A few months ago, I wrote an article sharing five powerful writing exercises from famous authors.
Just as pianists practice scales to strengthen their skills like rhythm and timing, writers can sharpen specific skills through deliberate practice.
Since publishing that original article, I’ve been searching for more creative writing exercises, and I discovered four more gems that I’m excited to share with you today.
Struggling to write effective dialogue? Or craft vivid descriptions? Or maybe you’re facing writer’s block?
These creative writing exercises will help you overcome those obstacles.
Let’s dive in.
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The George R.R. Martin Exercise for Writing Effective Dialogue
At the Neuchâtel Fantastic Film Festival in Switzerland, an interviewer asked fantasy writer George R.R. Martin what qualities are needed to be a good writer.
Among several pieces of advice, Martin stressed the importance of having “a good ear for dialogue and the way people actually speak … the individuality to give each character his own method of speaking.”
Easier said than done, right? Lucky for us, Martin went on to share a writing exercise that can help you sharpen your dialogue skills:
I sometimes teach writing classes. And there are various exercises you can give to students. One of them is to describe a half dozen different characters. Write a speech for each of these different characters without a name tag. Just say, “Here’s a priest, here’s a soldier, here’s a housewife”…
Invent whatever you want. Write a speech for each of them in which…they don’t give their name…just make each speech sound different from the other so you can instantly know just from the words this is the priest speaking, this is the prostitute speaking…
If they all sound the same, you have a problem. They should sound different.
A bonus tip: make sure to read your dialogue out loud. That’s a fantastic way to test whether your conversations sound authentic.
The Dani Shapiro Exercise for Banishing Writer’s Block
Ever sit down at your computer to begin writing a new short story or a new personal essay, but instead you find yourself having a stare down with the blank screen? You might type a few lines, but after several minutes you delete everything. You just can’t seem to find the right words to continue.
New York Times bestselling-author Dani Shapiro has the perfect writing prompt for you. In an interview, she shared two words that instantly help banish writer’s block:
My favorite prompt is based on a book that was published a long time ago by a writer named Joe Brainard, and the title is I Remember…In the book every single sentence begins with the phrase, “I remember.”
…When I give that exercise at retreats, I look out from where I’m sitting at a sea of people, and not one of them hesitates. Those are extremely evocative words. I mean, try not to finish a sentence that begins with “I remember.”
And so what I suggest to people to do is to just begin — have a special notebook, begin with the words “I remember” and write a sentence. Drop down a line, begin with [“I remember”], not trying to connect memories.
If you think about the way memory works, it doesn’t work in a narrative line. It doesn’t connect. We don’t tell ourselves stories in our heads. We have these disparate memories that don’t connect. And when we allow them to be associative and to bounce one off the next, it creates all sorts of interesting material. People almost invariably find memories that they didn’t know that they had, or they make connections that they didn’t know they had. So it’s a good springing off point.
You can use this prompt to spark ideas for anything from blog posts to short stories. I share more strategies for fighting writer’s block in my article here, and I share tips for getting ideas for new blog posts in my article here.
The Robert McKee Exercise For Writing With Originality
Robert McKee’s screenwriting workshops have earned him an international reputation. His screenwriting students have included over sixty-five Academy Award winners and two hundred Emmy Award winners.
I’m currently rereading his wonderful book Story where he deep dives into everything that you need to know to write powerful stories. In one chapter, he discusses the importance of originality in storytelling and how clichés make our writing shallow and boring. He writes,
The source of all clichés can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The writer does not know the world of his story…
As they reach into their minds for material, they come up empty. So where do they run? To films and TV, novels and plays with similar settings. From the works of other writers they crib scenes we’ve seen before, paraphrase dialogue we’ve heard before, disguise characters we’ve met before, and pass them off as their own…
Knowledge of and insight into the world of your story is fundamental to the achievement of originality and excellence.
But how can we come to know the world of our stories better?
Here’s one exercise McKee provides:
Lean back and ask, “What would it be like to live my character’s life hour by hour, day by day?” In vivid detail sketch how your characters shop, make love, pray — scenes that may or may not find their way into your story, but draw you into your imagined world until it feels like déjà vu.
While memory gives us whole chunks of life, imagination takes fragments, slivers of dream, and chips of experience that seem unrelated, then seeks their hidden connections and merges them into a whole. Having found these links and envisioned the scenes, write them down. A working imagination is research.
Bonus Exercise: If you enjoyed that exercise from McKee, you might also find his “dinner table” exercise helpful. I share all about it in my video below:
The Brian Kiteley Exercise for Writing Unique, Sensory Descriptions
Finally, let’s end with an exercise that will help us write unique, sensory descriptions so our writing comes alive.
The ability to describe something vividly is an essential skill for every writer to master, no matter whether you’re a blogger, novelist, or copywriter. Vivid descriptions transform your paragraphs from vague and boring to engrossing and memorable.
In his book The 3 A.M. Epiphany, author Brian Kiteley shares a collection of “uncommon writing exercises” that can help you transform your fiction.
Here’s one that gives a unique approach for writing evocative descriptions:
Synesthesia, according to M.H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, is a description of “one kind of sensation in terms of another; color is attributed to sounds, odor to colors, sound to odors, and so on.”
Here is an example of synesthesia from Bruno Schulz’s Street of the Crocodiles: “Adela would plunge the rooms into semidarkness by drawing down the linen blinds. All colors immediately fell an octave lower [my italics]; the room filled with shadows, as if it had sunk to the bottom of the sea and the light was reflected in mirrors of green water.”
Schulz describes a change in color by means of a musical term. Writers consciously and unconsciously employ this peculiar method to convey the irreducible complexity of life onto the page.
…Use synesthesia in a short scene — surreptitiously, without drawing too much attention to it — to convey to your reader an important understanding of some ineffable sensory experience. Use sight, sound, touch, taste, and, especially, smell.
In my short story “The Island”, I played with synesthesia when I described the aroma of a pastry baking in an oven: “It smelled of sunlight and warm breezes rustling the branches of island trees.”
Make sure to check out this article where I share three more techniques that will help you write vivid descriptions.
In my original article where I shared five writing exercises, I also shared this quote from Ray Bradbury,
I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true — hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice.
These four exercises are a fantastic way to give your writing skills and imagination a workout.
You can use the exercises when you’re feeling stuck and are looking for a writing prompt to trigger your inspiration. Or you can use them when you want to spend time sharpening your skills in order to take your writing to the next level and inspire your readers.
Do you have another writing exercise from a famous author to add to my list? Let me know in the comments.
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