Writing Exercise: Observing Dialogue

Writing dialogue.  In fiction, it can be challenging to make characters sound human and, simultaneously, make sure what’s said moves the story or a character’s development forward.  How people speak, what they say, and how they say it gives a writer ample opportunity for creativity.  But how do you make sure your characters sound like people?

The Exercise

Part One

One way to familiarize yourself with creating natural-sounding dialogue is to listen to people in conversations.  For this exercise, I’m asking you to eavesdrop on the people around you.

Go to a public place and observe two people or a group having a conversation.  Transcribe the conversation as much as possible, making sure to keep what’s being said as pure as possible.  Jot down what you can.  You’ll notice how people speak in sentence fragments, pauses, and subtext.

Suppose you don’t feel comfortable doing this in public.  In that case, you can use a conversation at work or between your kids or other relatives.  Just remember that you are observing the conversation, not participating.

Don’t do it for too long, just enough to get something useful for part two.

**NOTEDo not record the conversation.  Many states have laws against recording others without their permission.  Just to be safe, take notes. **

Part Two

Write a short story using the dialogue as a launching pad for creating the characters and the situation.  The conversation doesn’t have to be where you heard it; you can have the couple in the coffee shop be astronauts on Mars.  But stick with the dialogue you transcribed as close as possible.

Now, using that dialogue, continue the conversation.  Where do things go next?  Can you use what you heard and keep that tone and feeling with made-up dialogue?

Part Three

Once you finish the short story, have a trusted friend or loved one read it.  Can they tell where the real conversation ends, and your made-up dialogue begins?  This is a good test to see if you are on the right track to creating realistic dialogue.

Final Thoughts

While it can be a challenge, creating natural-sounding dialogue will help keep readers engaged with the story.  Often when we write dialogue, we are in a room alone, speaking to ourselves or in our head.  By observing and listening to real people interact, we can further our communication skills between our characters on the page.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: What Could Go Wrong?

We do a lot of things every day.  Some we want to do, others not so much.  Whatever the activity, there is potential for things to not go as we planned.

The Activity

Think about an activity you do that has the potential for things to spiral out of control.  This could be driving to work, dealing with customers, picking up your kids from school, etc.  We do plenty of things every day on auto-pilot, so these activities are a good place to start.

The Exercise

Picked an activity?  Great.  Now, write a list of every possible situation or scenario that could go wrong while doing this particular task.  It can be a minor inconvenience or one that’s exponentially catastrophic.  No matter what it is, write it down.

If you have had bad experiences in that situation that you can utilize, that’s even better.

Once you have a reasonably long list, pick out the ones that could be placed in order of escalation from minor to major.  Now you have a rough outline to work with.

Create a short story using the scenario and these escalating elements.  It can be comedic, it can be tragic, and it can be hyper-realistic.  Whatever tone you want to use, take advantage of your list of bad things that could happen and have fun with it.  If you come up with new things that can go wrong as you write, feel free to add them!

The Example

So, I drive on the 405 in L.A. every day to work.  There is potential for many things to go wrong in this location.  If I chose this as my activity – Driving to Work on the 405 – I could come up with some things that could go wrong based on my own real-life experiences: 

  • Car breaks down in traffic during heatwave
  • Car’s transmission dies in traffic
  • Hay truck on fire shuts down freeway
  • President Obama leaves LAX, freeway closes
  • Car chase
  • Multiple lanes closed during afternoon for cleaning
  • Roadwork
  • Car accident – three cars or more
  • Car fire
  • Multiple cars on fire
  • Plane does emergency landing on freeway
  • Big rig tips over
  • Rock smashes windshield

Next, I would take the list and figure out a way to incorporate as many as possible into a short story.

Final Thoughts

When we get stuck as writers, it’s important to brainstorm many ideas to help our characters get into or out of challenging situations.  This can help keep your writing interesting and keep your reader engaged and interested.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Challenge of the Week: The Next 99 Days

There are only 99 days until 2023.  If you write 1,010 words daily for the rest of the year and, you’ll have written 100,000 words by the end of 2022!  

100,000 words entering the New Year.  Sounds like a great plan!

Are you up to the challenge?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: Clothing Details

I’ve been reading the Game of Thrones novels, and one of the things that stands out to me is the detailed descriptions of each character’s clothing. One to two paragraphs are often dedicated to how a character dresses, which makes sense given the era. Attention to detail can signify a character’s rank, status, and class within the story’s context.

With the unfortunate passing of Queen Elizabeth II and her upcoming funeral service, the images of the Royals and their clothing for key events gave me an idea for a writing exercise.

The Exercise

Pick a member of the Royal family or the Royal staff and write as detailed as possible about what they’re wearing in one to two paragraphs.  

Pay specific attention to the clothing, don’t worry about who’s wearing it.  

This exercise is to work on how detailed and intricate you can describe what your chosen individual is wearing.

Now, suppose you don’t want to use someone from the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. In that case, you can find Google images of Meghan and Harry’s wedding and pick someone from that event.

Bonus Exercise

Find another person wearing one of those intricate hats at the wedding or funeral and describe it in one or two paragraphs. Again, the more detailed your description, the better.

Fine-tune your paragraphs and read over them a few times.

Final Thoughts

A character’s clothing can give us insight into who they are. By showing and not telling, the reader can get a sense of who the character is before a line of dialogue is spoken.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Reading & Writing Exercise: Pick a Chapter, Any Chapter?

It’s time to do some homework!  I know, I know.  But this is valuable homework that can help you become a stronger writer by breaking down and analyzing a published author’s work.

The Assignment

Pick a book – preferably one you’ve read and enjoyed – then choose a random chapter.  Read the chapter from beginning to end two or three times, familiarizing yourself with the style, genre, story points, etc.  

Now, it’s time to dive deeply into the chapter and get into what makes it tick.

The Questions

Ask yourself the following questions as you dig into the chapter.  You may want to write down or type your answers as go:

  • What characters are present in the chapter?
  • What are the relationships between the characters in the chapter?
  • What is the POV of the chapter (first person, third person, third person limited, omniscient)?  Whose POV are we in?
  • What’s the main conflict in the chapter?
  • What information is known at the start of the chapter?
  • What new information is provided or discovered by the end of the chapter?
  • Is there any subtext in the dialogue between the characters?
  • Does the chapter deal with the main plot or a subplot?
  • Does the chapter end on a cliffhanger?  Does the end of the chapter compel you to keep reading?
  • If you’ve read the book, how does this chapter fit into the overall narrative structure of the novel?
  • Are there any weak points or areas of the chapter you feel could be improved?

What’s the Point?

By taking time to analyze a work you enjoy, you can see how the author has structured each chapter as building blocks or puzzle pieces that fit together to create a complete story.  While this is an exercise to delve into one chapter, you can also do this for an entire book to deconstruct the structure, conflict, story, etc.  

You can also do this with screenplays, plays, or short stories to really get a sense of the structure and other elements that make the story work.

Happy Reading and Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: A Mundane Task

As writers, we always look for ways to hook and excite the reader.  We want to engage the audience and keep them intrigued by the story from start to finish.  Whether it’s a murder mystery, an action sequence, or a knitting contest, our goal is to keep our readers turning to the next page.

And while creating excitement, conflict, and tension are built into certain events, I wondered this weekend if mundane, day-to-day activities could be written similarly.

  • Pick a mundane task that everyone does (laundry, dishes, paying bills, getting gas or charging your car, etc.).
  • Write it in the first-person POV.
  • Take some time to write out the steps involved in the task in the order that works best for you.
  • Examine the list.  Are there any places where you can add excitement, conflict, or tension?  Where could a problem occur that might prevent you from completing the task?
  • When you set out to write the scene, be as descriptive as possible, making sure to use all five senses to transport the reader to the location and make them feel they are there with you while you undertake this seemingly tedious task.
  • The task should be completed by you as the character by the end of the scene.
  • See if you can write it in 500-words or less.

By taking day-to-day events and finding creative ways to twist them into a compelling narrative, you can enhance your stories and deliver page-turning narratives to your readers.  

If you are working on a story, are there ways to add moments with your character doing day-to-day things that can give us insight into who they are as a person?  Are there ways you can give this run-of-the-mill task a boost by having the character do it uniquely?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: Blackout Writing

As I sat down to write this post, the power at my apartment complex went out.  I’m talking 100% total blackout.  And being enveloped in total darkness – save for my laptop’s glowing screen – gave me an idea for today’s writing exercise.

One night, turn off all the lights in your room and sit as quietly as possible.  Do this for five to ten minutes.

  • Note in your head what sounds you hear.  
    • Do you know where the sounds are coming from?  
    • What else could be making those noises?  
  • Can you hear people talking?  Can you tell what they’re saying?  Their tone of voice?
  • Do you smell anything?  
  • What images pop into your head as you sit in the darkness?  Do you think you see things in the darkness that aren’t really there?
  • What thoughts pop into your head?  
  • What ideas have arrived as you sit in the dark, still space?
  • Do any noises, voices, smells, or thoughts spark any story ideas?  

Once you turn the lights back on and your eyes adjust to the light, write down what you heard, smelled, and thought.  Be as descriptive as possible.

Write a short story based on your experience.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: Exploring Themes

Last time, we looked at themes and how they can be incorporated into your writing.  Themes help enhance the story and its characters and can add layers of meaning to your story.

Exploring Themes

Take some time to watch your favorite movie or a TV episode and write down all the possible themes that pop out at you.

•          What themes are obvious?

•          What themes are subtler?

•          What themes are in opposition to one another?

•          How do the story’s themes enhance the story or characters?

•          Are these themes you have seen many times before in other films and TV shows?

Do this with as many films or shows as you wish.  You may find thematic patterns in genres as you explore.

Recycling Themes

Using those themes, think about how you could reuse some or all of them in a short story.  

•          Can they be presented differently?  

•          Are there ways to use those themes that give them more impact and meaning?  

•          What if you made an obvious theme subtle and a subtle theme obvious?

Write a 500-word story that uses these themes to enhance what’s happening.

Your Work

Are you working on a manuscript, a screenplay, or a play?  Read through what you have and find the themes within your own work.  

•          Are they obvious or subtle?

•          Do the themes provide greater meaning to the characters or story?

•          Do you have opposing themes that enhance conflict?

•          Are there ways to refine and fine-tune the themes for greater impact?

The theme is an essential element in your story.  Take the time to develop and enhance your themes and take your story to the next level.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: Using the Story Formula

Last time, we looked at the template needed to create a basic story formula:

HERO + GOAL + OPPOSITION = CONFLICT = STORY

For this exercise, use this template and brainstorm five to ten original ideas that utilize this framework.

  • What types of HEROES can you create that are unique and interesting?
  • What variety of GOALS can you come up with that would motivate a hero to actively pursue them?
  • What types of OPPOSITION would throw the hero off-balance and cause them to lose sight of their goal?
  • Do any of your ideas stand out as potential concepts for a larger story?

Maybe they all work, perhaps only a couple, but this is a great way to flesh out in its most basic form how a story and its conflict might work on a larger scale.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Challenge: Creating a Character

People.  We see them every day in some form.  Whether it’s in person, on TV, in a movie, or in a photograph, each person is unique and has their own unique look, traits, and personality.

Either through observation out in the real world or via your TV, computer screen, a new story, etc., find a photo of a person (they can be anyone), and write a detailed description of them.  If they are a celebrity or politician, give them a new name and profession.  

  • Describe what they look like.  
  • What do they do? 
  • What are they doing that day?  
  • Who are they with?  
  • How do they interact with others?  
  • What thoughts do they have?  
  • What do they think others think about them?  

In this exercise, details matter, so take your time to create a three-dimensional look at this individual.  Don’t be afraid to get silly, or dark, or outlandish, this is your opportunity to flex your creative muscles and create a whole new life for an existing person.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!