I run a Creative Writing Meetup for adults and teens in Montpellier every week where we start with a 5 to 20 minute exercise, followed by an hour and a half of silent writing, where we each work on our own project.
It’s a bilingual English / French group with anything up to 18 participants and each of these exercises has been used with the group and works well. Where the exercises below specify a number of people, if you have a larger group, simply split everyone up into smaller groups as appropriate.
The solo exercises are ideal if you’re working by yourself to help stimulate your mind before working on a larger project or to overcome writer’s block, or can be used with a larger group, where you simply ask everyone to share what they’ve written in groups of 3 or 4 people afterwards.
The Opening SentenceSolo exercise
When you're browsing for a book, there will be times when you read the opening sentence and go, no, that's not for me, and other times when the book will grab you immediately. In this exercise the task is to write an opening sentence either to a book you're currently writing, or simply for an imaginary piece of literature. Here are some of my favourite opening sentences to get you going:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen
George Orwell, 1984
The Golem's life began in the hold of a steamship.
Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Djinni
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
It wasn't a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander
You better not never tell nobody but God.
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
The cage was finished.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon
Imagine that you are living your life out of order: Lunch before breakfast, marriage before your first kiss.
Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
There are a plethora of ways that you can start a book, however two ways that help engage the reader immediately are:
- Set the scene in as few words as possible, so that the reader immediately knows what's happening and wants to know what happens next. The scene must be original and create a vivid image in the reader's mind.
- Surprise the reader with an unusual event or usual point of view.
Spend 5 minutes working on your own opening sentence, then share it with the other participants.
Cat Chat3 to 5 people
You’ve found a magic potion labelled ‘Cat Chat’ and when you drink it, you turn into whichever animal you’re thinking about; but there’s a problem, it also picks up on the brainwaves of other people near you!
Everyone writes down an animal in secret and then reveals it to the other writers. The spell will turn you into a creature that combines elements of all the animals. Each person then spends 5 minutes writing down what happens when they drink the potion.
After the 5 minutes is up, everyone shares their story with the other participants.
I rememberSolo exercise
Joe Brainard wrote a novel called I Remember which contains a collection of paragraphs all starting with “I remember”. This is the inspiration for this exercise, and if you’re stuck for what to write, is a great way to get the mental gears turning. Simply write “I remember” and continue with the first thing that pops into your head.
Spend 5 minutes writing a short collection of “I remember” stories.
Here are a couple of examples from Joe Brainard’s novel:
“I remember not understanding why people on the other side of the world didn't fall off.”
“I remember waking up somewhere once and there was a horse staring me in the face.”
Show don't tell
2 or 3 people
A lot of writing guides will advice you to, "Show, don't tell," but what does this actually mean?
If you want to evoke an emotional reaction from your reader, then showing them what is happening is a great way to do so. You can do this in several ways:
- Avoid internal dialogue (thinking), instead have your protagonist interact with other people, or have a physical reaction to something that shows how s/he feels. Does their heart beat faster? Do they notice the smell of their own adrenaline? Do they step backwards, or lean forwards?
- Instead of using an adjective like creepy, e.g. "Mary entered the creepy house", show why the house is creepy through description and in the way the protagonist responds - "The light streamed through the filthy skylight, highlighting the decomposing body of a rat resting on top of it. As Mary stepped instead, she felt a gust of freezing air brush past her, she turned, but there was nothing there..."
Split up into pairs and each person writes down a short scene from a story where they "tell" it. After this, pass the description of the scene to your partner and they then have 5 minutes to rewrite it to "show" what happened. If there are an odd number of participants, make one group of three, with each person passing their scene clockwise, so everyone has a new scene to show. After the 5 minutes, for small groups everyone reads their new description to everyone else, or for large groups, each person just reads their new scene to their partner.
Your dream holiday3 to 4 people
You’re going on a dream holiday together, but can’t stand conflict, so rather than discuss what you want to do, you’ve decided that each of you will choose a different aspect of the holiday as follows:
- Choose where you’ll be going – your favourite holiday destination.
- Choose what your main activity will be on your holiday.
- Decide what mode of travel you’ll use to get there.
- If there’s a 4th person, choose what you’ll eat on the holiday and what you’ll be wearing.
Decide who gets to choose what at random, then each of you write down your dream holiday destination/activity/travel/food & clothes in secret. Next spend 5 minutes discussing your dream holiday and add any other details you’d like to include, particularly if you’re passionate about doing something in real life.
Finally, everyone spends another 5 minutes writing down a description of the holiday, then shares it with the others.
Writing a haikuSolo exercise
A haiku is a traditional Japanese form of non-rhyming poetry whose short form makes it ideal for a simple writing exercise.
They traditionally are structured in 3 lines, where the first line is 5 syllables, the second line is 7 syllables and the third line is 5 syllables again and tend to focus on themes of nature and deep concepts that can be expressed simply.
A couple of examples:
A summer river being crossed
with sandals in my hands!
Yosa Buson, a haiku master poet from the 18th Century.
And one of mine:
When night-time arrives
Stars come out, breaking the dark
You can see the most
Spend up to 10 minutes writing a haiku. If you get stuck with the 5-7-5 syllable rule, then don’t worry, the overall concept is more important!
See How to write a haiku for more details and examples.
Writing a limerickSolo exercise
Unlike a haiku, which is profound and sombre, a limerick is a light-hearted, fun rhyming verse.
Here are a couple of examples:
A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His bill can hold more than his beli-can
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I'm damned if I see how the heli-can.
Dixon Lanier Merritt, 1910
There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She started one day
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.
Arthur Henry Reginald Buller in Punch, 1923
The 1st, 2nd and 5th line all rhyme, as do the 3rd and 4th line. The overall number of syllables isn’t important, but the 3rd and 4th lines should be shorter than the others.
Typically the 1st line introduces the character, often with “There was”, or “There once was” and the rest of the verse tells their story.
Spend 10 minutes writing a limerick.
Focus on faces
One challenge writers face is describing a character and a common mistake is to focus too much on the physical features, e.g. "She had brown eyes, curly brown hair and was five foot six inches tall."
The problem with this is that it doesn't reveal anything about the character's personality, or about the relationship between your protagonist and the character and your reader is therefore likely to quickly forget what someone looks like. When describing characters, it's therefore best to:
- Animate them - it's rare that someone's sitting for a portrait when your protagonist first meets them and whether they're talking or walking, it's likely that they're moving in some way.
- Use metaphors or similes - comparing physical features to emotionally charged items conjures both an image and a sense of who someone is.
- Involve your protagonist - if your protagonist is interacting with a character, make it personal. How does your protagonist view this person? Incorporate the description as part of the description.
- Only give information your protagonist knows - they may know if someone is an adult, or a teenager, but they won't know that someone is 37 years old, for example.
Here are 3 examples of character descriptions that leave no doubt how the protagonist feels.
“If girls could spit venom, it'd be through their eyes.”
S.D. Lawendowski, Snapped
"And Ronan was everything that was left: molten eyes and a smile made for war."
Maggie Stiefvater, The Dream Thieves
"His mouth was such a post office of a mouth that he had a mechanical appearance of smiling."
Spend 5 minutes writing a character introduction that is animated, uses metaphors or similes and involves your protagonist.
If working with a group, then form small groups of 3 or 4 and share your description with the rest of the group.
The alphabet storyAny number of people – Great for a larger group
This is a novel way to write a story as a group, one word at a time. The first person starts the story that begins with any word starting with “A”, the next person continues the story with a word starting with “B”, and so on.
Keep going round until you have completed the alphabet. Ideally it will all be one sentence, but if you get stuck, start a new sentence. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make complete sense!
It can be tricky to remember the alphabet when under pressure, so you may wish to print it out a couple of times, so the storytellers can see it if they need to, this is particularly helpful if you have dyslexics in the group.
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Here’s an example of an alphabet story:
A Band Can Dance Each Friday, Ghostly Hauntings In Jail Kill Lucky Men, Nobody Or Perhaps Quiet Rats, Still That Unifies Villains Who X-Ray Your Zebras.
As I mentioned, it doesn’t need to make sense!
A question or two
Small or large groups
The standard format in our group is a short writing exercise followed by an hour and a half of silent writing on our projects.
At one point I felt like we'd done a lot of small group exercises, and wanted to gain an insight into what everyone was working on, so we did the following exercise instead:
Go round the table, and ask everyone to briefly talk about their writing. Each person then asks one or two yes/no questions.
Everyone responds either by raising their hand for 'yes' or shaking their heads for 'no'. You can also leap up and down to indicate a very strong 'yes'.
Questions can be about anything, and you can use them either to help guide your writing or to help find other people in the group who have similar interests.
Here are some random examples you might ask:
- I want to write a romance novel and am considering setting it in Paris, a traditional romantic setting, or Liverpool which is a less obvious setting. Who thinks Liverpool would be best?
- I need to know more about the life of a farmer. Has anyone got farming experience who I can interview in exchange for a drink?
- My character gets fired and that night goes back to his office and steals 35 computers. Does that sound realistic as the premise of a story?
This works best when you give participants some advance notice, so they have time to think of a question.
Groups of 3 or 4
This exercise takes 20-30 minutes and allows participants to create a murder mystery outline together.
Phase 1 (3 minutes)
- Split into groups of 3 or 4
- Decide as a group where the murder occurs (e.g. the opera house, a bar, a casino)
- Decide one person who will write the details of the victim and the murder itself. Everyone else writes the details of one suspect each.
- The ‘victim author’ then invents a few extra details about the scene of the crime, who the victim was (a teenage punk, an adult opera singer, etc.) and the murder weapon and summarises this to the others.
Phase 2 (10 minutes)
Each person then writes a police report as if they are either describing the scene of the crime, or recording the notes from their interview with a single suspect:
Write the following:
- 1 line description of the victim.
- When they were last seen by a group of witnesses (and what they were doing).
- How the murder occurred in more detail based on the evidence available.
Write the following (from the perspective of the investigator):
- 1 line description of the suspect
- What they said during the interview (including what they claim to have doing when the murder occurs).
- A possible motivation (as determined by the police from other witnesses).
Phase 3 (5 minutes)
- Each person reads out their police reports to the other members of their small group
- As a group, decide who the murderer was and what actually happened
The obscure movie exercise3 to 6 people
Pick a famous movie and spend 5 minutes writing a scene from it from an unusual perspective. Your aim is to achieve a balance between being too obscure and making it too obvious. Feel free to add internal dialogue.
At the end of the 5 minutes, everyone reads their movie scene to the others and all the other participants see if they can guess what the movie is.
A novel idea2 or 3 people
Take it in turns to tell everyone else about a current project that you’re working on (a book, screenplay, short story, etc.)
The other writers then brainstorm ideas for related stories you could write, or directions your project could take. There are no right or wrong suggestions and the intention is to focus on big concepts, not little details.
This whole exercise takes around 15 minutes.
Creative story cards / dice4 to 8 people
Cut up a piece of paper and write one word on each of the pieces of paper, as follows:
Give each participant a couple of pieces of paper at random. The first person says the first sentence of a story and they must use their first word as part of that sentence. The second person then continues the story and must include their word in it, and so on. Go round the group twice to complete the story.
You can also do this creative writing exercise with story dice, your own choice of words, or by asking participants to write random words down themselves, then shuffling all the cards together.
New Year’s resolutions for a fictional characterSolo or small group exercise
If you’re writing a piece of fiction, asking yourself how your protagonist would react to an everyday situation might help you to gain a deeper insight into who they are.
One way to do this is to imagine what their New Year’s resolutions would be!
If completing this exercise with a group, limit it to 3 to 5 resolutions per person and if some participants are non-fiction writers, they can instead pick a celebrity and either write what their resolutions will be, or what their resolutions should be, their choice.
Blind Date on Valentine's Day2 people
Here's a Valentine's Day themed writing exercise that you might enjoy, it doesn't require any romantic attachment between writers, but is probably best for adults.
In pairs one writer spends a minute or two describing a character they're writing about, or alternatively they can describe a celebrity or someone from a work of fiction. The next writer then describes their character.
The story is that these 2 characters (or in my case, person and alien, as I'm writing a sci-fi) have accidentally ended up on a blind date with each other, perhaps the waiter seated them in the wrong location, perhaps it's an actual blind date, or perhaps they met in some other fashion that the writers can determine.
Now spend 10 minutes discussing what happens next!
It’s the end of the world1 to 6 people
It’s the end of the world! For 5 minutes either:
- Describe how the world’s going to end, creating evocative images using similes or metaphors as you wish and tell the story from a global perspective, or
- Describe how you spend your final day before the world is destroyed. Combine emotion and action to engage the reader.
If working as a team, then after the 5 minutes is up each writer reads their description out to the other participants.
Notes on running the writing exercises
I've always run these as part of a creative writing group, where there's no teacher and we're all equal participants, therefore I keep any 'teaching' aspect to a minimum, preferring them to be prompts to generate ideas before everyone settles down to do the silent writing.
The times given are suggestions only and I normally get a feel for how everyone's doing when time's up and if it's obvious that everyone's still in the middle of a discussion, then I give them longer. Where one group's in the middle of a discussion, but everyone else has finished, I sometimes have a 'soft start' to the silent writing, and say, "We're about to start the hour and a half of silent writing now, but if you're in the middle of a discussion, feel free to finish it first".
This way everyone gets to complete the discussion, but no-one's waiting for ages. It's also important to emphasise that there's no wrong answers when being creative.
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