by Barbara Linn Probst
If you’re like me, you have a shelf of books and a computer folder (or two) of tips, checklists, bullet points, blogs, and advice about how to write a good story. Even though many of these strategies are, on a closer look, rather similar, it’s still pretty overwhelming. No one can do everything, so we find those that appeal to us.
My Favorite Four Writing Exercises
Here are four of the exercises that I’ve found the most useful. They address character, plot, and the quality of the writing.
Listening to Your Protagonist (Adapted from Donald Maass)
The exercise: Visualize yourself sitting across the table from your protagonist. (I like to visualize the setting, too—in my mind, we’re at my kitchen table, but your conversation might be at Starbucks or in a park.) Ask your protagonist these questions, and listen to what she has to tell you. Write down everything that comes out of her mouth, exactly as she says it. (It only works if you actually write down what you “hear” her saying. Don’t just think it.)
- How do you feel about the way I’ve portrayed you?
- What do you really want to do that I’m not letting you do?
- What are you afraid I might put you through? What do you dread seeing yourself do on the page?
- What about the other characters? You know them better than I do. Whom am I not getting? What am I missing?
- What do you want to say to one of the other characters in the story that I’m not letting you say?
- What’s this story really about—to you? What am I getting wrong?
My experience: I did this with my WIP, and it was one of the most amazing exercises I’ve ever done! My protagonist pulled no punches and told me exactly what she thought of me—how I was projecting my own hang-ups onto her, making her too defensive, and suppressing her kinder impulses. She told me that I needed to love her more.
Luckily, I listened to her—and when I did, the story got so much better.
Understand secondary characters more deeply (Adapted from Kate Racculia)
The exercise: Consider a secondary character who doesn’t feel real to you, seems one-dimensional, or eludes you in some essential way. Answer these questions about her, even though the material won’t actually be in the book.
- What’s her home town, and what does she really think of it (even if she doesn’t say it aloud)?
- What’s her job, and what does she secretly think about it? If she could change something about her job, what would that be?
- What’s a hobby that people would never guess she has?
- What’s her favorite food? Why is it her favorite? Who knows it’s her favorite?
- What motto would be on her coffee mug or tee shirt?
- What’s her recurring dream?
- What’s something she lost, and how did she lose it?
- What’s something she found, and how did that happen?
My experience: I was surprised by how easy this was—and how much fun. I think it was the freedom of knowing that the material wouldn’t be in the book, so I didn’t have to worry about whether it built tension or led to an emotional turning point, or anything other than letting the character come to life. It felt like getting to know someone who already existed, rather than working to “create a character.”
Mapping, interiority, and exteriority (Adapted from Sandra Scofield)
The exercise: Print out the manuscript. (Yep, do it on real paper, not on your laptop; trust me on this). Get out some colored pens or highlighters. On every page, use a different color to underline or circle these elements, without thinking about the plot:
- Green for sentences or passages of interiority—when the POV character is in her head reacting, reflecting, thinking, wondering, or remembering. It’s the internal material that no one else has access to, except her.
- Blue for action—when a character does something physical or there’s an action you could observe (like a car crash). Think of external movements that you could depict with a puppet or see if you were watching an old-time “silent movie.”
- Yellow for exposition—when something is narrated, rather than depicted in-scene. For example, there might be a description of the setting or a paragraph to indicate the passage of time (“telling”). This differs from interiority because it isn’t inside someone’s head. It’s more like the voice of the narrator.
My experience: Actually “seeing” the way I write was pretty dramatic. I sort-of-knew that I had a habit of making my protagonist reflect on every single thing that happened, but seeing it on the page, in blue and green, really brought it home. It made me stop to consider whether each bit of interiority was needed—or needed right then—since interiority interrupts the forward movement of the story.
In some cases, I consolidated the protagonist’s inner reflections and put them together at the end of the scene, rather than interspersed throughout. In other cases, I pondered whether the passage of interiority was truly necessary—and decided that it wasn’t.
The point of this exercise isn’t to indicate how your writing should change; it’s to show you how you actually write.
Ascending and descending from the core scenes (My own exercise, with nods to Ann Garvin, Sandra Scofield, and Kathryn Craft)
The exercise: Identify the most critical scenes in the book, no more than four or five, and draw a timeline with those scenes as high points or “mountains”—literally. Leave plenty of space between each mountain.
Draw steps leading up to each peak and steps coming down the other side. What goes on each step? In other words: what events lead up to the peak? Without those events, the mountain (or critical scene) could not have happened. Then consider the descending staircase. What events were the consequences of the peak moment—the unfolding, the subsequent events that would not have happened otherwise?
This timeline, with its mountains and staircases, is the core plot. There will be other scenes that don’t fit—but you still need to be able to justify their presence in the book. Do they belong to a subplot, foreshadow, reveal character, ease the tension? That might be fine. But if they duplicate merely something on one of the steps, it might signal that the scene isn’t needed.
Note: A critical scene is a moment when something important takes place, after which the story goes in a new direction, for “better” or “worse.” It’s often a moment of choice for the protagonist— when something significant happens that she must now respond to. A “realization” isn’t enough, in itself. She may understand something in a new way, but not just by thinking about it.
It can be interesting to mark each mountaintop with a plus or a minus: is the protagonist closer to her goal or further from it, at the end of the scene? If there are a string of plusses, you might want to change one of them to a minus or add a minus (a new obstacle, a setback, a mistake, the loss of an ally), to make the storyline more interesting. Or vice versa, of course.
My experience: I find that the concrete act of drawing and diagramming can be so illuminating. It can show blind spots in a fresh way—and if it ends up showing me that what I have is working, that’s good too!
What about you? What writing exercise has brought valuable insight for you? Did you try any of these? How did it go?
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BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launches in April 2021.