A Selection of Fiction Exercises, from The 3 A.M. Epiphany
Published by Writers Digest Books
Copyright Brian Kiteley (clicking on this will take you back to my home page)
If you are a teacher, and you want to order an examination copy of The 3 A. M. Epiphany, click here. And here's a site in
to order the book. I'm always glad to answer any questions about the book or this selection of exercises (the exercises below are quite condensed versions of the ones in The 3 A. M. Epiphany). If you use this page for a class, there’s no need to ask for permission, but I would love to hear how the exercises work—or don’t work. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Britain
I use these exercises in classes to find stories. I assign eight or ten of them over the first few weeks of class (asking students to write about a consistent set of characters and a place, without trying to write a story). After the class has looked at these exercises, we try to find, from a handful of the exercises, or sometimes from just one, the most interesting possible story that is developing. The rest of the course is devoted to connecting the dots between these fragments of story. Here are some reviews of the book. To see the full introduction to this book, click here. And here's a list of all of the exercises in the book.
1. 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. Diane Ackerman (in A Natural History of the Senses) feels we are born with this wonderful “intermingling” of senses: “A creamy blur of succulent blue sounds smells like week-old strawberries dropped into a tin sieve as mother approaches in a halo of color, chatter, and perfume like thick golden butterscotch. Newborns ride on intermingling waves of sight, sound, touch, taste, and, especially, smell.” 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.” 600 words.
2. Deja Vu. Write a 500-word sketch of a scene in which a character has an experience that causes her to recall a startlingly similar past experience. Juxtapose the two scenes, the present one and the past one, on top of each other, writing, for instance, two or three sentences of the present moment, then alternating back and forth between present and past that way. Show the reader the remembered scene by use of Italics. Why would a character be haunted like this? Think of a convincing reason for the deja vu experience. Or don’t worry too much about convincing reasons—just let some strange set of events impinge on the present moment of your character. Be playful with the relationship. Simple advice to beginners: don’t be heavy-handed. It’s easier said than done, I know, but you can train yourself to relax and honor your readers with difficult and unusual human patterns of behavior. Always flatter your readers by proposing a complex and unexpected reality.
3. The Reluctant “I.” Write a 600-word first-person story in which you use the first person pronoun (“I” or “me” or “my”) only two times—but keep the “I” somehow important to the narrative you’re constructing. The point of this exercise is to imagine a narrator who is less interested in himself or herself than in what he or she is observing. You can make your narrator someone who sees a very interesting event in which she is not necessarily a participant. Or you can make him self-effacing yet a major participant in the events related. The people we tend to like most are those who are much more interested in other people than in themselves, selfless and caring, whose conversation is not a stream of self-involved remarks (like the guy who, after speaking about himself to a woman at a party for half an hour, says, “Enough about me, what do you think of me?”). Another lesson you might learn from this exercise is how important it is to let things and events speak for themselves, beyond the ego of the narration. It is very important in this exercise to make sure your reader is not surprised, forty or fifty words into the piece, to realize that this is a first person narration. Show us quickly who is observing the scene.
4. Body English. Write a “conversation” in which no words are said. This exercise is meant to challenge you to work with gesture, body language (or, as a baseball announcer I heard once misspeak it, body English), all the things we convey to each other without words. We often learn more about characters in stories from the things characters do with their hands than from what they say. It might be best to have some stranger observe this conversation, rather than showing us the thoughts of one of the people involved in the conversation, because the temptation to tell us what the conversation is about is so great from inside the conversation. “I was doing the opposite of Freud,” Desmond Morris says, of his famous book The Naked Ape that first studied the ways humans speak with their bodies. “He listened to people and didn’t watch; I watched people and didn’t listen.” Because of Morris, according to Cassandra Jardine, “when politicians scratch their noses they are now assumed to be lying—and the sight of the Queen [Elizabeth] crossing her legs at the ankles is known to be a signal that her status is too high for her to need to show sexual interest by crossing them further up.” Autistic children cannot understand human conversation even when they understand individual words because they cannot read facial expressions, which is clear evidence of how important other forms of language are. 600 words.
5. The First Lie. Tape-record a conversation. It’s a tried and true method of understanding how people talk, but still surprisingly effective. Obtain permission of the people you are taping. Instruct your group each to tell one small lie during the session, only one lie. Tell them, if they get curious, that some philosophers think that deception was a crucial learned behavior in the emergence of modern consciousness several thousand years ago. You can participate in the conversation yourself, but don’t become an interviewer. Let the machine run for a good long while, allowing your friends to become comfortable and less aware of the tape recorder. Listen to the tape a day or two later. Play it several times. Choose some small part of the conversation to transcribe (the lies may be interesting, if you can spot them, but more interesting should be all the other stuff they say). Transcribe as faithfully as you can. Do not transcribe more than one page of talk. After that, fill out the conversation with information about the people who are speaking, giving us only details about them that we need to know. The final product should be no longer than two pages long, double-spaced.
6. Phone Tag. Write a fairly long, complicated phone conversation overheard by someone in the room. All three people—the listener in the room, the caller, and the person on the other end of the line—are involved with each other in some way (not necessarily romantically). Let us hear the other end of the conversation, without actually hearing it. This means you will be giving us only one side of a conversation, so you will have to work to make the side we’re hearing intriguing and capable of carrying a story. The listener in the room can guess what the person on the other end of the line is saying, but try to keep this guessing to a minimum, and make sure this guesswork is done with integrity—well after the unheard speaker has spoken. 600 words.
7. Underground History. Reread your own older fiction—one story or as many as you want to. Find the ten most common words from this fiction (excluding small and uninteresting words). Use these words as hidden titles for ten paragraphs of prose. By hidden, I mean that you should operate as in the above exercise, but after several rough drafts, eliminate the titles. Choosing these ten words is obviously going to be somewhat subjective, unless you have a program that allows you to do some of the work for you (for instance, you could pick a word that seems to occur commonly, then do a MS Word global search—the find icon under edit). This exercise may help you uncover the trends and unexpected subject matter of your fiction.
8. Backwards. Write a story backwards. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold works this way, more or less. Murder mysteries are told backwards, in a sense. Most stories we tell orally we tell from the middle forward until someone tells us we’ve left out important details, then we double back. You might try taking one of your own short pieces—or someone else’s—and simply reversing the sentences. What then? Unless you’re very lucky, you’ll have to do a good deal to make this reversed piece of prose make sense. Make sure this does not become simply a device. The structure should be inherently useful to the material, which is good advice for any fiction. 500 words.
9. Jointly Held Story. Speak the beginning of a story with someone else. Choose someone you know well, who also writes, but that’s not a necessity. Choose a good storyteller. Do this in a relatively private place, where you won’t be interrupted. One person starts the story and continues for a few sentences. The next person continues for another few sentences, and so on for a while. You don’t need to start up right away after the other person has finished his or her bit. End when you feel things getting exciting. Both speakers should go away from the experience and write down what they remember of the story, but don’t write the tale down right away. Let it sit in your memories for a day or so. Don’t play games of one-upmanship with your partner. Be faithful to the growing story and the characters created on the spur of the moment. Listen to the other person’s quirks of storytelling. Let someone else’s manner of creating a story guide you and influence your own story-telling style. The two stories that result from this exercise ought to be quite different from one another. 1,000 words.
10. Home. “Some women marry houses,” says the poet Anne Sexton, meaning presumably that these women marry not men but the ideal of house and home. The different etymologies of these two words are instructive. Home originally referred to village or hometown. House has in its earlier meanings the notion of hiding, of enclosing oneself. Now house indicates any house, and home is the place that is central to our notions of ourselves. Use a home in a story fragment (500 words). Think about the power of rooms (kitchens, basements, unfinished attics, walk-in closets) on psychology and conversation. In this fragment, make the house a unique participant (though a passive one) in the unfolding events. The room need not be in a typical house. Think about all the other rooms we become familiar with—classrooms, office cubicles, public toilets. What are their personalities? How do the more public spaces we inhabit affect our behaviors? You might consider keeping several characters permanently stuck in different rooms in a house, communicating by shouts, cell phones, intercoms,
Dixiecups, or telepathy.
11. In the Belly of the Beast. Describe an unusual interior space, one with lots of interesting appurtenances and gadgets sticking out: a submarine, a small plane, a subway tunnel away from the platform, a boiler room in the sub-basement of a high rise building. Again, do not yield to the easy use of this scene. The boiler room, for instance, we all expect to hide a creepy axe murderer-type. Put two innocent children in it instead, romping and playing among the glow and roar of the fire and steam vents as if this were a sunny playground (their father is the superintendent of the building, and he prefers to keep the kids where he can see them). 500 words.
12. Absent. Construct a character who is not present. You have many options here: people may talk about this character before meeting him, or after meeting her; you might choose to examine what this character owns, how he or she lives, under what conditions; you might use indirect approaches, like letters or documents that attest to the existence but not presence of the person. How do we know of people? Examine the ways we build characters in our minds and in our social environments before and after we meet them.
13. Ways of Seeing. Imagine a person with an idiosyncratic way of seeing the world (for instance, an occasional drug dealer, who, because of his amateur status, is more than usually prone to seeing danger where there is none; an entomologist who tends to categorize the world dryly, as if seen through a microscope; a world-class athlete whose clarity of vision is almost hallucinogenic). Have this character witness a traumatic event that does not directly involve him or her. Narrate the event from a first-person point of view, making sure that the perspective is carefully built around the idiosyncrasies of this personality. Also, as a hidden aspect of this character, imagine him or her as some kind of unusual animal. 600 words.
14. Loveless. Create a character around this sentence: Nobody has ever loved me as much I have loved them. Do not use this sentence in the fragment of fiction you write. The sentence comes from Guy Davenport’s aunt, Mary Elizabeth Davenport Morrow, via his essay “On Reading” in The Hunter Gracchus. Resist the temptation this exercise offers for a completely self-indulgent character. Of course, some self-indulgence will be fun with this character. But don’t write from inside your own wounded sense of the world. 500 words.
15. Loving. Write about a person you love. This apparently simple instruction may be more difficult than you think. What makes us love people? How do we avoid being sentimental when describing the attributes that make someone loveable? You will immediately be faced with the decision of writing about someone you love or loved romantically or as a friend. Or perhaps you’ll choose a family member. Your greatest challenge will be to make your reader love this person, too. 600 words.
16. Improvisation. Put two characters in a situation that demands improvisation, on both parts, which also demands that the two characters interact and compromise with each other in the improvisation. We should be able to observe the surprise, pleasure, and frustration that result from this improvisation. Remember that most of life involves one form of improvisation or another. Beginning writers tend to control their characters too much, so in this exercise you should work hard to let the characters surprise themselves as well as you. 500 words.
17. True Feeling. Using language that is simple and straightforward, describe intensely and exhaustively a moment of true feeling between two characters. Meryl Streep says that when she’s researching a character she’s going to portray, she always gives the character some simple secret that no one on the set, none of the other actors, and none of the other characters knows about. Give the character you’re showing us this moment of true feeling through a secret, but don’t reveal the secret either to us or to the other character.
18. Teacher. In a 500-word scene, have one character teach another character something that changes the teacher. But this exercise asks you to go another step beyond the first layer of reality. It should teach you how to play with more than one level in your fiction. The teacher learning something from her student is surprising, though not so unusual as you may think. The audience is moved by Rose’s tragic learning curve in the movie Titanic. Imagine how much more interesting the film might have been had Jack learned something from what he taught Rose, rather than simply dying handsomely.
19. The Bunny Planet. Rosemary Wells has written a trilogy of children’s books collectively called Voyage to the Bunny Planet. The basic problem she sets for each book is that a child (in the form of a young bunny) has a bad day (in prose). Halfway through each little book, an unseen narrator intervenes and says that the child in question “needs a visit to the Bunny Planet.” Everything alters in this other world, first of all by changing to rhyming poetry. The world is better after we hear the words, “Far beyond the moon and stars/Twenty light years south of Mars,/Spins the gentle Bunny Planet/And the Bunny Queen is Janet.” Wells encourages children, in these wonderful books, to rethink their world, to take an emotional timeout and find a better world than the one children frequently find themselves stuck in—chaos, messes, tantrums, sickness, loneliness. What I want you to do in this exercise is only very tangentially linked to this trilogy. Use this hinge device that Wells employs so deftly. For the first part of your 500-word piece, tinge the world in darker hues, show us a narrative style that reflects frustration, sadness, alienation, whatever. Then, with a phrase a little like this central phrase of Wells’s, change everything—especially the narrative method. Wells goes from a very dense and quite beautiful prose (almost prose poetry, as the best children’s literature is) to this light rhyming style (although she does not stick to one method of rhyme—she uses couplets, quatrains, etc.).
20. The Argument. Two people are arguing—a man and a woman. They don’t have to be a couple. Each is convinced he or she is right. You, as the writer, do not know—and do not want to know—who is right, but you will have exquisite sympathy for both points of view, both sides of the argument. How do men and women argue differently? Couples tend to disagree over relatively minor issues, which often stand for larger issues. Give us enough background and history, but try to stay in the moment as much as possible. Narrative PoV is going to matter here a great deal: writing from one or the other’s PoV is likely to make it very difficult to show both sides fairly. An omniscient narration may seem to be the answer, but I don’t like omniscient narration—I don’t think it’s really possible in fiction about contemporary life. Choose an accidental arbitrator—a third party narrator, either first or third person narration. This narrator knows and likes both these people well, but doesn’t and can’t favor one over the other. 600 words.
21. Standup. The usual method of the standup comedian monologue is apparently casual connections. For instance, Elvira Kurt once started a monologue with the simple idea of bad hair. “As a five-year old, you never had bad hair days. You woke up with hair straight up, and you said, ‘I look great! I slept in my swimsuit and I feel wonderful!’ Mother made clothes for me—horrible outfits. She probably laughed herself to death. I got back at her. When I told her I was gay I said it was because of those clothes.” Note the deliberate movement from plain detail to plain detail, with great leaps between the details—the mother making clothes to the coming-out declaration. We are not expecting this transition (nor for that matter the simpler transition from bad hair to mother making clothes). But the transitions are funny, and they affect us, shock us even in this day and age. Write a 600-word standup comedy monologue, fitting it into a story situation you’ve already begun working on. Don’t make it obvious to your reader that you are doing a stand-up routine—just tell a story as if you were doing a monologue in front of a smoky, irritable audience, with a Late Show talent scout scribbling notes at the bar in the back.
22. The Joke. End a 600-word fragment of a story with a joke you like or loathe. Use the joke as a way of coloring the whole passage, but don’t just lead up to the joke. The joke should be relatively short, and it might be better if the joke is somewhat odd. A guy walks into a bar. He says to the bartender, “I’ll have one g-g-gin and t-tonic, p-p-please.” The bartender says, “One g-gin and t-tonic c-c-coming up.” The customer glares suspiciously at the bartender, who smiles innocently. Another patron walks into the bar and says, “Scotch on the rocks, barkeep.” The bartender says, “One Scotch rocks, coming right up.” A moment later he brings the gin and tonic to the first customer, who says, “You were m-m-mimick-k-king m-m-me.” The bartender, with a truly pained look on his face, says, “N-n-no. I was m-m-mimicking that other g-guy.”
23. Outrunning the Critic. Write 100 short sentences about a character you are working on in a piece of fiction. The sentences should not connect and should not follow one another in any logical way. The idea of this exercise is to force you to outrun your own thoughts and intelligence and critical mind. Be careful not to be monotonous, using the name of your character or a pronoun to start each sentence. A better exercise would be to write 200 or 500 sentences about this character, but 100 sentences is still enough of a stretch to make this useful. The idea for this exercise comes from a collaboration the poet John Yau did with a painter, which was to match 1,000 small watercolors with sentences by Yau. John Yau is the author of Edificio Sayonara, Forbidden Entries, and Hawaiian Cowboys, among other books.
24. Rehearsal. Imitate the method of actors rehearsing a scene, repeating lines and whole sections of a speech, going over mistakes, etc., with several familiar characters of yours. Use this social trial and error to find new, submerged material for your story. You should think of this exercise as artificial and behind-the- scenes work, but it may also trigger strangely realistic conversation. Human beings constantly rehearse and re-rehearse their lines. The anarchic rhythm of conversation is more akin to a social science experiment than to the polish of theatrical dialogue.
25. Surprise. Write a short scene about a character you’ve become familiar with over time—either your own fictional creation or a character based on someone you know. Start the scene by letting the character do what you expect this character to do. But at some point in the sequence of events, allow the character to do something completely out of character. Let the character surprise you. This exercise demands that you consider what is expected and unexpected in a character. You may want to make a list, behind the writing of this scene, of the kinds of things this character usually does; and another list of the sorts of things this character would never do.