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. Read more
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. Read more
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? Read more
Fiction writing exercises improve your writing by challenging you, providing you with fresh ideas, and forcing you to approach fiction writing from new angles.
This is a flexible writing exercise that could also be called Change the Tale. But in this exercise, we’re going to change the tale by changing the tail.
The idea is to take an existing plot and change the ending to make it completely different. This will help you understand the basics of story structure, particularly the part where you bring the story to a close.
Take the tail end off a story, right after the climax, and change it to something else. Choose a story from a book, magazine, newspaper, or film, and change the ending! Read more
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! Read more
These fiction writing exercises are designed to help fiction writers shave away the fluff and reveal the bare bones of a piece of fiction.
We’ll start with one exercise that will help you assess the core structure of a story and then explore a few bonus flash fiction writing exercises that are good for developing concise writing.
What is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is a short story that is extremely brief. There is no official word limit, but generally, stories of fewer than 1000-2000 words would fall under the flash category. Read more
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. Read more
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? Read more
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!