with other writers and professionals in the publishing industry.
Writers share something in common with actors; they need to be able to understand people who are outside their own personal experience. When we write a character who is vastly different from us, we do what actors do, which is step inside the mind and body of someone else.
Not all writers do this. If you write essays, blogs, or memoirs, getting into other people’s heads is not a necessary skill. But if you write fiction, it’s essential. It’s also a common practice in poetry, especially in poetry that strives to be compassionate, socially aware, or empathetic.
It’s also not a bad life skill. Fostering empathy gives you a broader understanding of the world and the people in it and can be immensely helpful in mitigating conflict and bridging cultures.
Today’s poetry writing exercises are designed to help you write a poem from a perspective other than your own.
Poetry Writing Exercises: Shift Your Perspective
Below, you’ll find three poetry writing exercises. Each one asks you to write a poem in which you shift your perspective and try to see things differently:
1. Animate the Inanimate: Choose an inanimate object, such as a tree or a toaster. Prepare for the exercise by looking at images of the object or the object itself, and then write a list of things that would be of concern to the object. For example, a toaster might be uncomfortable because its crumb tray is full. Think about what kind of personality this object would have if it were sentient and spend a few minutes cultivating a voice for this object by speaking aloud (into a recorder, if you have one) in the character of this object. Now that you’re warmed up, write a poem from this object’s perceptive. The main goal is to find the object’s voice and personality. This exercise is excellent for children’s poetry and humor.
2. Cross the Culture: Get inside the mindset of a culture other than your own. Choose a culture you’re not overly familiar with. This can be a sub-culture within your own region (maybe you’re a geek writing as a sports fanatic) or you can choose a culture from another nation or one from history. Give yourself one hour to read about this culture or watch a documentary about it, and then write a poem from your own perspective but from within the culture you’re writing about (a geek at a sporting event). Take a positive angle on the culture you’re writing about, even if you find it strange or if you don’t quite understand it.
3. My Own Worst Enemy: Now get inside the mind of your enemy. This could be someone who bullied you when you were a child. It could be a mean boss you once worked for. It could be someone you feel animosity toward because they’ve hurt you or a loved one or because they have an opposing worldview that you think is detrimental to society. It doesn’t even have to be a real person. You can make someone up! Choose a topic this person would care about (if it’s your childhood bully, maybe it’s about why this person picked on other children) and write about that topic from that person’s perspective. Explore why they do what they do, and if possible, try to find the positive. And remember: a villain is the hero of his or her own story.
Understanding “The Other”
Broadening your perspective to understand different points of view and different ideas is beneficial, especially if you’re a writer (or any type of artist, really). In the world today, which often seems wildly fragmented, a little understanding can go a long way. But these poetry writing exercises also encourage you to stretch your imagination and engage your creativity. You might find them slightly uncomfortable, but if you push through, you’ll learn something new and have a fresh poem to add to your repertoire.
If you try any of these poetry writing exercises, leave a comment and let us know how it worked out for you, and keep writing!