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 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.