3 Fiction Writing Exercises for Story Development
Fiction writing exercises can help you discover storytelling techniques and provide ideas and inspiration for your fiction writing projects.
For writers who are young or just starting out with fiction, these exercises provide practice and experience. For more experienced writers, these exercises offer inspiration and can help you see a story from new angles.
Today’s fiction writing exercises are carefully chosen to help you develop some of the most critical components in a story. If you can create a few characters; identify a conflict, climax, and resolution; and choose a theme, you’re well on your way to writing a short story or novel that will resonate with readers.
These exercises are similar to assignments you would complete in a college-level fiction writing class, exercises that push you in the direction of writing material that can be published. You can tackle these exercises separately, but I recommend using them to develop ideas around a single story.
1. Character Exercise: Sketching a Protagonist and an Antagonist
We often think of them as the bad guy and the good guy or the hero and the villain, but those terms are becoming outdated as modern storytelling increasingly embraces protagonists who are highly flawed and antagonists who aren’t 100% evil.
The Exercise: Sketch two characters who are in conflict with each other.
Do not identify a protagonist or antagonist, just create two characters. Both characters should have the potential to be good or evil. Start with physical descriptions, then get inside the characters’ heads to establish their inner landscapes, and finally, work up a bit of backstory for each of them. Remember, these two characters have a fundamental conflict with each other. What is it? The core of this exercise is identifying that conflict.
If you’ve never done a character sketch or have trouble coming up with details for your character, check out this character development worksheet.
2. Plot Exercise: Conflict, Climax, and Resolution
The three-act structure is one of the simplest and most effective way to break down a story. Often, the acts are 1) Setup, 2) Confrontation, and 3) Resolution. I think of the three-act structure as 1) Conflict, 2) Climax, and 3) Resolution because those are the three pinnacles in each of the three acts. In the first part of a story, we learn what the conflict is. The second (and largest portion) of the story builds up to a climax in which the conflict hits boiling point. Finally, the third act resolves the conflict.
The Exercise: Determine a conflict, climax, and resolution for a story. You can use the two characters you created in the first exercise for this.
Conflict examples: Two people vying for the same job, a natural disaster, people-eating aliens landing on Earth.
Climax examples: In a big showdown, one job candidate smears the other and knocks the opponent out of the race. A natural disaster claims the lives of half of Earth’s population. Humans engage in a final battle with people-eating aliens.
Resolution examples: The job candidate who got smeared makes a comeback and gets the job. Earth’s survivors rebuild after a planet-wide natural disaster. Against all odds, humans win the battle against aliens with superior technology.
3. Theme Exercise: Universal Ideas
Theme is difficult to explain, but Wikipedia does a good job:
A theme is a broad idea, message, or moral of a story. The message may be about life, society, or human nature. Themes often explore timeless and universal ideas and are almost always implied rather than stated explicitly. Along with plot, character, setting, and style, theme is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction.
I usually think of theme as the big questions that a story asks or its underlying philosophies.
The exercise: Choose a theme and write a list of ways in which a theme can be executed through the course of a story.
You can choose a theme for the characters you sketched in the first exercise or for the three-act structure you developed in the second exercise. For example, in a story where two characters are vying for the same job, the theme might be dream fulfillment (if it’s one or both of the characters’ dream job).
As an alternative, try to identify themes in other stories. Think about your favorite books, movies, and TV shows and make lists of some themes you’ve found in storytelling.
Get Busy Writing Fiction
Do you think about character, plot, and theme when you’re working on a story? Do you plan these elements in advance or let them unfold through discovery writing? Who are some of your favorite characters? Can you think of a truly original plot in modern storytelling? What themes in fiction appeal to you the most? And finally, do you use fiction writing exercises and if you do, how have they helped you improve your writing?
Are you looking for more writing exercises? Pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available in paperback and ebook.