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.
- 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
- the elevator stopped between floors, or
- he just realized the door he thought he propped open behind him s closed and locked.
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.
3. On the same sheet of paper, write down three settings.
- a haymow, 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
- the top of a skyscraper.
Nothing else, just write three settings. Do that now. Don’t think about it, just write.
Now I’m going to show you how easy it is to be an actual writer.
To write an opening, you need only three things: a character, a problem, and a setting. Period. Nothing else. So do this.
- Sit down at your computer.
- Select a character name from those you wrote down earlier, or a new one.
- Select a problem from those you wrote down earlier, or a new one.
- Select a setting from those you wrote down 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 you chose.
Then write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence. That really is all there is to it.
As you do this exercise, Don’t Worry about where the story is going. Don’t Worry about what will happen next. It’s just a character with a problem in a setting. That’s all.
This is no big deal. It’s nothing earth shakingly important. You’re just telling a story. That’s all.
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 in the story. The character is the one who is living it. He or she knows what’s going on in the story.
- Don’t edit what the character wants to say or do, no matter what it is.
- Don’t allow your conscious mind try to “fix” anything.
- Don’t try to think it through and figure it out.
- Just write it. You’re a writer. Just write it.
The idea here is to practice trusting your subconscious to tell the story. This is how Bradbury wrote. This is how most long-term professional fiction writers wrote back in the day, and this is how most of them write today.
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,” and the responsibility for directing everything that happens.
You will learn instead to drop down into the story with the characters and just have fun.
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.
Now for the Five Senses Exercise, with my personal thanks 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 or attached in any way to any other paragraph. Each should be a few sentences in length.
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 it.
If you’re in your office, do it there. Then walk into the back yard and do it there. Then go into your kitchen and do it there. Go to the local coffee shop and do it there. Go sit in your car and do it there. You get the idea.
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.
For example, if an aroma of roses wafts past your nose and you enjoy that, you might mention you caught the scent or aroma of roses. If you don’t like it, you might say you were unable to avoid the stench of roses. Opinions matter.
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 that 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. But 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.
To help you along with the first one, I’ve provided an example of what I might write for the paragraph about what I see here in my office.
One: Write a paragraph about what you see. (A bright yellow baseball cap is dangling 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 reminds me of a lipless creature.)
Two: Write a paragraph about what you smell.
Three: Write a paragraph about what you taste.
Four: Write a paragraph about what you feel, physically.
Five: Write a paragraph about what you hear. You should notice and include any ambient sounds you normally would take for granted.
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. This is what brings your writing to life for the reader. The sensory information 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.
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 subconscious.
That’s it for this time. Up next, Chapter 7: Writing the Ending.
‘Til then, happy writing!
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