Brian Kiteley


Sample Fiction Exercises from The 4 A.M. Breakthrough


These are some exercises from The 4 A.M. Breakthrough (a follow-up to my book The 3 A.M. Epiphany), which was published in January 2009, by Writer’s Digest Books. Let me know what you think ( And here’s an interview I did with Ben Pfeiffer, in part about The 4 A.M. Breakthrough.  Take a look, too, at The 4 A.M. Breakthrough’s Introduction.


1. The Coma. Write from the point of view of a person in a coma. This is a permanent condition; the patient will not come out of the coma but still understands the outer world. The catch: voices of loved ones are familiar, even intimately familiar, but the comatose person cannot attach names to the voices. The coma patient has lost this capacity. 500 words.


2. Money. In one short scene show us a character who has relatively little money—say $503 in his or her checking account and a $3,006 credit card debt. In the next scene, show us this same character suddenly very wealthy. Don’t worry too much about how the character got this money—inheritance, a lottery winning, an unexpected windfall. What is the difference between these two states of being? How has the character changed? 700 words.


3. Falling out of the sky. Write a very brief story about someone who has jumped from the burning top of one of the two towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It took the buildings each ten seconds to collapse, but I imagine it took less time for a person to fall to their deaths from these buildings. Watch Ric Burns’ documentary about the building and destruction of these buildings to see a handful of video images of such falling men and women. Write about what the mind is experiencing while falling, although flashbacks are certainly possible (but try to avoid something like the Ambrose Bierce story “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge” in which a man is hanged during the Civil War and the rope breaks and he dives into a river below him and swims to safety and runs away from the soldiers and finally reaches a long, beautiful tree-lined drive to an elegant home and sees his wife at the end of the drive only to have the rope yank him back to reality and death by noose and hanging). Once you’ve written one of these stories, write another one and then a third one. Each story should be less than 200 words.


4. Dying Young. Write a fragment of a story about a character who is relatively young (under 40), who will die in a few years, but has no inkling of this. You, as author, do, though, and let that knowledge affect this brief 500-word story however it will affect the story.


5. Concordance. I’m not sure why, but Amazon has a feature for books called a Concordance. A concordance is the alphabetical index of the principal words in a book (or the works of an author). I noticed this on the page for my own book, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing. The concordance lists the 100 most common words in my book:


across again against American another Arabic arm asks away balcony building Cairo call chair Charles city come daughter day does door down Egypt Egyptian English European even eyes face feels few first friend Gamal girl go going good hand head himself home hour Ib know language last laughs Ib Lena lights long look man men moment name next night now old own people prisoner read right room Ruqayyah Safeyya say saying see sits small something speak stands still story street table take talk tell thing think three time told turns two walks want wife without woman word years Yehya


This is an interesting distillation of a book. Here is the concordance for James Joyce’s Ulysses:


again always arms asked away behind bit black Bloom call came come course day Dedalus door down ever eyes face father fellow first get girl give go god going good got hand hat head heart high himself house Joe John know last left let life little long look lord love man men might mother Mr Mulligan must name new night now old own place poor put right round saw say see sir something Stephen still street take tell thing think though thought three time told took two voice want water went white wife without woman words world years yes young


Pick a book you like and know well that has one of these concordances on the Amazon site. Write a 500-word exercise using only these words as your vocabulary. Let the words guide you toward the subject of this fragment of fiction—see if you can find, independent of the novel you know, the sort of content and mood or tone this piece of narrative should have.


6. Happy. Here are Gretchen Rubin’s twelve commandments for her Happiness Project:


1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act as I would feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.


This is from Gretchen Rubin’s website (


Write a very short story (no more than 700 words long) in which the main character is happy, following some or all of these rules, but silently, without pronouncing any of them aloud (and without using the name Gretchen, though it is a lovely and archaic name).


7. Blind. Write a short scene from a third-person attached point of view of a character who has just lost his or her sight. Do not tell us how this person became blind. 400 words.


8. Lost. Write about a town that has disappeared. It could be a Palestinian village on a hillside in what is now Israel, forcibly evacuated in 1948 and then “erased” from maps and view (though there are vegetable remains of the town). It could be a ghost town in the American west—a silver or gold rush boom town which remains in substantial form but is empty of people. It could be an African town erased by the encroaching Sahara. Or it could be a village sunk under a reservoir formed in 1933 in Massachusetts. Write about it in the present and at the moment of its last human habitation and at its most vibrant, lively apex. 600 words.


9. A Beautiful Woman. Describe a couple of encounters a beautiful woman has with several strangers within a short space of time—an hour or two. Don’t tell us that this is a beautiful woman, the sort of beautiful woman who turns heads, who receives slightly better treatment than the average human being, who moves through the world constantly aware of people’s observation of her. Don’t tell us any of this—just let her move through your story untroubled by her beauty. It will be our little secret. 600 words.


10. The Apocalypse. Heinrich Heine said, “Holland is always fifty years behind the times, so if I hear the world is about to end, I’ll go to Holland.” Write a comedy about the end of the world. 666 words.


11. Your Swann. Write a letter from one of your fictional characters to another. In this letter, tell a brief history of another (third) character over many years who plays at least three significantly different roles over the letter-writer’s lifetime. The person receiving this letter may know a little bit about your character’s acquaintance, but she shouldn’t know too much. Because you’ll have so little space to expand upon this character, it’s okay to use narrative shorthand, as all letters do. 500 words.


Doubtless the Swann who was a familiar figure in all the clubs of those days differed hugely from the Swann created by my great-aunt when, of an evening, in our little garden at Combray, after the two shy peals had sounded from the gate, she would inject and vitalize with everything she knew about the Swann family the obscure and shadowy figure who emerged, with my grandmother in his wake, from the dark background and who was identified by his voice.  But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people.


—Marcel Proust


Swann is the first “character” is Proust’s book The Search for Lost Time. He is the first character outside the narrator’s immediate family who impinges on his childhood. He appears initially as someone who takes his mother away from her bedtime ritual with young Marcel. Then, years afterward, he is the father of Marcel’s first crush. Later, when Marcel is an adult, Swann becomes his friend.


Return to Brian Kiteley's home page