“Ssh, don’t tell anyone. Put it in the vault!”
Most of us have had those very words whispered into our ears. In fact, most of us have probably whispered those words into someone else’s ear.
They say everyone has a secret. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that secrets sure pique people’s curiosity.
And if you can capture a reader’s curiosity, you’ll have them hooked.
That’s the essence of today’s fiction writing prompts.
The Power of Secrets
Don’t your ears perk up just a little bit when you hear the word secret? And don’t you get all quiet and attentive when someone says, “I have a secret to tell you?” Secrets are powerful. They imply mystery and drama; they evoke suspense and build tension; and they capture people’s attention. Most importantly, they keep readers turning the pages.
Secrets can be integral to a plot, but usually the secrets belong exclusively to characters. In fact, sometimes a secret will shape a character’s personality. How would keeping a secret for decades impact a person’s behavior? What kind of secret would weigh on someone’s conscience? How do the other characters view someone who can’t keep a secret?
There are big secrets and little secrets, important ones and silly ones. Some secrets are cliché (she had a baby and gave it up for adoption) and others are funny (one time, at band camp…).
The best secrets are surprising. I’m not talking about the sitcom variety of the overheard misunderstanding, where one character overhears another and gets the wrong idea. I’m talking about secrets that, when revealed, make readers’ jaws drop.
Secretive Fiction Writing Prompts
Think about the secrets in books like The Da Vinci Code or in films like The Usual Suspects — secrets that shock you or make you think about the world in new ways. Try to come up with some interesting secrets for your fiction. Use the fiction writing prompts below to write a scene, a whole story, or to come up with some really great character traits or plot twists.
- A character is harboring a secret that is preventing him or her from fulfilling a true desire.
- Two characters share a secret, but it’s not what everyone thinks it is.
- It’s an old family secret, and there’s only one person alive who knows about it. Will he or she take it to the grave?
- There’s a secret and everyone knows about it except one particular character and it happens to affect that character the most.
- There is a small group of people who meet in secret at regular intervals.
- A character has a secret, and if anyone found out, it would destroy his or her life.
- One character discovers another character’s shocking, sad, or terrible secret.
- A character thinks he or she has a very private secret, but most of the people close to him or her know about it.
- A character knows a secret that would destroy one person’s life but save the life of another person.
- There is a secret that would affect everyone on the planet, but only a small, elite group of characters know about it.
Tips for Writing Secrets Into Your Fiction
Writing secrets into your story can make it a lot more exciting, and you can conjure up secrets whenever a character seems flat or the plot is thinning out. But you have to be careful with secrets. Here are a few final tips for writing secrets into your fiction:
- Avoid common or stereotypical secrets unless you can give them a really intriguing twist. Examples: sordid affairs, the family member you never knew you had, the person who went to prison but didn’t commit the crime, etc.
- Usually, the audience gets in on the secret before a key character does, but don’t let it out too early. If you can, reveal the secret over time and make it a guessing game for the reader to figure out.
- If you build a lot of tension, you better have a secret that delivers. There’s nothing worse than a lot of buildup for something like “I’m the one who broke your favorite snow globe in second grade.” Try to come up with a real doozy.
Tell Me Your Secrets
If you have any secrets (real or made up), feel free to leave them in the comments, or post a secret from a novel or a film that you thought was especially clever.
Have fun with today’s top secret fiction writing prompts (how could you not?), and keep writing!
If you have any fiction writing prompts to share, feel free to post them in the comments.
One of the most difficult things to execute well in a piece of fiction is a realistic character. We’ve all read stories in which the characters were dull or hollow; they come across like clones of the same characters we’ve met in dozens of stories before.
Readers want characters who are as unique and complex as real people.
Are we, as writers, obligated to deliver such characters?
Not necessarily. Plenty of stories are plot-driven or centered around theme rather than character. But the stories that resonate the most have vivid, layered characters. Readers and writers often sing the praises of character-driven fiction. So the single best way to intrigue readers is to give them characters they can’t forget.
Character Writing Ideas
You can spend hours, days, weeks, or months developing character ideas. Whether you launch into your story with little knowledge of your characters or create full sketches and backstories for each one before you begin drafting the narrative, there are plenty of tricks and techniques you can use to inspire characters and breathe life into them.
- Use real people as models for your characters. Think of all the people you know intimately, people you love as well as people you despise. Take their strongest and most interesting traits and qualities and give them to your characters.
- Need a face for your character? You can use people you know for this too, but you can also use celebrities and other public figures. Some writers find that putting a face to a character brings out a more robust personality. Try it!
- Baby name dictionaries are a great starting place for names, and names can help you generate ideas for your character sketches. Think about how names influence our perceptions of people and sketch a character that fits his or her name.
- Start with a predicament. Then, you may need to create characters who have the skills to get out of that predicament. Thieves, for example, can pick locks, so if your characters need to get something out of a locked room or building, one of your characters may have some experience in burgling.
- Live out your dreams. When you were a kid, did you want to be a rock star or an astronaut? Well, now you can live vicariously through your characters!
- Turn to fiction. Books, movies, and TV shows are packed with incredible characters that audiences have already fallen for. Don’t try to copy these characters, but by all means, use them for inspiration. Ask yourself what made your favorite characters so compelling.
- We all have quirks, so it makes sense for characters to have quirks too. Freckles, bitten fingernails, a limp, or a lisp are all ways you can set one character apart from the others.
- Family and friends make us who we are. Draft sketches for your characters’ family and friends (even if they’re not going to appear in the story) and you may learn a thing or two about your character.
- Have some style! From a modern urban princess to a bum on the street, every person has his or her own style. Your characters should too! What do they wear? How does she make up her face? Does he wear cologne?
- Most people have interests, hobbies, and passions. Even if your character’s personal interests aren’t tied directly to the plot, they could enrich it, and they’ll certainly make your character more believable.
- I’ve always found mannerisms and gestures fascinating. You often see the same mannerisms mirrored throughout a family or group of friends. In fiction, give each character his or her own unique gestures – biting the bottom lip, scratching one’s forehead, and tapping one’s toe on the floor are all good options.
- Have you ever noticed that everyone you know has their own special way of talking? We each have a unique voice comprised of how we string words together, expressions we frequently use, and our intonation. You can make a character more realistic by simply giving the character a unique voice through dialogue.
- Some of the best characters are extreme or over the top. Think of Luke Skywalker, Robin Hood, and Indiana Jones. These characters have strong personalities and are deeply driven by higher values and personal desires. Think about how your characters’ philosophies and goals shape their personalities.
- Not all characters are human! Stories can be enriched with pets; they may not be necessary to the plot, but they can add to the emotional value of a story.
- Do you write science fiction or fantasy? Forget non-human pets. Try creating characters who are not of this earth: androids, aliens, and mythological or fantastical creatures.
- When you’re fresh out of good character writing ideas, try taking your characters out of the story altogether. Write a scene from a character’s backstory or draft a monologue in your character’s voice.
- Spend some down time with your characters. What do they do when they’re not struggling with conflict or saving the world? Where do you characters eat, how do they organize their closets, and what do they listen to while working out? Sometimes taking a peek at your characters’ most normal moments will give you insight to who they are.
- Balancing traits among a group of characters means that each character brings something different to the table. Harry Potter was a hero, but where would he have been without Hermione’s smarts and Ron’s loyalty? Distribute different strengths and weaknesses among your characters, especially if you’re writing an ensemble piece.
- The literary canon is full of ancient and archetypal characters. From the herald and the hero to the trickster and the villain, myths, legends, and fairy tales can inspire and inform your characters. Put a new twist on these old favorites by forming (rather than copying) your characters from these proven standards from storytelling.
- What about you? It’s the oldest trick in the book: base a character on yourself.
What are some of your favorite character writing ideas and activities? How do you come up with new characters or make your characters realistic? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
In creative writing, we talk about form and genre. Form is what we write: fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. Genre is how we further classify each of these forms.
In fiction writing, there’s literary fiction and everything else.
In fact, literary fiction and all the other genres are so at odds with each other that some writers simply say they are either literary fiction writers or genre writers.
But what does that mean? Isn’t all fiction considered literary?
Yes and no.
What is Literary Fiction Anyway?
Let’s start with a simple definition of the word literary. Dictionary.com offers several, including the following:
- pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings, especially those classed as literature: literary history.
- pertaining to authorship: literary style.
- versed in or acquainted with literature; well-read.
- engaged in or having the profession of literature or writing: a literary man.
- characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.
So we can use the word literary whenever we’re talking about writing or authorship in general, but it can also mean an excessive or affected display of learning. That’s a nice way of referring to intellectual or academic snobbery.
Wikipedia offers a more specific definition of literary fiction: “fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.” The article goes on to say that “to be considered literary, a work usually must be ‘critically acclaimed’ and ‘serious’. In practice, works of literary fiction often are ‘complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.'”
In other words, literary fiction has meaning and significance. I’ve also heard literary fiction defined as paying diligence to the craft of writing (or the art of stringing words together), exploring the human condition, and making bold commentary or criticism of society and culture.
Literary Fiction vs. Everything Else
I love literary fiction. Some of my favorite novels are The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird, all of which would be classified as literary fiction. These are the kind of books that people study and analyze. They’re taught in schools. People read them for decades, even centuries, after they’re published. They win prestigious awards and are beloved and celebrated by bookworms and scholars alike.
As much as I love literary fiction, I’d have to say that my heart belongs to science fiction. From A Wrinkle in Time to The Hunger Games trilogy, the science fiction that I love best has done everything that literary fiction can do and then some.
In an interview with the Paris Review (which I highly recommend), the great Ray Bradbury said, “Science fiction is the fiction of ideas.” He also observed that science fiction often goes unrecognized for having literary merit and expressed his chagrin:
“As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible… The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.”
Some of the other genres have it even worse. When was the last time a romance novel or horror story won critical acclaim or took home the highest literary honors? Science fiction and fantasy writers have enjoyed more critical and commercial success in recent years: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, and Suzanne Collins have dominated book sales, and they are all genre writers. Ray Bradbury himself won several prestigious literary awards. Sometimes it seems like the literary academics (the literati) are coming around and slowly opening their minds to genre fiction.
Yet there is still a stigma attached to genre fiction in certain literary circles. Just recently, I heard someone say they refused to read The Hunger Games because it was about kids killing kids and was therefore garbage. Yet kids are killing kids all over the planet: in gangs, in wars, and in school shootings. It’s not garbage; it’s truth, and that is the purest form of literature.
Looking for Merit in Creative Writing
Of course there is an argument to made about the merit of a work of fiction. I’ve read plenty of literary and genre fiction that said absolutely nothing about humanity or the world in which we live. Some of the literary novels I’ve picked up recently have been so abstract, obtuse, and erudite that after a few chapters, I gave up and moved on to the next book. And I’ve read plenty of genre fiction that is good fun but will never change the world.
Ultimately, each of us decides for ourselves which stories hold the most merit. We get to ask ourselves whether we want a gripping story or a story that makes us think, feel, and question. Do we read to be entertained and to escape, or do we read to broaden our perspectives and enlighten ourselves?
Have you ever watched a film or read a book that you thought had a lot of artistic or intellectual merit only to learn that the critics shot it down? Have you ever experienced a story that you thought was just awful and learned that it won awards and prestige? What are your thoughts on the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Characters are the heart and soul of every story.
Almost every great story is about people. Plot, setting, theme, and every other element of fiction is secondary to realistic characters that an audience can connect with on an intellectual or emotional level.
There are exceptions, of course. Some readers enjoy plot-driven stories, but they never seem to achieve the massive popularity that stories with rich, layered characters achieve. Why do fans adore Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen? Because they feel like real people.
We connect with characters in fiction for any number of reasons. Maybe the character reminds us a little of ourselves. We might love her because she represents who we want to be, or we might hate her because she reminds us of the parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of. Some characters feel like friends; others remind us of our enemies. We might admire a character’s heroism and relate to his philosophy or we might admonish his acts of destruction and hate.
Some writers argue that it’s not necessary for readers to connect or identify with characters in a story. That might be true to some extent, but the most beloved stories throughout the history of literature are populated with characters we love and characters we love to hate. There’s something to be said for making readers care.
Character Writing Tips
Readers won’t care about characters unless they are believable. So how do we make our characters realistic? Why do the most celebrated characters seem so real even though they are made up? How have some writers managed to render animals, aliens, and even inanimate objects into characters that we embrace emotionally?
The answer is simple: the best characters come with all the flaws, quirks, and baggage that real people possess. They are not just names on a page. They have pasts and personalities, and they are unique.
Here are some character writing tips to help you develop characters that feel like real people:
- Backstory: We are born a certain way, but our life experiences continually mold and shape us. Each character has a life before the story begins. What is it?
- Dialogue: The way we talk depends on the language we speak and where we live (or grew up) but there’s also something unique to each person’s style of speaking. We repeat certain words and phrases, inflect certain syllables, and make certain gestures while we speak.
- Physical Description: Our primary method of identifying each other is the way we look; hair and eye color, height and weight, scars and tattoos, and the style of clothing we wear are all part of our physical descriptions.
- Name: Esmerelda doesn’t sound like a soccer mom, and Joe doesn’t sound like an evil sorcerer. Make sure the names you choose for your characters match their personalities and the roles they play in the story.
- Goals: Some say that a character’s goals drive the entire story. He wants to slay the dragon; she wants to overthrow the evil empire. Goals can be small (the character wants a specific job) or big (the character is trying to save the world). Come up with a mix of small and large goals for each character.
- Strengths and Weaknesses: Villains sometimes do nice things and heroes occasionally take the low road. What are your character’s most positive and negative behaviors and personality traits?
- Friends and Family: These are the people in our inner circles, and they have played important roles in shaping our personalities and our lives. Who are your characters’ friends and family before the story starts? What new friends will they meet once the story begins?
- Nemesis: A nemesis is someone with whom we are at odds. This character doesn’t have to be a villain, but the goals of the nemesis definitely interfere with your main character’s goals.
- Position in the World: What do your characters do for a living? What are their daily lives like? Where do they live? What is a character’s role or position among his or her friends, family, or coworkers?
- Skills and Abilities: A character’s skills and abilities can get him out of a tight spot or prevent him from being able to get out of a tight spot. Skills can be useless or they can come in handy. Does your character have an education or special training? What can he do?
- Gestures, Mannerisms, and Quirks: One character chews her nails while watching movies. Another runs his hand through his hair when he’s trying to figure something out. Give your characters identifiable quirks and behaviors, like real people.
- Fears: An old fiction writing trick is to figure out what your character is most afraid of, and then make the character face it. We all have fears; characters should, too.
How to Put These Character Writing Tips into Practice
Characters need to be detailed and complicated in order to seem real. These character tips give you a lot to consider, but how do you put them into practice?
You could tackle each idea as a separate exercise. Write your character’s backstory one day. The next day, do a page of dialogue to see how the character speaks. Then spend some time looking for a perfect name for your character. If you work through all these tips as separate exercises, you’ll end up with a robust character sketch, and your character will be ready to enter the plot of your story.
Character sketches are by no means mandatory. You could also start writing the draft of your manuscript and see how each of these elements develops organically for each character. During revisions, you can check your narrative against this list to make sure the characters are consistent and have all the depth of real people.
How do you create characters? Do you start with a character sketch or do you just start writing? Do you have a checklist (like the one above) to help you know and understand your characters? Got any character writing tips to add to this list? Leave a comment, and keep writing.
Have you ever read one of those epic fantasy novels in which the magical characters can gain total control over any living being (or non-living object) simply by discovering its real and true name? I’ve read about ten of those novels.
What do you think is more perplexing, the fact that authors continue to use this rule of magic (even though it’s tired and ready to be retired) or the astounding number of unique names that writers come up with for all the characters in these stories?
Dubworthy or Dubless?
I have been known to spend hours pondering names and wondering how a writer managed to choose a name that so perfectly fit a character, especially characters that are iconic: Holden Caulfield, Harry Potter, Hamlet, Hanibal Lechter. And they don’t all start with the letter H: Ebenezer Scrooge, Mary Poppins, Sherlock Holmes, Gollum, Cinderella, Willy Wonka, Scarlett O’Hara. The list goes on and on. And it doesn’t stop with literary characters. Remarkable character names can also be found in movies, comic books, and on TV.
Think about the most famous, unforgettable, and compelling characters. They have names that are memorable, names that resonate with the character’s energy: Bond. James Bond. How do you forget a guy like that?
But here’s a better question. How does a writer come up with a name like that?
The Name is the Game
Let me be blunt. I suck at coming up with names. I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent pondering great names and trying to come up with handles for my poor, nameless characters. But names elude me. They do. So, what do I do when my fiction writing antics require me to name a character? Well, if I’m already in the throes of writing, I generally write the characters’ names generically and in all caps:
GIRL is walking down the street and freezes when she spots ANIMAL sitting in the middle of the road.
But I can’t avoid naming forever. The story is never finished until everybody is named, and I find that I can’t get very deep into the tale when I’m working with nameless characters. So, I do what any resourceful writer does. I turn to my handy-dandy writing resources.
The internet is always my first choice for research. I use an online dictionary and thesaurus. When I need a quick fact, I’ve been known to obtain it from Wikipedia (judiciously, of course) and I also use the open-source, online encyclopedia as a starting place to look for more credible research (they often have excellent annotations). And when I need a name, I’ve engaged the power of Google (a search engine that happens to have a fantastic name of its own).
I’ve googled boy names and girl names, exotic names, and androgynous names. I’ve done it in reverse too, and searched for names by their meaning. I’ve gotten lucky a few times and found just the right name for a character. You can also find online tools that generate character names, which is awesome if you can use a name like Magaga Dawntracker.
But looking for a name on the web is like looking for a song in your iPod when you can’t remember the title or artist. It takes forever. And you find yourself endlessly perusing, clicking, and nodding your head (or shaking it, as the case may be). I guess the benefit is that all those names you peruse might spark ideas for other characters, but what about the character you’ve already created? The one whose lack of a name launched you into this quest in the first place?
It’s not like this was a one-time ordeal. Name searching became a major time-suck for me. And fiction writing started to feel more like climbing Mount Everest than a creative experience. I went through this ridiculous cycle more times than I care to recall.
And then one day, I was happily browsing through my favorite bookstore, a local and independent bookstore, and this book popped out at me:
A World of Baby Character Names
Okay, so technically, the title of this book is A World of Baby Names. But I’m not naming any babies. This is strictly about naming characters.
Even though this was the first name book that I noticed, I checked out several others before buying this one. It had some features I thought might be useful. Turns out I was right. I’ve used this book a lot. A whole lot.
What I like best about it is that the names are separated by country of origin. And there are tons of names in this book that my American self has never heard before. I can look at the Hindu names and the Polish names, and then I can get creative and start combining them.
The names are also sorted by gender. That makes looking for an androgynous name a little challenging, but on the other hand, there’s a nice index, so I can scroll through every single name in a few minutes — a great method for finding a name that pops out at me. I can then navigate to the name page and find out what it means.
Each section also includes a written introduction about names in various cultures, which is pretty cool.
If you struggle with naming characters the way I do, then you should seriously consider getting this book or one like it.
A Few, Final Tips and Resources for Naming Characters
Readers have made tons of excellent suggestions since this article was first published. Here are their additions to the ever-growing list of resources for naming characters:
- Visit Behind the Name to peruse names and their meanings. You can browse by gender and/or nationality.
- Keep a special notebook (or a page/section in your notebook just for names. Make sure you jot down interesting names whenever you come across them and when you need a name, you’ll have your own stockpile!
- Do you have a smart phone or tablet? Search for “baby naming” or “character naming” apps. Tip: check the ratings and read the reviews to make sure you pick the best apps available.
- Want to choose names based on data and statistics? The U.S. Social Security Administration shows most popular names by year, decade, state, and territory!
A Rose By Any Other Name
How do you come up with character names? Do you have a name book? Is there a website you use? Do you have a knack for choosing names using nothing more than your own brilliant imagination? What are some of your all-time favorite character names? And finally (here’s a question for the most creative souls out there), can you think of any other good uses for a baby name book, other than naming babies and fictional characters?
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!
Changing the Tails on Tales
Here are a few idea starters:
Gone with the Wind – What if Rhett Butler hadn’t walked away?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Without the lobotomy?
Titanic (movie) – What if the opposite characters had lived and died?
Try this with any of the Star Wars movies (I dare you!), or a Shakespeare play. Try it with a Dr. Seuss book or try it with War and Peace. Dip into nonfiction and try it with world history. What would life be like if World War II had gone the other way? What if a different candidate had won a major election?
Or just try it with the last book you read.
- You can flesh out a completely new ending for the story you chose by writing a polished piece or you can simply jot down some notes or an outline that explain how your new ending will differ from the original.
- Write a few sentences about how your new ending might affect the integrity of the piece or how a different ending might have changed the world. Would Romeo and Juliet be the classic that it is today if the two star-crossed lovers had lived? How would that have changed our culture, the literary canon, or the way the most compelling and moving stories throughout history have been viewed and received?
- Turn this exercise on its head and change the opening of the story. Make the hero and villain switch places. Tell the story from a different character’s point of view.
Which story ending will you change? You can pick one that you didn’t like much and fix it by giving it a better ending or choose a story with an ending you loved — just to see what a different outcome would have been like.
Fiction writing exercises are supposed to be fun and challenging, so tackle this with a light heart and a focused mind. And keep writing!
If you have any fiction writing exercises to share, feel free to post them in the comments.
101 Creative Writing Exercises is a collection of creative writing exercises that takes writers on a journey through different forms and genres while providing writing techniques, practical experience, and inspiration.
Each exercise teaches a specific concept, and each chapter focuses on a different subject or form of writing: journaling, storytelling, fiction, poetry, article writing, and more. Every exercise is 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 share one of my favorite exercises from the book. This is from “Chapter Four: Speak Up,” which focuses on dialogue and scripts. The exercise is called “Body Language.” Enjoy!
Sometimes what people say without actually speaking tells us a whole lot more than what comes out of their mouths. Using body language to communicate is natural. We all understand it intuitively—some better than others.
As a writer, you can closely observe people’s body language and learn how humans speak without words so you can bring unspoken communication into your writing.
Imagine two characters, a man and woman, who are complete strangers. They are in a bookstore. Their eyes meet across the room. You wouldn’t write “Their eyes locked. They were instantly attracted to each other.” That would be boring and unimaginative. Instead, you would let the scene unfold and describe it to the reader—how their eyes met, how he gulped and she blushed, how they both suddenly felt warm, how the two of them slowly worked their way toward the center of the store until they finally met in the horror section.
Write a scene between two (or more) characters in which there is no dialogue but the characters are communicating with each other through body language. You can also write a nonfiction piece. Surely you have experienced nonverbal communication. Take that experience and describe it on the page.
Your scene can be a lead-in to two characters meeting or conversing. The scene should comprise at least two pages of non-dialogue interaction with two or more characters. Here are a few scene starters:
- A cop, detective, or private investigator is tailing a suspect through a small town, a big city, a mall, amusement park, or other public area.
- Strangers are always good for body language exercises. Think about where strangers are brought together: public transportation, classes, elevators, and formal meetings.
- Kids in a classroom aren’t supposed to be speaking while a teacher is giving a lecture, but they always find ways to communicate.
Tips: What if one character misinterprets another character’s body language? That could lead to humor or disaster. Maybe the characters are supposed to be doing something else (like in a classroom where they’re supposed to be listening to the teacher) but instead, they’re making faces and gestures at each other. One helpful technique might be to go inside the characters’ heads, but don’t get too carried away with he thought and she wondered as these constructs are basically inner dialogue.
Variations: As an alternative, write a scene in which one character speaks and one doesn’t: an adult and a baby, a human and an animal.
Applications: There are depictions of nonverbal communication in almost all types of storytelling from journalism and biography to memoir and fiction.
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.
Fiction Writing Exercises and Flash Fiction
Many writers have a habit of using gratuitous words and phrases in order to meet a word count, make a piece sound more rhythmic, or enhance descriptive passages. Often, such words hinder a story because they leave less to the reader’s imagination. Other times, there is so much description that the plot and characters get lost in the fray.
Fiction writing exercises like the one below will help you pinpoint areas where excessive wording is creating a problem. In addition, it will peel away the layers of your story, revealing its core. Plus, it’s a very simple exercise and can be completed rather quickly.
Flash Your Fiction
Select a short story you’ve written that is either completed or near completion. Try to choose one that is about ten pages long. You can do this exercise with an entire manuscript, or with a story that is just a couple of pages long, but ten pages is ideal.
First, save the file with a new name so you don’t lose your original work.
Then go through the piece and remove every single adjective and adverb.
Next, remove words, phrases, and sentences that do not move the action of the story forward, especially if they are solely there for description.
Finally, go through the story one last time removing as much as you can without making the piece unintelligible. A traditional example is: Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back.
Of course, this is an oversimplified example, but it gives you an idea of just how much a story can be stripped to reveal its core movements.
More Flash Fiction Writing Exercises
If you don’t have any pieces that you feel are appropriate for this exercise, if you want to try something a little different, or if you want to do more flash fiction writing exercises, here are a few projects you can tackle:
- Write a piece of flash fiction from scratch and try to keep it under 1000 words. If you really want to push yourself, aim for fewer than 500 words. Remember, the story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it has to have a central conflict. It’s harder than it sounds!
- Instead of rewriting an entire piece, turn a scene or a chapter into a flash fiction story.
- Turn movies, novels, and other story sources into flash fiction writing exercises. Take the plot from a favorite book or movie and write it as a piece of flash fiction.
This exercise can be a lot of fun, and it’s extremely eye-opening when you realize just how many unnecessary words we pack into our writing. It’s also interesting to see the skeleton of a story after stripping away its excess.
Are You Up For It?
Have you ever written flash fiction? Do you aim for concise writing? Got any fiction writing exercises of your own to share? Leave a comment, and keep writing.
Are you a storyteller? Do you want to be? Then I suggest you pick up a copy of Wired for Story, ASAP.
This is easily the best book on writing fiction that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. The book takes a fresh approach and tackles fiction writing from a scientific perspective. Thus the subtitle: “The writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.”
Before all you left-brained creatives bristle at the word science, know this: the book is completely accessible. It doesn’t confuse you with complex scientific jargon. Instead, it uses simple examples (mostly told as stories) to demonstrate the science behind story.
What keeps the reader’s brain engaged? What causes the reader’s brain to wander off in search of something more compelling? How do you hook readers in the first place? If you want to know the answers to these questions, you need to read this book.
Not only does Wired for Story answer these questions, it explains what are the most critical elements that your story needs in order to resonate with readers. And as an avid reader, I found myself nodding along with every piece of insight and advice this book offers.
We’re All Wired for Story
“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution.”
– Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
In the past year, I’ve read several books on the craft of fiction writing. I don’t think I finished half of them. Some were unrelatable (like the one that used a bunch of novels I’ve never read or heard of as examples). Others were written in a tone that I found dull (and in one case, offensive).
So when Wired for Story arrived in my mailbox, I was a bit hesitant. But once I got started, the book was hard to put down. Not only did it address issues that most other books on the craft of storytelling miss or gloss over (even though they are of critical importance), I found it fun and entertaining, too.
I found concepts in this book that I could immediately put into practice. I experienced several aha! moments where I thought that’s exactly what my manuscript needs!
“Storytelling trumps beautiful writing every time.”
– Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
My favorite chapters dealt with characters (and more specifically, the protagonist), explaining the importance of creating characters who inspire emotion from the reader, characters who want something (one thing internally and something else externally), and characters who possess the all-important inner issue. I immediately recognized the validity of these concepts and because they were explained so smoothly, I could even see where my own characters were missing the mark.
Perhaps most importantly, Wired for Story will get you out of your own head and force you to think not like a writer, but like a reader. You want people to buy your book, read it, and give it positive reviews. So, you better be cognizant of what their expectations are and what they will experience when they read your story. Why should they care about the protagonist? How will they relate to her goals, struggles, and inner issues? Or will they?
Best of all, I found Wired for Story to be highly motivational. I couldn’t wait to finish each chapter so I could work on my own story and apply the concepts I’d picked up.
Whether you’re thinking about writing a novel, in the middle of drafting a story, or working on revisions for a screenplay, this book will keep your head in the game, because it’s a constant reminder that writing is a delight. It cuts through the fluff and gets to the heart of what makes a story work.
Get Wired for Story
“Writers are, and always have been, among the most powerful
people in the world.” – Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
We’re all wired for story, but are you wired for storytelling? Find out what really hooks readers and keeps them glued the page, and learn how to write a story that people will read and love. What are you waiting for?
You know that feeling you get when you read a novel and become completely lost in it? You can’t put it down, so you lose track of time. When you finally finish, you wish it would just keep going.
Isn’t that the kind of story you want to write?
Over the past year, I’ve read only a few books that I couldn’t put down. Unfortunately, several of the books I started to read didn’t keep my interest past the first few chapters. There was a time when I forced myself to finish every book I started, no matter how boring it was. But I don’t have time for that anymore. My book pile is big and my reading list is long, so if I’m not compelled by the time the second act gets underway, I move on and find something more intriguing.
As a reader, I’m on a perpetual quest for better stories. What does that mean for writers?
The Best Fiction Sticks
I’ve been thinking about what makes some books so easy to put down and what makes some stories impossible to let go of. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, for example, I had the strangest feeling that Holden Caulfield was a real person. I expected him to come walking around some corner and start mumbling about the lousy week he was having. This sensation lingered for a few days, both times I read the book.
But let’s go back further. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was about six years old. Then I read it again. And again, and again. I watched the animated film over and over. No matter how many times I read the book or watched the movie, I always cried at the end. To this day, quotes from the book and scenes from the film get me choked up. It’s a story that sticks.
The most recent book I couldn’t put down was a trilogy: The Hunger Games. I’m a science fiction fan, so the dystopian world intrigued me, but what really kept me glued to the page was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She wasn’t fearless but she was brave, strong, and honorable. It’s rare to find female characters of this caliber in fiction, and it’s not every day that a novel with such positive messages becomes a worldwide sensation.
Stories like these haunt readers; stories like these linger in hearts and minds. These are the best kinds of stories.
Writing Better Stories
If we want to write better stories, we have to read the best fiction and figure out what makes it so excellent. When I’m absorbed in a book, I always try to keep one corner of my mind focused on what the writer is doing so brilliantly to keep my full attention on the story. Some things are obvious: believable characters, an interesting plot, realistic dialogue. Other elements of the best fiction are more elusive. Here are some observations I’ve made about how to write better stories:
Give People a Reason to Read
If I get to the third chapter of a book and still don’t care about it, I’ll probably put it in the donation pile and pity whoever ends up with it. The characters have to want something badly enough to go out there and try to get it. The must have purpose, an objective if you will. The characters’ purpose gives me a reason to read their stories.
Don’t Bore Your Readers
Pages of description, minute details that are neither interesting nor relevant to the plot, and dull scenes that have no essential function to the story will bore readers to death. Keep the conflict coming and the action moving and your readers will stay up to read your book rather than reading it to help them fall asleep.
It’s the Little Things
Too much detail and description gets boring, but the right details can make an otherwise average scene extraordinary. One liners that make readers laugh, subtle (or overt) pop culture references, and symbolism that has deeper meaning keep readers stimulated.
Stimulate Imagination, Provoke Thought, and Pull Heartstrings
Speaking of stimulation, it’s one of the main reasons people enjoy reading so much. Sure, lots of readers are just looking for escape and entertainment, but plenty of us want to engage our imaginations and have our intellects challenged. Get readers emotionally involved, and not only will they enjoy your book; they’ll also become loyal fans of your work.
Do Something Different
Forget about trying to be completely original. I doubt that’s possible anymore. Every story is the result of stories that have come before. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put your unique stamp on your story. Give old story premises new twists and your stories will feel fresh and invigorating.
Write Smooth Sentences That Make Sense
This one is last on the list for a reason. One of the best novels I read recently did not have the best sentence structures. In fact, some paragraphs were fragmented and disjointed — not so much that I couldn’t understand what was going on, but it was a bit jarring at times. The story was strong enough that I didn’t care that much, but this type of oversight can mean the difference between a four-star and a five-star review.
How Do You Write Better Stories?
When you’re reading and writing fiction, do you think about the little things that make the difference between a mediocre story and a mesmerizing story? What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down? What was it about that book that made it so potent? How do you apply what you’ve learned as a reader to your own fiction? How can authors learn to write better stories? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing!