Appendix B: Some Fiction Exercises

In today’s Journal

* Appendix B: Some Fiction Exercises
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Appendix B: Some Fiction Exercises

Note for Journal readers: This is currently one of only three appendices in the older book, Writing the Character-Driven Story.

It will become Appendix E (one of eight appendices or more) in Writing Character-Driven Fiction.

What follows are two of the more important writing exercises I have ever learned or taught. I hope you will take advantage of them.

First, an exercise to get you started actually writing.

1. On a sheet of paper, write down three character names. They can be full names or first names or last names or nicknames. Whatever comes to mind is fine.

But nothing else, just names. Do that now. Don’t think about it, just write.

2. On the same sheet of paper, write down three problems. These can be any little problems.

As I’ve said before, this problem does not have to be important, and it does not have to be “the” problem or conflict of the story. This is just something for the character to solve to get you into the story.

So nothing else, just write three problems. Do that now. Don’t think about it, just write.

For example,

  • maybe the character just realized he has a sticker in his foot or a hangnail, or
  • maybe he just remembered today is his anniversary, or
  • maybe he just remembered he was supposed to meet a friend ten minutes ago for dinner, or
  • maybe he just opened a bad email or letter, or
  • maybe his computer screen just went black, or
  • maybe the elevator stopped between floors, or
  • maybe he just realized the door he thought he propped open behind him is closed and locked.

3. On the same sheet of paper, write down three settings.

Nothing else, just write three settings. Do that now. Don’t think about it, just write.

For example,

  • a haymow, or
  • the lobby of a hotel or skyscraper, or
  • the passenger seat of a ’57 Chevy, or
  • the first-class compartment aboard a jetliner, or the interior of a freight car, or
  • the interior of an environmental suit, or
  • the bridge of a space ship, or
  • a cubicle in an office building, or
  • a roof atop any structure.

This excercise in list-making is only a method to come up with a character with a problem in a setting. To write an opening, that’s all you need.

  • Sit down at your computer. Select a character name from those you wrote earlier, or select a new one.
  • Select a problem from those you wrote earlier, or a new one.
  • Select a setting from those you wrote earlier, or a new one.

Now put your fingers on the keyboard and write whatever comes to mind regarding your character and his or her problem in the setting. Don’t think. Don’t try to figure anything out. Just write whatever comes.

Then write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence. That really is all there is to it. The characters will lead you all the way through to the end of the short story, novella or novel.

Some Notes

As you do this exercise, Don’t Worry about where the story is going or what will happen next. It’s just a character with a problem in a setting.

Whatever the character does and says to solve or alleviate the problem will flow out through your fingers.

Whatever comes through your fingertips and the keyboard onto the page is the character speaking. The character is the one who is living the story. He or she knows what’s going on at the current time in the story.

It is not YOUR story. In YOUR story, you’re sitting at the keyboard of a laptop (or whatever) with your fingers on a keyboard.

  • Don’t edit what the character wants to say or do.
  • Don’t allow your conscious mind try to “fix” anything.
  • Don’t try to think it through and figure it out. Just write it.

The idea here is to practice trusting your creative subconscious to tell the story. This is how Bradbury wrote. This is how most long-term professional fiction writers write.

When you’ve done this exercise a few times, you will come to realize how truly freeing this technique is.

You will learn to release the need to be the “almighty writer on high,” directing everything that happens.

You will learn instead to drop down into the story with the characters.

Instead of planning every move from some lofty perch above the story, you will learn to run through the story with the characters—your friends—and simply write down what they say and do.

And best of all, when the characters lead you through to the end and you’ve finished the story, you will be elated. Like you’ve just performed an authentic magic trick.

No matter how many stories or novels you write, that feeling of amazement will never go away.

Now for the Five Senses Exercise.

I am ever-grateful to Jack Williamson, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, each of whom helped enhance my understanding of this exercise and its importance.

The Five Senses Exercise

In this exercise, you’ll write five separate paragraphs. Each paragraph should stand on its own. In other words, no one paragraph should be related to or attached in any way to any other paragraph. Each can be a sentence, or two or three or four or more sentences.

To get the most out of this exercise, I suggest you do it once wherever you happen to be right now.
Then move to a new location and do it again. Then move again to a new location and repeat the exercise.

I suggest you continue until you feel comfortable with the exercise. Until it becomes almost second nature to you.

Remember that the goal here isn’t to describe the place. The goal is to describe a moment in time from your perspective. It might include the place or it might not. It certainly should include your opinions.

The point is to be aware of your physical senses and your surroundings, and to extend your senses consciously.

In other words, you want to notice things you normally wouldn’t notice. If you do this exercise in your office or your home or your car, you probably are used to the space. That’s fine. The character isn’t and the reader isn’t.

As you go through these exercises, try not to use the words see, hear, smell, taste or feel or any of their derivatives (saw, could see, heard, could hear, smelled, could smell, etc.). Remember to extend yourself through your senses.

In a moment, you’ll write a paragraph about what you see.

Here is an example of what I might write for the paragraph about what I see here in my office:

A bright yellow baseball cap dangles from a hook on the wall. On the front of the cap is an embroidered red Zia sun symbol. The wall is a burnt orange and the hook is brushed chrome. To the left, a dark-maple bookshelf dominates the wall. The top shelf is filled with various multicolored bottles of spirits. To the right is the open door. The opening is not trimmed and it reminds me of a lipless creature.

  1. Write a paragraph about what you see.
  2. Write a paragraph about what you smell.
  3. Write a paragraph about what you taste.
  4. Write a paragraph about what you feel, physically. (If your surroundings evoke an emotion, you may write about what you feel emotionally too.)
  5. Write a paragraph about what you hear. You should notice and include any ambient sounds you normally would take for granted.
  6. Now write a sixth paragraph. Use one sentence from each of the previous five to create a sensory experience for the reader.

Most professional writers suggest you include this sort of sensory information in your writing at least in every scene, or as every major character enters a scene, and so on.

This, along with the POV character’s description of the setting, is what brings your writing to life for the reader. It comes from inside the POV of the character.

Most writers use only the sense of sight. That’s why much writing lacks the verisimilitude, the layering on of intimate detail, that gives it depth and lends it a sense of reality.

Go back to a story or chapter you’ve written and use this technique. See whether it improves the scene. (Not to move backward and rewrite. Just as an excercise for your own benefit.)

Best of all, like most of the techniques I teach, now that you are aware of it, you’ll have to think consciously about this only a few times before it becomes part of your creative subconscious mind.

Happy writing!

Next up, Appendix C: Rules for Writers and Writing. Judging from the cricket sounds when I open my email, you’re as ready for this series to end as I am. (grin)

Talk with you again then.

Of Interest

Fiction Branding… Part 3

What is Syntax and Why is it Important to Understand Language?

If you’re interested in language(s) there are more posts at The Passive Voice.

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 1530

Writing of

Day 1…… XXXX words. To date…… XXXXX

Fiction for February……………………. 40199
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 157803
Fiction since October 1……………… 460858
Nonfiction for February……………… 39730
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 62690
2024 consumable words…………… 220493

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 4
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 86
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 239
Short story collections…………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

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2 thoughts on “Appendix B: Some Fiction Exercises”

  1. Under a cooling shadow of a fence post, a cricket on gritty sand sat tuning up to the constant tapping of a grinning human in an adobe hovel….

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