Good fiction is comprised of many different elements: believable characters, realistic dialogue, and compelling plots. Every decent story has a beginning, middle, and end. Intriguing tales are built around conflict and are rich with themes and symbols. And those are just the basics.
It can be pretty overwhelming.
Fiction writing is hard work. It requires a complex and diverse set of skills. Stringing words together into sentences only scratches the surface of what goes into good fiction writing. Fiction that is truly worthwhile is layered with meaning. It’s made up of an infinite number of tiny parts. Most importantly, it has a sense of truth and realism that the real world often lacks.
Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” And Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
In other words, fiction, at its best, feels truer than reality. Great writers make it look easy, but writing that kind of fiction, the kind that’s worth reading, is nothing short of magic. Read more
Fiction writing prompts are a great way to stimulate creativity when you’re in the mood to do a little writing but need some fresh story ideas.
Prompts and other creative writing exercises can trigger your imagination. Sometimes, prompts and exercises help you come up with new ideas for projects you’re already working on, and other times, they give you ideas for projects you haven’t started yet. They’re also a great source of motivation.
10 Fiction Writing Prompts
The fiction writing prompts below are story starters. Try starting the first sentence of a new piece with one of the prompts and run with it, or write a story that includes one of the prompts somewhere in the text. As an alternative, use the prompts to generate story ideas and plan a story around a prompt (you don’t have to include the actual prompt anywhere in the story). You can even use one of the prompts as the final sentence in a story and use your imagination to fill in what happens leading up to it. Read more
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.
I was recently reading a novel, and a few chapters in, I realized I had mixed up two of the main characters. In fact, I had been reading them as if they were a single character. I’m a pretty sharp reader, and this has never happened before, so I tried to determine why I’d made the mistake. Was I tired? Hungry? Not paying attention?
I went back and reviewed the text and noticed that these two characters were indistinct. They were so alike that without carefully noting which one was acting in any given scene, it was impossible to differentiate them from each other. They were essentially the same character. Even their names sounded alike.
This got me to thinking about the importance of building a cast of characters who are unique and distinct from each other.
We sometimes talk about stock characters in literature. You know them: the mad scientist, the poor little rich kid, the hard-boiled detective. These characters have a place in storytelling. When readers meet a sassy, gum-popping waitress in a story, they know immediately who she is. They’ve seen that character in other books and movies. Maybe they’ve even encountered waitresses like her in real life. These characters are familiar, but they’re also generic.
When we use a stock character as a protagonist or any other main character, we have to give the character unique qualities so the character doesn’t come off as generic or boring. It’s fine to have a sassy, gum-popping waitress make a single appearance in a story, but if she’s a lead character, she’s going to need deeper, more complex development so the readers no longer feel as if they already know her. She has to become new and interesting.
Stieg Larsson did this brilliantly in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the sequels that made up the Millennium trilogy. At first the protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, seems like a surly punk, the kind of character we’ve seen a million times before. As the story progresses and Lisbeth moves to center stage, we learn there’s more to her than meets the eye. She’s antisocial (it is suggested she has Asperger’s Syndrome) and she’s a computer genius. She’s bold, brave, and tough. She’s not just some surly punk. She is a moral person with unique challenges–one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction.
Cloned characters are often taken from source material, sometimes as an homage and other times as a blatant rip off. Such characters are particularly problematic when they feature prominently in a story and have no traits that differentiate them from the character upon which they are based. Do you want to read a story about a boy wizard named Hal Porter who wears glasses and has a scar on his forehead? Probably not, unless it’s a parody of Harry Potter, whom we all know and love.
You can certainly write a story about a young wizard who is based on Harry Potter, but you have to differentiate your character from Harry. Make the character a girl, give her a hearing aid instead of glasses, and come up with a memorable name that doesn’t immediately bring Harry Potter to mind.
As the book I was recently reading demonstrates, we also have to watch out for cloning characters within our own stories. For most writers, this is a bigger problem than cloning characters out of other authors’ stories.
Think about it: you are the creator of all the characters in your story. You might have based them on people or characters you know and love (or loathe). You might have conjured them from your imagination. But they are all coming from you: your thoughts, your experiences, and your voice.
While I’ve never mixed up two characters in a book I was reading before, I have noticed that characters who act, think, and speak similarly are common. And while a cast of characters who are similar to each other in every way imaginable doesn’t necessarily make a story bad, a cast of characters who are noticeably distinct from each other is way better.
Nature vs. Nurture
Cloning is the practice of making a copy of something, an exact replica. You can clone a human being (or a character), but once the clone comes into existence, it will immediately start changing and becoming different from the original. Its personal experiences will be unique. By nature, the original and the clone are exactly the same, but nurture (or life experience) will cause the clone to deviate from the original.
Here are some tips to make sure your characters are unique and not clones of each other or any character or person they are based on:
- Give your characters distinct and memorable names. Avoid giving characters name that sound alike. Don’t use names that start with the same letter and are the same length, and don’t use names that rhyme.
- Unless you’re writing a family saga, make sure your characters don’t all look alike. Try developing a diverse cast of characters.
- Characters’ speech patterns will depend on where they’re from, but individuals also have their own quirky expressions and sayings. Use dialogue to differentiate the characters from each other. Maybe one character swears a lot while another calls everyone by nicknames.
- Create character sketches complete with back stories. If you know your characters intimately, you’ll be less likely to portray them as a bunch of clones.
- To help you visualize your characters, look for photos of actors and other public figures that you can use to help your imagination fill in the blanks.
Are You Cloning?
The main problem with the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post was that there were two characters who were essentially functioning as a single entity, at least for the first four or five chapters, which is as far as I got in the book. The best fix for that problem would have been to combine the two characters into a single character, something I have had to do on one of my fiction projects that had a few too many names and faces.
I can’t help but wonder if the author ever bothered to run the manuscript by beta readers, and since the book was traditionally published, I wondered how the cloned characters made it past the editor.
How much attention do you pay to your characters when you’re writing a story? What strategies do you use to get to know your characters and make sure they are all unique? If you have any tips to share, leave a comment, and keep writing!
Today I’d like to share a selection of fiction writing prompts from my book, 1200 Creative Writing Prompts, which includes 500 fiction prompts plus prompts for writing poetry and creative nonfiction.
Writing prompts are ideal for when you’re feeling uninspired because they provide you with ideas for fresh projects.
But prompts are also useful for those times when you’re not motivated to write. I’ve found that the sheer act of reading through a few good fiction writing prompts gives me the impetus to stop procrastinating and start writing.
These fiction writing prompts cover a range of genres, including literary, suspense, thriller, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, historical, humor, satire, children’s, and young adult.
Fiction Writing Prompts
Using the prompts is simple. Just choose a prompt that resonates with you and start writing. There are no rules. You can write a short story, a novel, or an outline. Want to write a story with lots subplots? Choose two or three prompts and weave them together in a single story.
- There’s an old man sitting in a rickety wooden chair, fishing through a hole in the ice on a frozen lake. A loud cracking sound reverberates across the lake’s surface, and he feels the ice shift beneath him. He scurries, but the hole expands too quickly, and he goes into the icy water. What happens next?
- When his or her commanding officer is found dead, one young soldier goes AWOL and launches a personal investigation to find out who did it.
- At the height of human technological development, a special child is born who can communicate telepathically with computers and other mechanical and electronic devices.
- Two ambitious coworkers want the same promotion, and they’re both willing to do just about anything to get it. Then they fall in love. Does the competition heat up or die down? Will their romance survive office politics?
- Choose a period of history and a place that interests you, and write a multi-generational saga about a family that lived during that era.
- Write a comedy about a rural, salt-of-the-earth family moving to a big city and trying to get along with city folk who are sophisticated and refined.
- While shopping in a department store during the holidays, a child is separated from his or her parents and discovers a portal to a winter wonderland.
- When marriage becomes a living hell, the protagonist attempts to kill his or her spouse by bringing on depression and encouraging overeating and other unhealthy lifestyle choices.
- Scientists discover that the galaxy itself is a living organism.
- In the 1970s, someone started putting rocks in boxes and selling them as Pet Rocks, complete with care and training manuals. The business made millions. Write a story about an inventor or businessperson who comes up with a ridiculous product.
- Children love to pretend and play grown-up. Write a story about a child playing grown-up and pretending to have a particular career: teacher, veterinarian, artist, etc.
- In the midst of a natural disaster, a classroom is locked down and everyone inside is trapped until they are rescued three days later.
Did any of these fiction writing prompts inspire or motivate you? Do you have any fiction prompts to share? Leave a comment!
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.
Please welcome guest author Joshua Danton Boyd with a post on character development in fiction writing.
For writers, characters can be very personal creations. Despite being taken from the ether, we can become attached to them, especially if we’ve been working on their story for years. With all the time and effort put into crafting their fictional lives, it’s understandable that we become overly sympathetic to them. We practically treat them like children. This, unfortunately, can be a one-way road to bland and uninteresting character development and plot lines. Just because you’re happy with your precious hero doesn’t mean your readers will be.
We want to read about characters going on journeys, be they physical or mental. This means there needs to be change in some way or another. We want to see characters that end up different from how they started. This is why the famous trope of the reluctant hero is so popular. Take Han Solo in Star Wars for example. He starts out as a man only interested in money and his own safety and then ends up risking his life for the Rebellion.
These kinds of transformations are pleasing–even the ones where a character goes the other way and becomes evil. The point is that things can’t just stay the same, and one of the best plot devices for moving a character forward and making them interesting is to treat them badly. Put them through hell.
We shouldn’t give our heroes unfair advantages so that any problems they come up against are easily overcome. Even superheroes have their supervillains to ensure they are properly challenged. Imagine how terrible Superman comics would be if his adversaries were regular humans mugging old ladies.
Make things difficult for your characters. If you don’t, your readers already know how it’ll end. The stronger you make your character, the stronger you should make their enemies. This stresses your characters, which enables readers to get a fuller understanding of their mindsets. Stress, and how someone responds to it, tells us a lot of about people. It’s when we lose our cool that we are at our most honest.
Avoid making characters that are perfect, as though they could do no wrong in the world. This is generally boring. We do not want to read about people like that because we have no way to relate to them. All of us have one flaw or another and so should your characters. Make them selfish or ignorant or weak or arrogant or whatever. There’s no depth in characters that have nothing wrong with them. Flaws also give you scope for character development.
It’s important to remember that our characters do not belong to us. Once the story is out there, they belong to your readers. They’re the ones who will become truly attached to your characters, and for that to happen characters need to resonate with readers. Few people have a perfect life, so when things get tough, they want someone they can relate to. Make it the characters in your book. Even in books set in fantastical fictional universes, characters must be realistic. Put that realism into your heroes.
About the Author: Joshua Danton Boyd is a writer based in Brighton. He currently works full time as a copywriter and on the side is putting together a music and science site called The Scientist Conductor.
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.
Most authors agree that fiction is primarily driven by characters. Successful authors talk about characters who take over the story, who have their own separate and independent consciousnesses. Outlines and plans for plot go out the window as characters insist on moving the story in a direction of their own design.
Because characters are central to most stories and because their primary function is to explore the human condition, it’s essential for characters to be believable. In other words, characters may not be real, but they most certainly should feel real.
It’s not easy to write believable and realistic characters. People (and therefore characters) are highly complex and layered, full of contradictions and flaws. Because writing imposes space-time limitations, we can never craft a character that is as complicated as a real person, but we can certainly try.
Today’s creative writing prompts encourage you to explore the characters in your writing. By working outside of your project on a series of exercises that force you to explore and engage with your characters, you will get to know them better. You’ll also get to use techniques for creating characters that have depth and dimension.
Creative Writing Prompts
These creative writing prompts are broken into various categories. You can mix and match the prompts according to which ones are most attractive to you or choose the ones you think will help resolve character problems that you’re struggling with.
Feel free to let these character-related writing prompts inspire new prompts–in other words, you don’t have to write exactly what the prompt says. One set of prompts deals with character fears and flaws. These might inspire you to write about your character’s strengths and virtues.
Be creative, have fun, and keep writing!
Background and Family
- Unearth your character’s roots. What is the character’s ancestry or cultural background? How does ancestry shape your character? Is the character at odds with family traditions?
- Write a series of short paragraphical biographies of each of the character’s closest family members: spouse, children, parents, grandparents, siblings, close friends, etc.
- Write a monologue in which your character summarizes his or her life story; be sure to write it in the character’s voice.
Motivations and Goals
- What motivates your character? Money? Love? Truth? Power? Justice?
- What does your character want more than anything else in the world? What is he or she searching for?
- What other characters or events are interfering with your character’s goals? What obstacles are in the way?
Flaws and Fears
- What is your character’s single greatest fear? How did your character acquire his or her fears?
- What are your character’s flaws and weaknesses?
- How does the character’s fears and flaws prevent them from reaching their goals?
- What does your character look like? Make a list and include the following: hair, eyes, height, weight, build, etc.
- Now choose one aspect of the character’s appearance, a detail (bitten nails, frizzy hair, a scar) and elaborate on it.
- Write a short scene in which your character is looking in the mirror or write a short scene in which another character first sees your character.
- How does your character feel on the inside? What kind of person is your character and what does the character’s internal landscape look like?
- We don’t always present ourselves to others in a way that accurately reflects how we feel inside. We might be shy or insecure but come across as stuck-up and aloof. How do others perceive your character?
- Write a scene with dialogue that reveals your character’s external and internal personalities. Good settings for this dialogue would be an interview, appointment with a therapist, or a conversation with a romantic interest or close friend. Write the scene in third-person omniscient so you can get inside your character’s head as well as the other character’s head; this will allow you explore how your character feels and how he or she is perceived.
If you tackle these creative writing prompts, come back and tell us how they worked for you. What did you write? Did you learn anything new about your character or how to write about your character? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Please welcome guest authors Evan Marshall and Martha Jewett with a post about indie publishing and the many benefits it offers fiction writers.
A number of clients of Evan’s literary agency have begun to self-publish, or indie-publish, as a supplement to traditional publishing. For some of these authors, an activity that was meant as a promotional sideline has turned into the main event, with the indie-published books outselling the traditionally published ones.
These authors have discovered that indie publishing offers a number of advantages over traditional publishing. Here’s our advice for making the most of these advantages.
Traditionally published authors are all too aware of publishers’ demands in terms of category. A book must fit cleanly into one of a small set of genres on a publisher’s list: thriller, romance, mystery, and so on. Creativity is of course encouraged, but only within the realm of plotting; too much experimentation that results in a book straddling two genres is strongly discouraged. So for years, authors who wanted to get published and keep getting published played by these rules, some happily, some not so happily.
The not-so-happy authors yearned to experiment further. They wanted to meld their favorite genres in the interest of telling a better story, genre be damned. In today’s indie publishing, this is not only possible, it’s smart. This is because readers of indie-published fiction expect something different. They’re browsing the indie-published racks to find the kinds of books they’ve never been able to get from the traditional houses.
Some of the most successful indie fiction authors are stretching the boundaries in amazing ways. They’re coining new genres that, when successful, are plucked up by the traditional publishers and added to their list of genres.
Ciara Knight describes having to come up with a genre for her novel Weighted: ultimately she ended up with “post-apocalyptic, futuristic, Biopunk, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, romantic elements, fantasy, paranormal.” Frustrated by discouragement from a New York editor, and realizing that some of her favorite books were genre blends, she decided to go the indie route. From her sales, it’s safe to surmise she’s glad she did.
Linda Gillard went the indie route after being dropped by her publisher because of disappointing sales. She describes her first indie-published novel, House of Silence, as “mixed-genre. It’s a country house mystery and a family drama, with an element of romantic comedy–in other words, it’s a marketing nightmare. I decided to promote the genre mix and marketed the book as ‘Rebecca meets Cold Comfort Farm.’ That seemed to hit the spot with readers, who clearly don’t have a problem with mixing genres.” Gillard says, “I market myself, not a genre.” House of Silence sold 10,000 downloads in less than four months, and Amazon UK selected it for its Top Ten Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category.
This trend makes us smile because it reminds us of the old “midlist” where traditional publishers used to put novels that didn’t necessarily fit into an established genre but were great stories. Today’s tightly slotted marketing has killed this midlist. Now, ironically, those books that are simply great stories are back with a vengeance.
When you’re in the brainstorming and plotting stages of a novel intended for indie publication, throw all the category brainwashing to the wind and just write what excites you. Remember, it was never the readers who demanded rigid categorization; it was the publishers, who needed categorization to sell books to the retailers, who in turn needed some way to organize their stock. Readers…just wanna have fun.
A Book a Day?
Authors on traditional publishers’ lists are lucky if they can get two novels published within a calendar year. Once in a while, as a special event, a publisher might publish connected books in two consecutive months, or the books of a series a few months apart; but these are the exceptions. The reality is that a publisher’s list is by necessity large, and a large list means everyone must get a turn.
Not so in the indie world. If you’re an indie author, your list is just you, and you can publish a book a week if you feel like it. Contrary to what many readers would like to believe, some of the best books are written quickly–like in-a-few-weeks quickly. In the past, traditionally published authors who wrote fast would hold back their manuscripts, afraid that if they turned them in too soon, their editors would question the books’ quality. But the truth is that some writers are both good and fast, so why not get these books into readers’ hands as quickly as possible? You know those readers who read a book a week, a book a day, or several books a day? They will devour a series—have a “marathon”—much the way TV viewers are using their on-demand services or Netflix to watch TV marathons of their favorite programs.
Barbara Freethy was a veteran of the traditional publishing world when she ventured into indie publishing. “I’m a self-starter,” she says, “and I’ve always wanted to put out series books close together. While writing for traditional publishers, I was never able to do that, but on my own, I can, so I love writing and I love putting out connected books that keep the readers happy!” In the past two years, the record-breaking Freethy has sold more than 3 million e-books.
Are you a fast writer? Without an editor breathing down your neck, you may be able to produce a quality manuscript faster than you think. Conduct an experiment: Produce several connected novels of perhaps 55,000 to 60,000 words and self-publish them as close together as you can. We guarantee your readers will ask for more…quickly.
Shake the Long Tail
Traditional publishers must market their books to the common denominator because they are not really equipped to market to niches. Granted, many of these publishers have special marketing departments that try to reach the more specialized audiences for their books, but even so, most books are sold through mainstream, general-audience channels.
Because the traditional publishers must publish books intended for mass consumption, they turn down many of the books that go on to successful indie publication. This is because indie publishing is perfectly suited to specialized marketing. Unlike a traditional publisher, you can afford to put all of your efforts, before and after publication, into reaching your niche readers. You can also keep your book in print as long as you like—something else the traditional publishers can’t do. A more specialized book needs more time to reach its readers, and you have that time. Many an author has been frustrated by how quickly the traditional publishers take their books out of print.
There are even guides for authors seeking to niche-market their books as effectively as possible. One example is Get Rich in a Niche: The Insider’s Guide to Self-Publishing in a Specialized Market by Jeffrey Bennett, who self-publishes under his own Red Bike imprint.
Kill the Editor
Veterans of traditional publishing know there are editors who tread lightly on a manuscript, and others who stomp all over it. Often the stomping is part of the editor’s effort to make a novel conform to her publisher’s idea of what sells to the mass audience mentioned above. Other times (and we know this from having been editors ourselves), perfectly good books must be shortened in order to lower production costs and meet certain price points.
Indie-published authors must contend with no such interference—no watering down or cutting. Their books may contain whatever content they deem appropriate for their readers; the books may also be as long as the authors like.
Take advantage of this fact. Think hard about what your readers like and give it to them without worrying that anyone will try to stop you. “Writing outside the ‘marketable’ trends can give my novels depth they wouldn’t otherwise reach,” says Karen Rose Smith, a popular writer of romances and mysteries for traditional publishers who has recently delved into self-publishing to make her older, out-of-print titles available again. Often she rewrites the books to reflect her growth as a writer and to appeal to current readers’ tastes. “Writing without rules is a huge responsibility but a welcome one. Because of this freedom, a new edge is creeping into my traditionally published work that strengthens it.”
That said, every manuscript does need a good copy-edit—the kind of spit and polish traditional publishers excel at. All indie authors are advised to invest in this phase, in order to avoid putting out the kind of rough material that has been associated with self-publishing in the past.
The Price is Right
Traditional publishers must charge a minimum amount for their books, especially in the case of print books. Even with e-books, traditional publishers are able to venture into free and promo pricing only for short periods. Indie authors can create entire novels to give away or sell at a very low price indefinitely. These promotional strategies bring excellent returns.
V.K. Sykes (the pen name of traditionally published author Vanessa Kelly and her husband Randy Sykes) is an indie author of sexy contemporary romances and romantic suspense. Through aggressive promotional pricing, Kelly and Sykes have steadily increased their sales and landed on the USA Today bestseller list. According to Kelly and Sykes, “The ability to set and quickly adjust the price of a book or a series of books is the most important weapon in the independent publisher’s promotional toolkit. Promotional pricing can boost sales like nothing else, and readers who opt for a bargain book and like it will often buy your other books at full price.”
Strength in Numbers
Indie authors can band together, especially in the case of e-books, to create anthologies or “boxed sets,” and then price these packages aggressively. Traditional publishers could do the same with authors on their lists, but rarely do. What they will never do is enter into bundling arrangements with other publishers.
Indie authors have no such limitations. They can work together to bundle books and achieve cross-readership. They can also join forces to create anthologies linked to their full-length books, as a promotional device.
Alexandra Ivy and Laura Wright, both New York Times bestselling authors of paranormal romances for traditional publishers (Ivy for Kensington, Wright for Signet), have collaborated on three indie-published double volumes in their Bayou Heat series; all three volumes are now available in a boxed set. Ivy and Wright have also joined forces with Cynthia Eden, Elisabeth Naughton, Katie Reus and Joan Swan on Wicked Firsts, a boxed set of six sexy suspense novellas. The set enjoyed four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, reaching the #2 spot on the e-book fiction list, in addition to hitting a number of other major bestseller lists.
Says Ivy: “Working in collaboration with other writers is the best of both worlds. You still have the freedom of self-pubbing that includes choosing what you want to write, when you want the book released, and how you want it priced, but you also have the support of other authors and their fans that can help get a buzz going that’s vital to push a book past the avalanche of self-pubs and get noticed by readers.”
Kelly and Sykes are another example of indie authors who have joined forces with other indie authors—and the result is greater than the sum of its parts. Sykes and 16 other traditionally published authors who also indie publish formed a self-publishing initiative called Rock*It Reads, which lately has received extensive online and print publicity. This exposure led Barnes & Noble to invite the group to contribute a regular column, “Rock*It Reads Love Rocks,” in its newsletter, for which Kelly and Sykes are regular reviewers.
Is the Edge for You?
Indie publishing isn’t right for everyone, but many authors find that it offers creative and promotional freedom the traditional houses can’t provide. If you write the kind of novel you think will have a hard time making it past the majors or the kind of novel the majors would have a hard time marketing, consider indie publishing. It’s not your mother’s “vanity publishing” anymore. It’s an exciting, major new industry development that savvy authors are already using to great advantage. You could get in on the ground floor—and that’s not something we can say very often these days.
Evan Marshall is a fiction expert, mystery author, and former editor. For 30 years he has been a literary agent specializing in fiction. The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software, co-authored with Martha Jewett, is based on his bestseller The Marshall Plan® for Novel Writing.
Martha Jewett is a memoir advocate, editorial expert, and co-author of The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software. She has worked as an editor, editorial consultant, ghost writer, and literary agent.