Exercising your story telling techniques

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Writing Exercises

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. Continue reading ›

Exercise: Using narration and context to shape dialogue

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Writing Exercises

One of the interesting things about dialogue is that you can convey a great deal of information with it.  However, any given line can mean something totally different depending upon the context.

The narrative provides the context through setting, pace, action, and internal motivation.  For instance, take the phrase “What did you say?”

By adding a bit of setting, I can control how my reader perceives the line.

The thumping of bass drums pounded out of the speakers and through her spine.  “What did you say?”

Which is different from:

The principal picked up the scarred paddle from her desk. “What did you say?”

Using narration, I don’t have to say a darn thing about how either of those lines of dialogue are said in order to give them very different meanings.  You can actually take any line of dialogue and shape its meaning by the context in which you place it.

In this exercise, we’re going to work on the use of setting as a way to shape dialogue.   I’m going to give you a transcript.   Your goal is to write two scenes in different settings and change the meaning of the dialogue only by the way you handle the narration.

As an example, I have three versions of the same dialogue below.  The first is the original transcript.  Then I have a fantasy version and then an science fiction variation. I have cut lines and swapped out a few individual words of the transcript but did not add dialogue.  My focus was on the context.

Continue reading ›

Video: How to train your internal editor

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Writing Exercises

I have this theory when I teach writing, that it’s easier to learn things if you break them into separate techniques. One of the things a writer needs to learn is how to edit. It can be totally overwhelming, which is why you’ll hear the advice about “Turn off your Internal Editor” when writing.

I think that having an active internal editor can actually make writing faster and smoother but trying to train yourself to edit and write simultaneously is a bad plan. SO here is a lecture from my “Writing on the Fast Track” class about how being in a critique group can help you train your internal editor.

Any questions?

Writing exercise: Who, What, and Where in 3 sentences

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Writing Exercises

What? You say something is behind me?I’ve been having a great time at the Henson workshop (yes, I will tell you about it at some point) but one of the things I’ve really loved is the way it makes me think about writing from a different angle. There are aspects of story-telling that seem to be consistent, even when we transition from one medium to another. In this case, we’ve been working on short form improv, which has so much in common with short stories that I kept having “D’oh!”  moments when I get my notes, because I talk about the same things when I teach fiction.

So — Here’s an improv exercise that I’ve tweaked to work for short fiction.
In both improv and fiction, there’s often some rambling that happens at the top of a scene as the writer/actor tries to orient themselves. It’s why, frequently, the good stuff in short fiction, from newer writers, frequently comes way, way late in the story because they are taking a ton of time to set the scene. The instinct to set the scene is good, because the audience can’t relate to something they can’t visualize. But…you can set a scene really quickly with just a couple of lines.

1. I want you to establish these things in the first three lines. Who, What, Where.

  • Who: This isn’t just a name, but a relationship and their emotional state. No one exists in a vaccuum.
  • Where: Not just “In a castle!” but where specifically in the castle. Ground us with the things that are within arms reach.
  • What: An activity with a goal.  Sharpening a sword is an activity. But we don’t do activities without purpose. Sharpening a sword to slay a dragon is more specific and goal oriented.

2. Now: Use the Random Plot Generator to generate these things: Main Character (Who), Setting (Where), Situation (What)

3. Write three sentences, trying to use really grounded POV to relate those three things.


  • Where: A very hot place
  • Who: A butcher
  • What: Buying bagels

If Ezra hadn’t needed bagels for brunch, he wouldn’t have set foot in that oven of a place. He wiped the sweat off on his apron, and shifted from foot to foot on the linoleum floor as he waited in line.  By God, give him the cool of his meat locker any day.

4. Now change the “Where” and rewrite the same opening. The idea is to pay attention to what differs with the change in location.

  • Where: A yacht
  • Who: A butcher
  • What: Buying bagels

The breeze from the bay snuck down the stairs into the cramped galley. Ezra kept an eye out the tiny window across the marina. The bagel truck should be pulling in anytime now and he needed bagels for the boss’s lunch.

5. Now change the “Who” and rewrite the same opening. The idea is to pay attention to what details in your description change with a different POV character.

  • Where: A yacht
  • Who: An ambitious 21 year-old woman
  • What: Buying bagels

Tilting her tablet’s screen so it wasn’t getting so much glare from the sun, Serena called up GrubHub and placed an order for bagels to be delivered to the marina. Setting the tablet back down on the deck of her yacht, she picked up her mimosa. As ways to start her 21st birthday, this didn’t suck.

6. Now change the “What” and rewrite the same opening. A different “what” changes her motivations, and hence her interaction with the “where.”

  • Where: A yacht
  • Who: An ambitious 21 year-old woman
  • What: A 30-year old murder case is resurrected

Serena walked up the gangplank to the yacht, praying that her glasses made her look older than twenty-one. The yacht had changed hands three times in the thirty years since Jonas Barlow had been murdered on it, but she was betting that it still held the secret to his death. Now she just had to sweet talk her way into the engine room.

7. Start again with a new “where” and repeat until you get tired. This is a good exercise to do with pen and paper if you find yourself waiting somewhere. You can use this WritingPrompts generator on your phone to get you started.

(If you want to share your work, feel free to post a link or your practice rounds in the comments below. I’d ask that folks don’t offer criticism unless invited specifically by the writer.)