If you ever tackled a creative writing project, then you know that writing is a labor akin to moving a boulder up a hill. If you’re a writer, then it’s a labor of love––it takes time, work, and dedication that you wouldn’t trade for the world. But if you’re one of many Americans working more than 40 hours a week, it can leave you mentally exhausted from doing your job and finding time to write. I know it was not too long ago when I worked full time at a demanding job. To say the least, it didn’t leave me much time to write.
Or so I thought.
I was writing, just … not what I wanted to write. The time of day I did have time to myself, and when I had the most motivation to write, was during my hour lunch. I made sure this one hour was my writing session time to write whatever I wanted. Although I couldn’t make significant progress on my short stories in under an hour, the writing session gave me the opportunity to create a daily way to work out my creativity and stay in fine writing form.
To help you practice, I’m going to share with you the fun, challenging writing exercises I put together that inspired me. This is a no-commitment kind of deal that allows you to stretch your mental muscles. I’m going to break down the exercises by elements of a story: character, setting, colors, scene, and dialogue. For each exercise, you can write for only 10 minutes.
All you need is any writing materials you’re comfortable with and the stopwatch in your smartphone. The goal is to be creative, and hopefully it can be done in the span of your lunch hour.
“Don’t just use visual details, but also include kinesthetic details, or how the character moves. Graceful, limping, stutter-step, lumbers, waddles, stomps.” Darcy Pattison
So, you want to write a story. But who should be your heroine? What should she look like? You certainly don’t want to create a dreaded Mary Sue.
For 10 minutes, we’re going to create a new character that you can use for your work or just for practice’s sake. After all, the characters are the bread and butter of your story. We want to practice writing a character description, forging personality without heavy exposition, to get you comfortable creating authentic, dynamic characters.
So, here’s what you should consider before doing the exercise:
- Picture someone you dislike. Describe physical traits, but in a positive light: Do they have soft eyelashes, bouncy hair?
- Picture someone you do like, and consider why you enjoy their company. Now think about personality traits that annoy you: Are they a bad listener? Talk with their mouth full?
- Make a list of physical traits that you deem undesirable: pimples, scars, etc.
Notice the details I ask for. These are traits that are distinctive and easy to imagine because they’re human qualities. That’s what makes a good character. Without these little quirks, it can be that much harder for readers to connect with your characters.
Exercise: Create a character description based on someone you don’t like. Give them the qualities and attributes of someone you do like.
“Event requires location. Where we are affects who we are, what we say and do, how and why we say and do it.” Ursula Le Guin
What can I say? You can’t have a painting without a canvas. The setting lends a hand to the stories we want to tell: It constructs the mood, sets the tone, and helps build the fabric of your society.
In N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015), the setting is literally destroyed by a catastrophic event. Yet from that destruction, the plot begins. We’re introduced to unique characters who suddenly have to adapt to their new environment. A new culture of survival of the fittest is formed.
When world-building, whether for a novel or short story, the setting has to match your tone. It’s all the more difficult if you have to build it from scratch. To practice how you would create a setting for your own story, consider this:
- What region of the world do you have no interest in visiting and why? Is it somewhere mysterious like the Amazon Rainforest or hot like the Sahara Desert?
- Take note of the outdoor environment at your job site. Do you think it directly affects your job and your coworkers’ attitudes?
- Think about strangers who walk past your work site. Are they more likely to give you a friendly smile or avert their eyes? Do you think outside conditions play a part in their behavior?
- What circumstance would cause your work environment to change? Would it change for the better or worse?
- Think of your ideal vacation. Where is it? Is it camping in the woods? Swimming at a beach in Florida? What would be the worst thing that could happen to ruin it?
Exercise: Write about your job being located in the worst region of the world, as if it’s been there all along. If time permits, add who’s there and what’s changed in their attitude.
“A color is as strong as the impression it creates.” Ivan Albright
I know, I know. You’re a writer, not an artist! Believe me, I get it. I can’t even draw a circle without it turning into a thought bubble.
But I’m sorry to say, you are an artist. No matter what genre your niche is in, at some point you’re going to use colors to paint the picture of a scene, a setting, or character ensemble.
Some people turn bright red when they get angry or embarrassed. Some people turn sickly yellow or green when they’re nauseated. As a writer, you have to examine your own relationship with color.
Many writers turn to purple prose to paint a beautiful setting, accompanied by gemstone or food-related modifiers for color. While these seem like a good idea, the downside is that if used too much, they may turn your readers away.
Besides, phrases like “chocolate brown” or “pearl white” have been done forever. Where’s the challenge? Here’s what you should consider if you want to think creatively:
- What colors are found in nature? What’s the color of leaves when they are hit by the sun’s light?
- Think of paint colors. Is daffodil yellow a lighter or darker shade of yellow?
- If you own makeup, examine the adjectives the manufacturer uses with each color. If you have time, you can Google makeup advice. What tones do they suggest for which skin color?
Exercise: Describe a local park to a blind, imaginary friend. How would you describe color to them?
“If you’ve never thought much about the shape of a scene, consider it a self-contained mini-story with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding, or an experience.”Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld
Sometimes we need to focus on the little scenes that connect plot point A to plot point B.
Why do we need little scenes?
Because they matter. You need to get in the mindset of uncovering the importance of a scene between characters. A scene should evoke emotion, interest, and even insight. Scenes bridge the reader to the story. If an author writes a long scene of his protagonist trying to scrape gum off the bottom of his shoe, readers pay attention because it means something.
In terms of this exercise, take a moment to think about how you would write a scene. What’s the purpose and most importantly, how should it make you feel? Here’s what you can think about:
- Think about the last awkward scene of a book/TV show/video game that you watched that made you unintentionally cringe. Did you feel the scene was out of place? What would you do to fix it?
- Remember a scene from a movie that made you change your mind about a character. Was it a touching heart-to-heart moment? A hilarious scene from a serious, no-nonsense character?
- What scene from your favorite movie would you watch over and over again? What about it made it brilliant from your perspective?
Exercise: A convenience store is about to be robbed, and two strangers see it coming. How would you set up the scene before it happens? What happens moments after the robbery?
“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouses, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs. When people communicate, they communicate with their faces, their bodies, their timing, and the objects around them. Make this a full conversation. Not just the words part.”Jerome Stern
This is my favorite exercise on the list. We talk and communicate with people all the time, right? We humans, at our core, are social creatures. Even the shyest introvert has to talk to a customer service representative to fix an issue.
But there’s more to it than that.
In fiction, dialogue determines who the audience sides with. Dialogue can reflect personalities, social norms, and cultural insights. But on top of dialogue, you have to use physical movements, awkward pauses, and facial expressions––it’s part of what makes your character unique.
For instance, in a dialogue, how do you showcase a strict character as opposed to someone laid-back? Are words alone enough to highlight the contrasting personalities? Who’s more likely to slouch their back, yawn while someone’s talking, have their eyes glaze over in boredom? Adversely, who’s more likely to have their back straight, mouth set in a deep frown, eyes sharp and knowing?
In Octavia E. Butler’s short story “Speech Sounds” (1995) an illness wrecks the U.S. and creates a world without language and speech. The characters are forced to use physical gestures to communicate with one another, and Butler takes on the challenge of showing her readers who these characters are, based on those gestures.
Each voice in a dialogue is distinct because there are gestures and facial expressions that reveal the personality of your characters. So how do we reflect that in our writing? Here’s what you should consider before the exercise:
- Recall the last conversation you overheard, whether it was on public transportation, beside your cubicle, or outside your apartment unit. Try to remember word by word.
- Remember the last awkward conversation you had. Who made it awkward? Did your eyes shift away? Did the other person lower their voice? How many times did you clear your throat?
- How about your last argument with someone. Were you in the right or wrong? How did the argument end?
Exercise: Write two characters running an errand together. Contextualize the situation only in dialogue and with body language.
10 Minutes Left
Pick up your notebook or tablet and look hard. You have 50 minutes worth of writing in your hands. Congrats! These exercises were conceived in the hopes of getting you into the mindset of what is contained in a story.
I started doing these purely by accident––all I wanted was to improve on my weaknesses and not let the stress of work keep me from getting better.
Luckily, we have inspiration all around us: TV shows, articles, books, movies, even video games. Each of these mediums shares the same building blocks of a story that we want to one day tell. Even our gossiping coworkers can light up an idea for a character or an interesting conversation.
And now you can practice writing those very elements until you can start or continue your project. All on your lunch break.