Fiction writing exercises improve your writing by challenging you, providing you with fresh ideas, and forcing you to approach fiction writing from new angles.
This is a flexible writing exercise that could also be called Change the Tale. But in this exercise, we’re going to change the tale by changing the tail.
The idea is to take an existing plot and change the ending to make it completely different. This will help you understand the basics of story structure, particularly the part where you bring the story to a close.
Take the tail end off a story, right after the climax, and change it to something else. Choose a story from a book, magazine, newspaper, or film, and change the ending! Read more
These fiction writing exercises are designed to help fiction writers shave away the fluff and reveal the bare bones of a piece of fiction.
We’ll start with one exercise that will help you assess the core structure of a story and then explore a few bonus flash fiction writing exercises that are good for developing concise writing.
What is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is a short story that is extremely brief. There is no official word limit, but generally, stories of fewer than 1000-2000 words would fall under the flash category. Read more
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.
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.
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 post is from my book, 101 Creative Writing Exercises, which is available from your favorite online bookseller in paperback or as an ebook.
Chekhov’s Gun is a literary device in which an element is mentioned in a story and its purpose or significance becomes clear later. For example, early in a story, the narrative mentions that the hero carries a knife. Later, he uses that knife to defend himself in a fight. If the knife hadn’t been mentioned earlier, it might feel like an object of convenience. On the other hand, if the knife is mentioned but he never uses it, the reader might feel cheated after anticipating a good knife fight.
The real purpose of Chekhov’s Gun is to remind writers that they have an obligation to fulfill all promises made to readers. If the narrative mentions that the hero carries a knife, the reader expects that he will, at some point, use it. If he doesn’t, the writer has failed to fulfill a promise. In other words: don’t pepper your story with unnecessary, insignificant, or meaningless elements. Make everything count!
The term “Chekhov’s Gun” comes from a letter from Anton Chekhov to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (also known as A.S. Gruzinsky) in which he said, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
Write a short scene and introduce two objects right at the opening of the scene. Make sure one of the objects is used later in the scene, but leave the other object unused. Note that these objects will not be part of the descriptive content. For example, if the scene includes a description of a room and mentions a chair in the corner, you don’t have to use the chair later because it is part of the setting description.
Let your scene sit overnight then read it back the next day. Notice how the unused object lingers in the reader’s mind in an unpleasant way. Once you’re done, feel free to revise and edit out the unnecessary object or add action in which it becomes significant.
Tips: Differentiating between what constitutes a necessary or unnecessary element can be tricky. In some cases, a knife that is mentioned may not need to be played later (for example, a knife might be mentioned in the context of one of the characters eating). In other cases, a chair that is mentioned will need to be played. A woman might carry a purse, but that doesn’t mean she needs to retrieve anything from it because most women carry purses. On the other hand, if she’s carrying a file marked “TOP SECRET,” the reader expects to eventually be let in on the contents of the file.
Variations: Go through a story you’ve already written and look for instances in which you included unnecessary or misleading elements.
Applications: The difference between excellence and mediocrity in storytelling often lies in the details. Chekhov’s Gun is one of the many details that could cause a story to lose credibility with readers. Therefore, checking your narrative for unnecessary or irrelevant elements will strengthen and improve your work.
Today’s post comes from my book 101 Creative Writing Exercises. This is from “Chapter Five: Fiction.”
Symbols and Symbolism
In Alice and Wonderland, a white rabbit appears and Alice follows him down the rabbit hole that leads to Wonderland. The white rabbit is a herald—a character archetype that signifies the first challenge or the call to adventure. This is the change in the main character’s life that marks the beginning of the story.
The white rabbit became so widely known that it eventually evolved into a symbol. Because it’s white, it can symbolize purity. Because it’s a rabbit, it can symbolize fertility. But because it was the herald that called Alice to her adventure, the white rabbit is often used as a symbol to represent change. Sometimes, it’s simply used as a herald.
The white rabbit appeared in The Matrix, an episode of Star Trek, and in several episodes of Lost. In Jurassic Park, a character finds a file labeled “whiterabbit.obj” and in Stephen King’s The Long Walk, a character refers to himself as “the white rabbit type.”
The white rabbit can function as a traditional symbol or as a reference to Alice in Wonderland. Such is the case with the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.
Symbolism occurs whenever one thing represents something else. For example, a book could represent knowledge. A caged bird could represent oppression or imprisonment. In a story, the repetition of a symbol (every time the book or caged bird appears) can have significance to the story. Maybe every time a character fails because he doesn’t know enough, there’s a book in the scene. Or perhaps a person who is oppressed keeps a caged bird but doesn’t recognize the irony (that he is imprisoning a living creature while suffering his own oppression).
Develop a list of five to ten symbols. Invent your own symbols rather than using ones that commonly appear in fiction. If you’re working on a story or novel, make a list of symbols that you might use in your project. Symbols are often linked to big themes: love, revenge, sacrifice, redemption, narcissism, etc.
Tips: You might find it easier to choose a theme or issue and then look for a symbol that represents it. On the other hand, if you have an interesting image (a red scarf, a snow globe), you might find a way to turn it into a meaningful symbol.
Variations: Choose one symbol and write a list of ways it can be used throughout a story. For example, a white rabbit in a story could appear in a pet store. It could be somebody’s pet. It could be in a science lab. It could be part of a magic show. Make sure you don’t give the symbol more importance than the plot or characters. A symbol is present to add depth and give the story greater meaning. It’s an accent to the story, not the central focus of it.
Applications: Symbols enrich a piece of writing, adding layers to the themes and meaning of the piece.
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.
Fiction Writing Exercises: Place and Time
There are two sides to setting: place and time. If you’re writing a contemporary novel, the time in which your story is set is relatively straightforward. However, if you’re writing historical fiction, futuristic fiction, or a story that includes time travel, you’ll need to make sure readers always know what time it is.
Setting it Up
For this exercise, you will choose several settings and write short, opening descriptions that tell the reader when and where the action is taking place. Contemporary readers aren’t crazy about lengthy descriptions, so keep it simple: a couple of sentences or a short paragraph of description will suffice. Here are a few prompts to help you get started:
- A ghost town in the wild old west.
- A contemporary metropolis.
- A medieval household.
- A made-up fantasy land.
- Aboard a vessel, such as a spaceship, in the far-off future.
Setting as Backdrop: Too Much vs. Not Enough
For this exercise, you’ll write a short scene that kicks off the story and establishes the setting. Instead of presenting a snapshot of the landscape before moving into your story, you can bring readers right into the setting by combining the setting’s description with action and by using active language rather than passive:
- Instead of describing busy streets packed with shoppers, explain that shoppers coursed through the streets like rats in a maze.
- You can bring characters into the setting: Kate craned her neck and spied a tiny patch of sky amidst the towering skyscrapers.
- In establishing time, you can simply state the date (the year was 2012) or you can place something in the setting that identifies the era: A brand new 2012 Porche sped by and Kate whirled on her heels just in time to see it disappear around the corner of Lexington.
Setting as Character
Places that have a life of their own are hugely popular. Many science fiction and fantasy stories are set in places that function as characters: the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek and Pandora from Avatar are two good examples. But cities, towns, and rural landscapes can also have personality. For example, New York has been called the fifth main character in Sex and the City. Houses, vehicles, cities, planets, nations, and rooms can all have personalities of their own.
For this exercise, write a character sketch for a place. Make a list of its traits: personality, style, attitude, class, and philosophy. Is it relaxed and laid back or dark and dangerous? Does it swallow people or lift them up? Is it friendly to newcomers or is it exclusive?
If you’re inclined, go ahead a write a scene or outline to show off your setting’s personality. Remember, however, that just because the setting is functioning as a character doesn’t mean it is the protagonist or antagonist. It can be a minor character and still be largely the backdrop (rather than forefront). Make sure you keep the focus of the story on the plot and characters.
How Do You Approach Setting?
Some writers may not think much about setting. They know exactly where their story takes place and the setting emerges naturally through the writing. But sometimes, a poorly established setting is unclear or confusing. Do you pay heed to setting? Do you work it out before you start your first draft? If you know of any other great fiction writing exercises that focus on setting, be sure to share them in the comments. 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.
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 and 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 love and good vs. evil. 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, 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 theme by identifying it 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 will 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 social class as a theme and you might say that freedom 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 5-10 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.
- Now, 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. Example: 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. (The theme is revenge.)
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. Then, you can refer back to it when 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 have 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 would be appropriate. You can do these exercises over and over for various stories in order to get a good handle on theme so that you can use it 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 Theme
How do you approach theme 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 theme? Got any theme-related resources or ideas to share? Leave a comment!
And keep writing.