Tag Archives: writing exercise

Create Subtext Through Implied History

writing_exercise

Today’s writing exercise focuses on a particular type of subtext.

A quick review –

Text operates on two levels: surface text and underlying subtext. While text represents the surface action, subtext consists of everything that’s really going on beneath that surface action—aka what’s not being said.

WHY

Identifying or explaining subtext is one thing, but actually embedding it into storytelling is quite another. In this exercise we will tackle the challenge of using subtext to create implied history in a character relationship.

PURPOSE

To help walk you through aging a character relationship by building successive levels of implied history through the use of subtext. With every successive layer of implied character history you add, note how the resulting subtext affects the way characters interact with each other.

CHALLENGE

Two characters walk into a kitchen to find dirty dishes in the sink.

Write a short conflict-laden scene between the two characters regarding the dirty dishes and using the following situational context:

  • The two characters are strangers who have just met for the very first time.

Now write a new version of the scene with the same two characters in the same situation, only with new added history:

  • Roommates who hit it off for the first week, but have come to their first disagreement.
  • Now roommates for six months and the dirty dishes are a regular point of conflict.
  • In a relationship and living together for two years and again the dirty dishes lead to a confrontation.
  • In a relationship and living together for forty years when another dish incident occurs.

Did you come up with something interesting? Let us know!

 

Need some help?

Having trouble with this exercise? Here’s a little help to get those creative juices flowing —

WRITING PROMPT: Create Subtext Through Implied History

Roommates who hit it off for the first week, but have come to their first disagreement.

Not wanting to come off as mean or judgmental, Judy eases her way into asking Maggie about the dishes by approaching the subject indirectly. Then, after expressing her grievance in a polite, mild form, she closes her statement with a casual “…if that’s cool with you.”

How does Maggie respond? Does she respond with the same tone and tactic? Is she irritated? Maybe she feels like she doesn’t have time for beating around the bush, so chooses to escalate the situation, setting a bad precedent for encounters to come?

Now roommates for six months and the dirty dishes are a regular point of conflict.

Sticking with Judy as our protagonist, she once again comes home to find a sink full of smelly, dirty dishes, even though (once again) it’s Maggie’s turn to clean them. Maybe Judy’s a bit of a neat freak while Maggie tends to let house hygiene slide somewhat more. While the dirty dish arguments remained somewhat polite for the first few months, they have since become increasingly forceful with raised voices, personal insults and wild gesticulations. Tempers flares. Doors slam. You get the picture.

But today is different. Her previous tactic having failed, what does she do or say differently to get her point across this time?

In a relationship and living together for two years and again the dirty dishes lead to a confrontation.

Somehow, somewhere, Judy and Maggie were able to look past their dish differences and form a long-term relationship of sorts (best friends, lovers, entrepreneurial partners—take your pick). It’s been a brutal 10-hour workday for Judy, so when she comes home to find that familiar odorous specter waiting for her in the kitchen, she’s finally had enough. Judy storms over to Maggie’s room, pounds on her door with all her might. Maggie finally emerges, ready for a fight. They scream, accuse, maybe even graduate to throwing dirty dishes at each other. Either way, the fight ends with Judy leaving for the local dive bar, vowing to move as soon as she’s saved up enough for a deposit on a new apartment.

In a relationship and living together for forty years when another dish incident occurs.

It’s been four decades since Judy and Maggie began their journey of communal living and over the years Judy has learned to pick her battles, knowing that for some things Maggie may never change. One of those things? Dirty dishes. Judy knows Maggie won’t clean the dirty dishes, even if it’s her turn. So when Judy comes home, sees the sink piled high with grimy porcelain, she already counts the confrontation as a loss. Instead of confronting Maggie about the neglect, she chooses to just suck it up and let the dishes rot. If worst comes to worst, Judy will do the dishes herself. Either way, Judy feels Maggie’s neglect of the dirty dishes is a fact she cannot change, and at this point, not worth the energy. So this time says nothing at all.

 

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The Turntable Group Writing Exercise

Gather ‘round writers and wordsmiths, it’s time for the Turntable Group Writing Exercise, from Story Science. This is a great exercise for writing groups, classrooms, teams, comedians and friends. Think of it as improvisational writing in a collaborative environment, a group brainstorming session.

Story Science atom logo for the Turntable Writing Exercise blog article.Why: Because two (or more) minds are better than one. Writing is a very solitary activity, requiring the storyteller to isolate himself for many hours at a time in order to tap into the creative energies fluttering about inside his or her brain. Today we are going to be social and write together.

Purpose: To engage in a group improvisational freewrite. Also, it’s fun.

Challenge: Your group is going to write a collaborative story, scene or sketch. Come to an agreement on the exercise terms before you begin, such as length, format, and if any house rules apply. On a piece of paper or using collaborative document software*, every person in the group will take turns writing a sentence, line, or short beat before passing it on to the next person. This repeats until the agreed upon length is reached or someone writes “THE END.” Don’t be surprised if the final result looks like something out of a comedy sketch show or an episode of a daytime soap opera (that’s part of the fun).

RULES:

  • Start with an opening and end with a conclusion.
  • Use a stack of paper or some form of collaborative document software so everyone can read the results.
  • Come to a group consensus on terms before starting, including length, format, and any house rules.
  • Screenplay or stageplay formats work very well for this exercise but prose, rhyme or poetry have their place too if your group is up to the challenge.
  • The action must occur within the same scene/location.
  • Do not hog the table. You are allowed to write more than one sentence, but limit the length to one beat or less. Pass onto the next person.
  • The exercise is over when it has been concluded and someone has written THE END.
  • At the end, assign segments to members in the group and read the entire piece aloud.

VARIATIONS:

  • Anyone can “cut” to a new location or scene.
  • Place a time limit on each person’s turn. When the time is up, control must be passed onto the next person, even if the current writer is mid-word.
  • Every other line must rhyme.
  • Make it a musical: insert song numbers/lyrics like a musical libretto.
  • Make it a piece of prose short fiction with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  • Add a tag or postscript after THE END.


*See examples here.

The Outrageous Justification Writing Exercise

In the promised follow-up to our last article, Turn that Scene on its Head, today we will be discussing an exercise to assist in pepping up your scenes by taking an ordinary situation and making it extraordinary.

Stock photo of two businessmen boxing, a comical metaphor for an outrageous writing exercise.
Why: The golden rule of entertainment in any form is DON’T BE BORING.  Unfortunately, many writers fall into the trap of writing “safely” where their characters act and react as would be expected of a normal person under similar circumstances, resulting in the scene being both predictable and dull.  Audiences want to be surprised and entertained, not bored to death.

Purpose: To turn a predictable scene into an interesting one by altering a character’s reaction to changing circumstances.

Challenge: Take an existing scene (or write a new one) in which a character finds himself or herself in a situation that has just changed.  Consider what the normal reaction might be for a character in those circumstances and then flip things around and have him/her react in a way that is diametrically opposite.  The reaction should be outrageous and unexpected.  Next, play out the consequences of this reaction.  You will then need to write a justification for this behavior (which may or may not appear in the same scene).

RULES:

  • For purposes of this exercise, your character’s reaction should be diametrically and outrageously opposite of what is previously written or normally expected. The more outrageous, the better.
  • The exercise works best when the situation is very normal or mundane. This lends more impact to the outrageous behavior which follows. (Need a little inspiration? Notalwaysright.com is a gold mine.)

EXAMPLES:

  • An office worker is called into his boss’s office and sacked.  The former employee doesn’t cry or beg to keep his job, he rejoices.
  • A young woman has just been asked out on a date by the man of her dreams.  Her reaction?  She starts screaming bloody murder.
  • A young man discovers he’s just won the lottery jackpot and this makes him very, very angry.
  • A mother’s oldest child has just moved out to go to college.  Instead of crying her eyes out she breaks out the wine coolers and redecorates the child’s room.
  • A married man comes home to find his wife waiting for him.  She promptly demands a divorce.  The man can barely contain his joy.

ALTERNATIVE FORMS:

Challenge yourself by making the exercise more difficult:

  • Attempt to justify the character’s unexpected reaction within the scene.
  • Add a double twist by having the character enter the situation expecting one thing but instead receives the opposite.  His unexpected reaction is harder to justify but also very interesting.
  • For an even greater challenge, choose an incident which could go either way, such as a woman just discovering that she has superpowers.  Both positive and negative reactions are expected.  How will you surprise us?

Turn that Scene on its Head (How to Fulfill Expectations by Defying Them)

stack of books story sci stock photo for exerciseDo you have a scene that’s dull, listless, unexciting, or otherwise lacking? Maybe everything is in place but for some reason the scene just isn’t that interesting. Have you ever considered that your scene might be too…predictable?

Believe it or not, this is a problem which afflicts the majority of not-yet-published creative works—the inability to capture the audience’s interest by fulfilling their expectations but doing so in a way they do not expect. Major and minor storytelling elements alike hinge on this very idea, such as plot points, gags, or character reactions, and work by bringing the audience into the story and creating conflict which, as we know, means story.

Although one could write an entire book on this premise, today we will focus on only one specific part of it: defying expectation through character reaction.

If a character reacts to an incident exactly how we expect him/her to there is no surprise and the scene falls flat with predictability, along with stakes, conflict, and the audience’s interest. Now imagine if that same character reacted in the precise opposite way we were expecting. Now that’s interesting! Why? Because now we want to know why the character is reacting differently than our expectations.

Let’s take a white collar worker named Dwight. He is called into the boss’s office. The boss sacks Dwight. Instead of breaking into tears and begging to keep his job, Dwight jumps for joy and celebrates exuberantly, culminating in an awkward bear hug with his stunned ex-boss.

Even in a situation like this the audience’s mind immediately begins to rationalize the seemingly absurd behavior. Often, such a reaction won’t seem absurd at all, but completely reasonable provided the reaction is justified by proper motivation. The scene will then play out the resulting consequences of the character’s surprising reaction and you will be expected to justify it, which may occur within the scene or sometime after.

In short:

incident > reaction > consequences > justification

Next time you are watching a movie or reading a book, pay attention to the characters’ reactions to changing circumstances. You will be surprised at the number of times they react in the opposite way a normal person would in the same situation. Also be aware that sometimes characters need to react exactly as they are expected to in order for a story to develop. Action movies are very good at combining both into a reaction that at first seems expected only to follow it with a reversal which reveals the unexpected.

(Consequently, the “opposite-than-expected reaction” has been a common strategy in TV writing for decades. Any episode of the hit series Lost hinges its entire plot on such reactions. For a more on-the-nose example, take a look at any scene in the original 90210 TV series from 1990s.)

Try It Yourself: Turn Your Scene Upside Down

  • Take any scene in which one of your characters reacts to a change of circumstance.
  • Change the character’s reaction to be the exact opposite of what it was previously, defying normal expectations.
  • Explore the consequences of that reaction.
  • Justify the reaction through character motivation.
  • Ask yourself, “Where can I take my story from here with this new and interesting turn of events?”

And voila! Magic happens.

Try it for yourself and share your results. We’d love to hear about it!

The “What Happens Next?” Exercise

Why: Have you ever had a story stuck in your head but weren’t able to get it down on paper? Or it just doesn’t translate onto the page the way you envision it? Or maybe you’re like me and you just need to get the @#&% thing on paper to get it out of your head so you can come back to it later.

All of these reasons are why the “What Happens Next?” exercise came into being. This exercise will help you sort out your story by allowing you to effectively write your entire piece at the structural without getting lost in the details.

Purpose: To put onto the page everything that happens in your story in sequential order. The exercise focuses on plot development step by step, highlighting parts of your story that do not work correctly, are repetitive or missing. It also forces you to think about your story analytically so that when you sit down to actually write the text of your creative work you will have a clear direction in which to write.

Challenge: Write down each thing that happens in your story in outline form in the order in which they occur using a new line and only one sentence for each event. Describe the event as minimally but as specifically as possible. Do this from beginning to end. Push yourself, don’t get lazy, and don’t forget to finish. It can be very tempting to abandon the exercise before completing it because it can be very taxing on the brain and surprisingly difficult. In only a few hours (or days, depending on the length of your work) you can lay out your entire story from beginning to end.

RULES:

  • Start from the beginning and finish with the end.
  • Do no skip anything. If you know a part is missing, indicate so, including a summary of what should or might be there and what it needs to lead to (such as, “our main character somehow survives and manages to make it back with proof that he has recovered the artifact”). It’s okay to be generic or vague here, but not okay to summarize huge chunks unless you absolutely don’t have anything for that point.
  • Do not include details other than those necessary to explain each element, event or incident.
  • Do not include character background or any other such depth that is not directly relevant to the plot.
  • Keep your notes, discoveries and comments elsewhere.
  • If you plan to rearrange things out of chronological order, you may choose to put them in chronological order first to make sure your story doesn’t have any holes and reorder them as desired later.

EXAMPLE:

  1. Bjorn wakes up tied to a chair.
  2. Bjorn breaks free and searches the house for something to eat.
  3. Bjorn is confronted by a stranger, who wants to know the color of his favorite socks.
  4. After a brief exchange, Bjorn leaves the house to find a basket of goodies abandoned by a tree.
  5. Bjorn cries at the memory of his mother and how she used to bake goodies for him, flashes back to an incident where he burned himself while she was baking cookies and how she lovingly cared for him.

ALTERNATIVE FORMS:

  • After completing the exercise, expand what you’ve written into an annotated step outline.
  • Watch a movie or read a short book with a partner, then wait a day or so and sit down with someone else, having them ask you, “What happened next?” or “And then what happened?” (etc.), not letting you skip anything. It will force you to remember events in the order in which they occurred in a sort of oral step outline. It’s much harder than it sounds because your brain tends to only remember the highlights of a story, not all the steps in between.
  • As above, have a partner ask you what happens next for your own story, whether or not they know anything your story.

The “Everything You Know About This” exercise.

In this version of the exercise you will be able to get a story out of your head before it is fully formed at a time when you aren’t able to actually write out the whole piece. This will preserve your creative work for later use when you have time to come back to it and do it justice.

  • Write down absolutely everything you know about your story in bullet form, including character elements, background and other details or thoughts which pertain to the plot.
  • They do not have to be in order. You can re-order them later.
  • I highly suggest writing by hand because it gives your brain more time to think and connect dots and make discoveries you might not otherwise make while typing.
  • When finished, type up your bullet list and put everything in order. You will be surprised at how much you know about your story.

Writing Exercise: The Être Challenge

Why: It is common among writers (especially young writers) to overuse “to be” (être*) verbs. By eliminating forms of être verbs you strengthen the impact of your writing by making it more efficient and more powerful.

Purpose: Avoid overuse of “to be” verbs.

Challenge: Write one page about a character wherein you describe him/her/it. However, you may only use the infinitive être verb (“to be”) in any form once per paragraph. This includes any and all conjugations of the verb as well as helping verbs.

Alternative Forms:

  1. DIALOGUE. Write a one-page monologue in the voice of a character observing the same rules.
  2. ACTION: Write a one-page action scene or sequence with no dialogue observing the same rules.
  3. POETRY: Write a half-page in any meter desired observing the same rules except instead of once per paragraph, allow the être verb only once per stanza or once every 10 lines.

*Être is the infinitive form of the verb “to be” in French.