Exercising your story telling techniques

I’ve often felt that one of the way writers differ from other artists is that we tend to jump into trying to create finished products without working on the individual skills involved in that finished product.

For instance: An artist will practice shading without working on a picture.

A writer very rarely sits down and decides to just practice description, or dialog, or plot, without worrying about trying to create a story at the same time.

To me, it’s always seemed like asking an artist to learn to draw a portrait without first learning to hold a pencil.

In art school, the techniques are broken down into individual components and we practice those so that they become natural. For instance, drawing pencils are graded B – H with 5H being the hardest and lightest. In drawing class, we shaded from dark to light with each of those individually, then did a larger shaded area using all of them, switching when appropriate. The goal was to understand which pencil does what so that we know what to reach for when drawing an object. The goal wasn’t to have perfect physical control, and certainly not for the sake of control, but to have internalized the techniques so thoroughly that we didn’t have to think about the craft and could focus on the art.

I think writers can benefit from the same approach.

I see writers skipping the step of learning individual techniques. People sit down to write a Story, and don’t think about the fact that dialogue, point-of-view, description, voice, and plot are all techniques that can be practiced individually.

As a writer, the year after OSC’s Literary Boot Camp it became really hard for me to write. Why? Because I’d learned all of these new techniques that I had to apply consciously. Writing only got easier by practicing them and getting them internalized so they no longer required thought.

Having had variations on this conversation recently with several other folks, I thought that I would share some of the exercises I find useful for practicing the individual techniques.

Do they require other language skills than the ones being practiced? Yes, but I’m working on the assumption that you’ve already done exercises playing alliteration, metaphor, and allusion and that we’re building on those. In exactly the same way that an violinist, having once mastered scales turns to etudes, or an artist having mastered what a pen does then learns the difference between stippling and cross-hatching.

So… I’m going to post some exercises for you, if you are interested.  These build on each other so they work best if one does them in order.

We’ll start with a baseline.

Exercise: Sit in a location and describe it using third person. You are the point of view character, but instead of writing in first person, write in third. You must keep writing constantly for thirty minutes. Try to use all five senses, which include what is heard, smelt, felt, seen, and tasted. Do not describe people in the location, except where they cause the room to react. For instance, someone shifting in their chair would cause a squeak in the room.

Sample: Room description SelectShow
Additional instructions: Do the exercise first, then read this. SelectShow
Sample: Viewpoint character description SelectShow
Series NavigationExercise: Using narration and context to shape dialogue >>
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8 Responses

  1. John Rea-Hedrick

    Mary,

    Typical writing advice is that to be a better writer a writer needs to write. This idea of approaching writing from a perspective of technique provides some useful direction as to how that writing can be done.

    I look forward to trying this on my next writing night.

    Thanks!

  2. Jim Stewart

    John Gardner has an exercise similar to this in “Art of Fiction.” You’re supposed to describe a barn from the point of view of a farmer whose son was just killed in the war, but without mentioning the farmer, the son, or the war. I have never done it to my satisfaction, tending to either dramatically overwrite or just not really evoke anything at all. I’ll try again with yours, something simpler.

  3. Alexander M Zoltai

    Marvelous post; especially, the exercises and the nifty way your blogging platform let you show them 🙂

    I find great value in what you proposed in this post and wonder if you could wonder about “exercising” various writing skills while reading other writers…

    I don’t mean reading a bit then stopping and writing. I mean doing the whole analytical, exercise-thingie in your head………

    BTW, I posted this post to Facebook & Twitter 🙂

  4. Alexandre Owen Muñiz

    The room description exercise reminds me of Interactive Fiction (a.k.a. Text Adventure) writing. I wonder if IF writing is good practice for static fiction (sorry, that’s IF community jargon for “fiction”) writing, because you get repeated practice writing the same kinds of discrete chunks. (Room descriptions, object descriptions, action descriptions.) Or if, conversely, it is terrible practice for static fiction writing, because the player provides the order of focus, at least on the larger scale.

  5. Todd Moody

    Brilliant Mary! I’ve been very impressed by you from my first introduction. You have a fantastic grasp of technique which my not be unique but is certainly uncommon. Thanks for posting this!

    On the other hand:”I’m working on the assumption that you’ve already done exercises playing alliteration, metaphor, and allusion”

    Let’s actually assume I slept through a great deal of my english courses in college. What types of exercises do you do with the above in mind?

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Mind if I point you to some exercises that are online? Here are two on alliteration.

      http://palc.sd40.bc.ca/palc/feature/2006/alliteration.htm
      http://www.poetryresourcepage.com/teach/pex.html

      Here are two on metaphor.
      http://grammar.about.com/od/words/a/similemetaphor1.htm (read both pages of this one.)
      http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/writingexercises/qt/metaphorex.htm

      And one on allusion that’s aimed at poetry but useful for prose.
      http://poetryhandbookwinter.blogspot.com/p/winter-exercises.html

      1. Todd Moody

        Outstanding! You inspire me to do better! I am actually taking a drawing course right now and learning new techniques, I don’t know why it never dawned on me to do these types of exercises for writing. I wish now I had paid better attention in school, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to take a few writing courses.

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