Want Some Exercise?
Writing exercises can be fun. They can also help you exercise your writing muscles and break through a block you might be having. So it’s always good to know where to find them for those times you’re in need of a warm-up (or a cool-down after bashing your head against block.) Go get the great ones the Institute for Writers – IFW – has right here.
Why not do these five exercises, and then try the IFW prompts to get you going?
Let Me Try On Your Shoes
Sometimes you’re writing along, and you just don’t know what to do next. You don’t know what the characters would do. Or what would happen as a result. One great exercise to kick start your forward momentum has to do with walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (or, in this case, writing a scene that way). Look for a scene that includes more than one character. Now rewrite it changing the viewpoint character. So if you have a scene with your main character, Joey, and his annoying sister, Beth, rewrite a conflict scene from her point of view. That will often help you change a caricature (the annoying sister) into a living, breathing character. The more you do this, the more all your characters will sharpen in your imagination, making the whole piece feel more real and meaningful and easier to write. And you’d be amazed what that can do for your voice for the character as well.
Stuck on your picture book? One thing you might try is revising with a pile of mentor texts. One great picture book exercise is to type out your very favorite picture book texts. The act of typing them (all by itself) tends to give you insight into how they work. Humans are so visual that the pictures in picture books can often obscure the amazing craft in the text. But this great exercise of typing out published texts can also lead to another exercise.
Take your favorite mentor text and plug YOUR picture book character into it. In other words, try putting your character in the same story scenario and mirroring the same pacing, but now you have to ask what your character would do in that situation. What if your boisterous character got lost like Sheila Rae the Brave? Or your rambunctious character was sent to his room and imagined a great escape like Max in Where the Wild Things Are? By altering one element in the classic picture books (using your character instead of the ones in the original), you will be forced to think deeply about your character. And by forcing yourself to mirror the pacing/structure of the original book, you’ll gain a new, hands-on perspective on how picture books are built. You can publish the result (of course) but this kind of mirroring mentor texts makes you more aware of every element of your work.
Be The Fox
There’s a fable attributed to Aesop that tells the tale of a fox and a cat. The fox tells the cat he is so clever that he has dozens of ways to escape from dogs. The cat says she has just one. The dogs come, and the cat climbs a tree. The fox (on the other hand) spends so long choosing from his many options that the dogs catch him and eat him up (or some such dreadful ending). Now, the cat won that round, but I think writers benefit more from being the fox. We need to look at many ways to do the same thing and then choose the way that is most “out of the box.”
So for this exercise, take your main character and put him in a box: maybe imagine he accidentally gets locked in the supply closet at school. Or maybe he finds himself alone aboard a boat heading for a waterfall––eek! Or perhaps he’s driving the go-cart he made from an old doll pram frame down a hill and realizes he forgot to install brakes––so what is he to do as he careens toward a lake? Choose a tough spot and then come up with a way for the character to get out of it. Good.
Now choose another.
Keep choosing ways until you get a solid dozen. Near the end, you’ll find you’ve definitely begun thinking way, way outside the box. You may find a truly hilarious idea or a wildly clever one. But you’ll move from the mundane to the amazing. And the more you play with this writing exercise, the easier time you’ll have being the fox when you’re plotting great stories.
Kick a Hole in the Wall
Breaking the fourth wall used to be a big taboo in children’s writing. And it can be really too cutesy (especially in writing nonfiction where the author addresses the reader in a cutesy tone to try to jolly the reader into interest in the topic). But it can also be wildly successful. In the classic Sesame Street book, The Monster at the End of This Book, the main character addresses the reader constantly, begging the reader to stop turning pages because there is a monster at the end of the book. The reader, of course, goes forward, stressing poor Grover out. In another similar book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, the pigeon is begging the reader for permission to drive the bus and the reader gets to “play parent” and be the one who gets to say “No.” This kind of story gives the reader a sense of power over the story.
But kicking a hole through the fourth wall can be played within a writing exercise as well. Think about your most recent work in progress. What if the main character could speak directly to you about the situation you’ve landed him in, what would he say? Would he ask you for advice? Would he critique what you’ve done so far? Would he beg for an easier situation? The way your character would interact with you (the writer) can deepen your understanding of the character and his motivations.
Story Starter from a Story Started
Sometimes you just need a little jump start. So go pick up a novel from your bookshelf. Close your eyes and open to any page. Press your finger against the page. Now, what does that sentence say? Imagine that is the first line of your story. What would the story be about? If the sentence were dialogue, how would you write the next line to make that one sensible? Even if you just write a few paragraphs (rather than a whole story), the challenge of starting your writing with a random line can be helpful at encouraging “out of the box” thinking.
And if you liked the exercise, you can also try it using headlines from Google News. Headlines are a kind of lure designed to get you to read the news article, but if you just look at the headline, independent of the article content, it can be great story starter as well. For example, The Atlantic ran a story with the title, “When Kids Have to Act Like Parents, it Affects Them for Life.” That’s practically a novel theme right there. Imagine a novel with that theme. What situation would force kids to act like parents? What kind of kid would handle that stress? Here’s another one: “Using Particle Physics, Scientists Find Hidden Structure Inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid.” Thinking about that title could launch a possible horror story or a mystery story. What does that hidden structure reveal?
So give your writing a little kick by throwing writing exercises into the mix now and then. You’ll build skills, expand your imagination, and have fun. As the doctors tell us, a little exercise is good for you!
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.