A Writing-Exercise Grab Bag

Sara C Rolater

Wriitng Styles: a Concise Guide

There are many different types of writing: but I've found it's just plain easier to write when I have a clear, manageable objective, no matter what stage of the writing process I'm at. So I thought I'd share some exercises I've collected over the years that can provide jump starts and inject energy into material you've already generated, leading you to those unexpected places that make fiction worthwhile. Feel free to mix and match. 

The Storymatic (Brian Mooney). Being struck with blind inspiration is a great starting point for a story, but such inspiration often fails us the moment we need it, that is, when we've finally cajoled ourselves into our desk chairs and our fingers are poised over the keys, ready to beautifully describe½something. The Storymatic offers you four random elements that you create the connections between. Gold cards describe potential characters (member of the clergy; rider of elevators), and copper cards props and plot points like (long awaited invitation; abandoned building)--you draw two of each. The possible number of story combinations is supposedly six trillion. Now you have no excuse not to write.


Observe a stranger (but don't get caught) (Justin Cronin). Pick out someone (on a college campus, at a Starbucks, the DMV, doctor's office) and watch them for at least fifteen minutes, taking notes on what you see: how they look, what they are doing, wearing, etc. Then, write up a (fake) biography for this person based on these details. Then, write a scene with the character you've constructed in this biography.

Shift the power (Robert Boswell). This is good for generating the arc of a full story, comprised of at least three scenes. In the first one, the main character has power over someone else(s). In the next, power shifts, becoming equal. In the third scene, the main character has less power than the character(s) he/she used to have power over.

Obstruct desire (Greg Oaks). Write a scene in which the character wants something in the very first line. In the rest of the scene, that character cannot get this thing that he/she wants. This can give a first draft a dramatic trajectory that it might take many drafts to discover otherwise. Plot is conflict.

Props and objects (Antonya Nelson). Take a working draft of a story and stick in three new props and/or objects. This is kind of like drawing the Storymatic cards a few drafts in (or you can use your own brain). Plus a few drafts later you can use these objects to generate metaphorical closure.

Color code (Robert Boswell/Dylan Walsh). This is more of a reading exercise, good to break down published stories, but one that can be applied to your own drafts as well. Versions of this exercise get pretty complex, with different color codes for structure, characterization, and images, but basically you target a specific element you want to look at in a story, like how much scene the writer is using versus how much exposition/summary. Marking all the scenes in the story in blue and all the summary in red provides vivid visualization of the ratio the writer's using, where they're putting summary, and how much they're putting. Compare this to your own current working draft and you'll likely see all the places you have WAY too much summary. Take those chunks of summary and rewrite them as half that length or less.

First lines (me). Take a published story and write your own version of the first line. This is kind of like language algebra, plugging in new variables for the different parts of speech, though you don't have to be overly strict about the parallel. The first lines, particularly of short stories, are complex creatures—likely the writer has revised that line several times, making it more efficient and packing in more of the story's thematic material. Taking such complexity as a jumping-off point automatically imbues the start of your story with the latent energy of a full narrative. As an example, the first line of Steve Almond's "God Bless America" is: "Billy Clamm had not signed up for Drama I, he had signed up for a tax-preparation course called Loopholes Ahoy!" A substitute version I came up with is: "Reginald Wheeler had thought he was in Linguistics 101, but the professor didn't seem blind and the first slide that popped up on the projector was a celestial scene of splendor, a bunch of naked cherubs hovering around a lady in blue, fanning her as if she were about to faint. 'Where is God in this picture?' the professor asked." The new first sentence immediately led me to the second one, not based on anything Almond wrote.

First Lines Mug

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