Category Archives: writing exercises

Ideas–A Practical Exercise

Lawrence Block once commented in one of his articles on writing–and I’m paraphrasing here–that the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” is misleading; it implies the writer is struck by an idea for a story, and from there everything is golden.

He’s right–the process of writing is an endless generation of ideas, one after the other.  Character development, plotting, backstory–all of them are nothing but the writer asking themselves questions and then dreaming up the answers, one after another, until the story is finished.

So, here you are, and you want to write a story.  But you’re sitting there with a blank page and nothing particular coming to mind to put on it.  Now what?

If you’re like most writers, you have a glimmer of an idea.  Maybe not a full-fledged story–not yet–but maybe a character, or a compelling conflict, or a bit of engaging business you want to use, or just a general thought of “I’d like to tell a story about this.”

First, we need to abandon the notion that the blank page–or empty Word document–in front of us at this moment is our story.  We’re going to do some work on this idea first.  This is the part of the writing process that to me is most like magic–starting with nothing and stringing stuff out of your head onto the page until you have a solid story.

Next, we need to abandon the notion that there are any “wrong” or “bad” answers.  As you work up ideas, you’ll be making up answers to your own questions.  Some answers you’ll like better than others.  Some answers will make you want to keep looking for a different answer 🙂  That is fine.  This is your story, the only one who decides what the right answers are is you.  The right answer is the one that leads to a story that you want to tell.

Let’s say I have in mind a particular image.  It’s not a whole story, but it’s compelling and I would like to turn it into a story.  I am imagining a woman, standing in front of her dresser, pointing a revolver at her reflection in the mirror.

This is my spark; the thing that’s making me want to write.  Your spark could be anything.  The process is always the same.  At the top of this blank sheet of paper, I am going to write out my spark.

Spark: a woman, standing in front of her dresser, pointing a revolver at her reflection in the mirror.

There are lots of questions I could ask here to start fleshing this idea out.  The old saws we learned in journalism class serve well:  Who?  What?  Where?  When?  How?

But the King of all questions is Why?  If you only get to ask one question, make it Why.  Why? is the question that will get you to the heart of things faster than any other.  I could ask Who and do a detailed character sketch of the woman with the revolver.  I could ask Where and go into great detail about the bedroom she’s in, or What and discuss the revolver.

But the first question I’m going to ask is Why?

Question: why is she pointing a gun at her own reflection?

This is where I start just making things up.  You’ve got to turn off your internal critic, the one who’ll happily inform you that all of your ideas stink.  Frankly, you aren’t looking for your internal critic’s opinion here.

You are looking for your own.  You are going to start making up answers, throwing them out there.  How will you know you have a good one?  You’ll feel it.  You’ll get shivers, or goosebumps, or you’ll just stare at your writing on the page and say “Wow.”

Answers: People usually point guns at things because they are afraid of them.  Or they want to eat them.

Is she afraid of her own reflection?  Maybe.  Maybe she is insane, and we’re demonstrating it here, with a gun in the dressing room mirror.

Or maybe her reflection really is dangerous.

That–that right there.  That is when I felt like I was onto something–something interesting, something scary–something I would want to write.  I’m on the right track there.

Given the same question, the answer that you react to may be different.  That’s fine–your story should be yours.

So I’ve got my first answer that I really like.  All of that other stuff above it is just harmless chatter.  When I’m done here, I can copy out the useful bits onto a clean sheet of paper so that all I have left is the good stuff.

What do I do now?

Of course!  I ask:

Question: Why is her reflection dangerous?

And I start making up answers until one clicks with me.  And then I look at that answer, and see what questions it prompts.  And at some point farther on down the page, I’m going to feel like I have enough material to start writing, so I will.  When I reach a point in the narrative where I feel like I need to know more to continue, I will come back to this paper and ask some more questions.

It’s perfectly possible to carry this idea out to something a story could be written from.  I may do that, if it would be helpful.  But if you’re struggling with ideas and are interested in the process, it would probably be even more helpful to give it a go yourself.

I’d love to see what you come up with.  I’m sure it will be awesome.

A Couple of Writing Exercises

On my website, I have a page of writing exercises.  I originally designed them for use in character development, but they have also proven useful for writer’s block.

Today I’d like to highlight a couple of my favorites.  Any of them can be useful, but these two reliably provide an interesting writing experience, and good insights when it’s all done.

  • Your protagonist and antagonist are each required to write a letter of introduction to your reader, describing themselves, their goals and motivations, and you.
    (This exercise gives you valuable insight into the way your characters think about and describe themselves)
  • Your protagonist and antagonist each write a letter to a friend or family member (or you!) about the other.
    (This exercise helps you gain insight into how your characters view their opposition)

Endings–A Practical Exercise

A while back I posted a blog entry on the old blog (reposted below for your convenience) about endings.  There is also a new article on my website (Endings) on the same topic.

So, taking into consideration all of the things discussed there, how can you be certain your ending is carrying your story’s weight?  I’m not sure there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but here are some exercises that may help.  These are all things I conceived of myself, when working on a big story that encompasses several books, but still needs to be coherent & complete when it’s all said and done.

  • Exercise #1–Beginning, Ending, Change Worksheets

    In this first exercise, we’ll take a straightforward look at your ending.  You can do this whether your book is complete or not–if it is not yet complete, just use the ending as you currently imagine it.  Any problems with that ending will probably be shaken out as you work through this.

    We’re going to sit down with three sheets of paper.  On the first sheet, write “Beginning” at the top.  Now, list out the elements of your story as they stand at the beginning of the story.  You’ll want to include your main character’s situation, any important supporting characters’ situations, the main problem in the story and any secondary problems, the setting where we find your characters–etc.  Essentially you are summarizing the state of your fictional world in this list.

    On the second sheet, write “Ending” at the top.  On this sheet you will list out all of those same elements–only this time, you’re going to list out how they stand at the end of your story.  Everything you had on your first sheet should make an appearance here, plus any significant developments over the course of the story that must be handled in the ending.

    The third sheet should be labeled “Change”.  Up till now we’ve been making lists that are pretty automatic–all the material for them is already laid out in your manuscript or in your head, and you are just putting it down on paper.  This is the sheet that will require you to really think.  I’m about to ask you a question that you may find tricky.

    Look at the first item on your first sheet.  Probably your main character’s situation, right?  Now look at the first item on your first sheet.  It’s your main character’s situation at the end of the story.  What change is necessary to make this happen?

    When you have an answer for that, start your list on the third sheet.  Put a #1 on the top line, and list out any and all changes that are necessary to accomplish this ending.  (If this is confusing, don’t worry, there will be an example later.)  A single item on your beginning and ending lists may require several changes–that’s okay, just list them all out.  Then move on to the next item.  It will take some time.  Just keep going, I’ll wait.  🙂

    All done?  Good!  What you have now are cheat-sheets to your entire book.  Assuming the beginning is accurate as you have laid it on sheet 1, and your ending is accurate as you have laid it out on sheet 2, then sheet 3 contains the bare bones essential plot to get you from one to the other.

    This is crucial.  Sheet 3 is not the entire plot of your novel.  Of course not.  But Sheet 3 contains the essential things.  The things that must happen, for story reasons, for your ending to work.

    Now your work may be easy.  If all of the things contained on Sheet 3 are already in your plot, you are done here.  Your ending grows organically out of your story, and it makes sense.  Good job!

    If not, you have more to do.  If elements on the sheet are missing, these are areas where your ending will be weak.  It will not grow out of the story, because the things leading to it were not adequately explained.  You’ll need to look for ways to work these missing elements into your story.

    You may find, when you attempt to do that, that elements already in your story flatly contradict things that are on Sheet 3.  This is a bigger problem.  Basically, you are in a situation where, for your ending to make sense, a certain thing needs to happen.  But for your plot to work, that thing can’t happen.

    You have a choice here–something will have to change.  You can change the ending so that the missing element is no longer necessary.  You can change the beginning, so the missing element is already taken care of at the story outset.  Or you can change the plot, so that the missing element can be added without breaking the story.

    Whatever you choose, your end goal is a situation where Sheets 1 and 2 accurately represent your story’s beginning and end, and where everything on Sheet 3 happens in your story.  At that point, you can be reasonably certain you have an ending that follows logically from your story, that makes sense.

Good work!  A bit heavy for a blog post, though, eh?  My website has a page of examples to illustrate this. To see the examples, check out: