Much like an athlete, it is essential that you exercise before the marathon that is writing a novel, script or poetry/short story anthology. Even non-fiction writers need to warm up or you will find yourself exhausted with only a blank page to show for your ‘efforts’.
Writing exercises, however, not only serve to enhance discipline and stamina, they are paramount in generating ideas and improving your skills in certain areas (e.g. developing characters, writing dialogue, etc). Listed below are tried and tested writing exercises for you to dip into:
Adjective free is an exercise which explores style and language choice. Write a scene or chapter, maybe just a few pages, without using adjectives. Introducing this limitation is a great demonstration of the power of word economy and the over-reliance of certain words. It will also get the cogs turning in a uniquely challenging way.
This exercise is great fun for two or more writers. One person starts by writing a few paragraphs then passes it on to the next person to continue (maybe by email). This can provide a great break in a heavy writing session, introduce you to collaborative work and produce amusing results.
The better acquainted you are with your characters, the more rich and believable they will appear to your reader. As the title of this exercise suggests, write a character CV for any character you are writing about. The CV should not simply include work and education details; include as many of the following as possible: Height, body shape, hair colour, skin colour, method of transportation, favourite saying, accommodation, typical outfit to wear, friends, pets, upbringing, favourite food, drink, book, film, moral attitude, financial situation, hobbies and anything else you can think of.
Mind-mapping is the politically correct term for brainstorming (it’s a funny old world!). We have all brainstormed before, but this idea is slightly different. Your centre word should be one facet of your character (e.g. their job). Mind-mapping every element of this will provide all of the clues you need to develop the character into a solid person.
This exercise is specifically geared towards improving dialogue writing. In a public place (maybe a café), sit, listen to and record as much natural dialogue as possible. The importance here is to write it exactly as it was said. In addition to improving dialogue writing, interesting people translate into interesting characters for future writing.
Go out into the World
It is so important to take breaks from writing and this is a productive way of doing so. Go out into the world (the city, beach, forest, etc) and bring back one or more items that you find. These can be, for example, an interesting leaf, a brick, an item of rubbish, or anything that takes your fancy. Write vivid physical descriptions of the item(s) and develop a back story to how the item(s) ended up where they were. This is good as a general exercise and may generate story ideas.
This is a great exercise which encourages writers to show and not tell in dialogue. Write a scene where two characters are lying to each other without stating that this is the case. The reader must be able to figure out that both are lying through your use of language alone.
This exercise is great for identifying writing influences in your style and distancing yourself from them. Select a favourite novel, script or short story and rewrite the ending. When completed, examine how your voice differs from the original author. As writers our voices need to be as individual and original as possible, so actively practice abandoning outside influences.
News to Fiction
This idea has been used by many writers to inspire stories and films. Select a news story of interest (local news stories are quite good for this as they are not too dramatic and leave lots of scope for embellishment) and write a fictionalised account of it. As an extension of this exercise, choose an ad from the classified section of the local paper and write the back story of the sale.
People watching is an endless source of entertainment and, as a writer, it can also be a great source of inspiration. Spend some time in a public place and select one person to be your central character; writing a detailed physical description can be a great creative exercise. Taking this one step further, create a life story for this person and they could create the foundation of your next big idea.
Pick an Object, any Object
Starting small, chose an object and work outwards to create a scene. You may, for example, choose a chair. What does this chair look like? Who sits in it and when? What room is it in and what is it like? Make your descriptions vivid and this exercise has the potential to generate wonderful plot and character ideas.
This is a great exercise for working with specific restrictions and will often produce zany writing. Collect words from the dictionary by opening the pages and blind-pointing. Alternatively, ask a friend to give you a list of words. Now write a story containing every one of these words. It can be challenging when you have to include hovercraft, daffodils, X-ray, Oxford, stereo, liver, ice-cream and prostitution in the same story.
There’s no I in fiction
Okay, there is an I in fiction, but this exercise will help to separate your personality from your characters’. Select a character from a story/script you are working on. Write an unrelated scene/chapter where you interact with your character. It could be that you’re having a meal together, giving a job interview or even that your cars smash into each other and you are having an argument. This exercise will highlight areas where you are using your own personality in the place of genuine character development.
Timed Free Writing
Set the clock for 10 or 20 minutes everyday and just write. Pay no attention to what you are writing; just let it flow. This will get those muscles working and will produce surprising results.
Many great literary works began with a visual seed of inspiration, so try it for yourself. Choose a painting or image and bring it to life with words. You could write about what you see or what you feel. Who is in the picture? What is this world like? How does it make you feel? You could also select a few different images and combine them in a piece of writing.
Although not technically a writing exercise, workshopping your writing will help you to improve your technique and your critical skills. A successful way of doing this is to set up or join a small group (perhaps online). Everyone should read a piece of writing written by one of the participants and discuss their responses constructively.