Sensory Details and What They Do to Feelings

Children react strongly to the color, size, shape, sound, smell and feel of things. And, as Ursula Nordstrom, former editor of Harper and Row, said, “We must remember that children are new, and the whole world is new to them.” Therefore writers must learn to see the world with young eyes and through the filter of young moods, in order to present youthful adventures through the viewpoint of young story people. A flash of light—sudden darkness; heat—cold; something rough to … Learn More →

The Perfect Ending

Maybe you knew the ending of your story before you even wrote your rough draft, or maybe you now find yourself unsure of your original choice for the ending.  Here are a couple of exercises that will help you find the best, and perhaps unexpected, ending to your story: Put the story aside and make a list of all the possible things that could happen in the ending (even if they violate your original vision of the story).  Come at … Learn More →

Stories and Plots

Do you want to expand your writing skills and develop great plots?  Try these exercises: Imagine that you are a producer pitching a movie of your story to a studio executive. You have to get it all across in the proverbial “twenty-five words or less.” What is your novel about? What’s the storyline? Imagine that you’re the movie of your story has been produced and is appearing on TV for the first time. Write the “log line” in the TV … Learn More →


Do you want to expand your writing skills and develop great openings?  Try these exercises: Examine the first three paragraphs often published novels. Is there a narrative hook? What is it? What does it make you wonder about in terms of the story? Apropos of nothing, write ten simply gripping opening sentences. Expand these opening sentences into whole paragraphs. See what you “discover” about the characters and the story. Store these away for possible future use as novel idea sparkers. … Learn More →

Getting To Character From Just About Anywhere

Let’s say you have an interesting idea for a story. Or a setting. Or a character. Or maybe just an intense image. Ursula K. Le Guin began The Left Hand of Darkness with no more than that. So did William Faulkner, with The Sound and the Fury.  Le Guin’s image was two figures hauling a sledge across a remote sheet of ice.  Faulkner’s was a little girl with muddy underpants up in a pear tree. But now what? How to … Learn More →

Characterization Chart

Character’s Name: Sex: Age: Physical appearance (body type, hair, eyes, facial features, dress, posture, movements, mannerisms, speech): Personal history that may influence motivation (education, religion, family, early childhood experiences, financial situation, profession, marital status, other relationships, habits, surroundings/environment, health): The inner person (distinctive personality traits, self-image, yearnings/dreams, fears/apprehensions, sense of humor, code of ethics, attitudes): Other details (hobbies, favorite foods, colors, books, music, art): Positive traits: Negative traits (character flaws): Why is important for this character to have these traits/attitudes … Learn More →

Character Trait Exercises

Every person has many facets to his or her character. A good fictional character also is multi-faceted. In order for you to consider all the facets of your characters, write a description of a character as if you were a character witness testifying in defense of this person. Then write a description of the same character as if you were a character witness called by the prosecution. Remember, both parties are discussing the same character, so the characteristics discussed have … Learn More →

Worlds and Worldbuilding

You’ve always wanted to—go ahead and draw a map of your imaginary world or planet. No, it never has to be published. But it might help generate a “sense of place” at least in the author—and it could lead to some story ideas. Read a popular astronomy book on habitable planets. There are good ones by Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and other famous scientists. Notice that factors such as the distance of a planet to its primary (star) can determine … Learn More →

The Story Comes First: Everything Else Is A Slow Second

The first, most important part of handling exposition is realizing that it’s going to need handling. Once you’re aware of that, you won’t be as easily tempted to break off in the middle of an opening or crisis to treat the reader to a completely unnecessary lecture on how the protagonist was frightened by a big dog in childhood or on the history of the building where the murder happened to take place. Second, readers are only interested in explanation … Learn More →

How Much Detail?

You’ll collect hundreds, possibly thousands, of setting details as you do your research, but, as with your character research, all of this information won’t end up in your novel. So how do you know when enough is enough? Here’s a checklist that will help you decide whether to include or exclude a detail: Does the detail avert attention from the main story line? (if so, take it out) Would removing the detail harm the story or confuse the readers in … Learn More →

Getting Started On A Short Story

Having trouble getting started? Try freewriting. The rules are simple: sit down with a pen and paper and write for ten minutes. Don’t stop to think. Don’t let the pen come off the page. This classic exercise is designed to give your subconscious ideas a chance to emerge without being impeded by the censoring “filter” of your conscious mind. Some writers like to keep a notebook near their bed, so they can write immediately upon waking, before the distractions and … Learn More →

Outlining Exercise

Practice outlining by doing the process in reverse: Start with a published novel or nonfiction book you’ve read recently (preferably one that would be similar to a book you’d like to write), and try to write a one-paragraph summary of each chapter or scene. Then, read through the outline to see if you can follow the narrative “thread” of the book. Better yet, show your outline to someone who has not read the book and see if they can tell … Learn More →

Elaboration of Motive

The most important tool that will help your audience believe in your characters is elaboration of motive. If you don’t tell your audience what a character’s motives are, the audience will assume the obvious motive: a simple, single motive, a naked archetype or a cliché. To make characters more believable, more real, we give them more complex, even contradictory motives, and we justify them better. In the heroic fantasy film Conan the Barbarian, young Conan’s mother is killed before his … Learn More →

Characterization Exercises

“Interview” your character to gauge attitude. Pretend he or she is sitting across from you. Ask, “What do you think about life?” Then take down a monologue, as quickly as it pours out of your imagination, expounding in the character’s voice what the answer is. Watch the evening news for five nights. Each night pretend you are a completely different character. Write or record your verbal reactions as that character. (Note: improvisation, a skill taught in acting classes, is a … Learn More →

Character Description Exercise

Write your own posthumous encyclopedia entry. What is it that you as reporter would highlight about you the person and writer? What unique details would be included? Take the following generic description and re-write it in a way that is unique and compelling. Refer especially to chapters one and two of Kress: John Smith was a tall man. He wore a dark suit that was a little loose. He had light hair and eyes. There was something about him when … Learn More →

Descriptive Writing Exercise

Choose some details from the room you’re sitting in right now and think about how you might describe them in different ways to establish different moods. First of all, make an inventory of what you can see, smell, hear and touch. This first list should be purely objective, using words that simply state what the objects are, and what sense(s) they engage (put each sensory category on a separate piece of paper). For example, if you’re writing on your lunch … Learn More →