A Writing Exercise That Will Instantly Improve Your Fiction
Before reading ahead, here’s the exercise in plain english. Simply write out a personal anecdote. It doesn’t have to be complicated or exciting or unique. You can describe how you take a shower or the process of making breakfast this morning. That’s it. Tell it to yourself in a few hundred words, as if you were telling a friend over coffee. Don’t over complicate things and don’t over think it. If you want to make the writing “good,” go ahead. If you want to write it plainly, that works too.
Once you’ve written it you can come back to this article, because this is where the fun begins.
Robert Olen Butler’s “From Where You Dream”
This is a real exercise that author and professor of writing Robert Olen Butler describes in his book “From Where You Dream” and performs in his writing classes.
The goal of this exercise is to see how much these personal anecdotes invoke in the listener or reader actual mental imagery—a personal, vivid dream-like movie in their minds—making sure to point out any moment the writer veers off into generalizations or the abstract or the subjective.
What he’s looking for are only those words, phrases, and sentences that create a narrative based on a “absolutely pure moment-to-moment flow through the senses.”
He—and the reader, even if they don’t know it—wants to know what things feel like, what they smell like, and what the moment is like, in sensory terms, to be living that narrative experience so that he may transport his consciousness into that specific narrative experience. That’s the goal of the writer. You want to take someone else’s consciousness and transport it into the story you’re writing. To do anything else would be to break the spell or magic of your fiction.
As John Gardner once said, “vivid detail is the life blood of good fiction.”
When you re-read what you’ve written, what you’ll find is it’s extremely hard to avoid generalizations, the abstract, and the subjective. This is how we talk in our day to day lives, but this is not how we should write if we want to open up our narrative minds to another.
The exercise in practice — an example
When I was three years old, I went on a vacation to Broken Bow, Oklahoma, at Arrowhead State Park, and I was seesawing with both of my brothers, the older brother on one side of me and the next oldest on the other. The middle brother always had middle-child syndrome and couldn’t stand me, and he got mad at one point and decided to get off, but he didn’t realize that my legs were in the handle part of the seesaw, so when he did, it shot me up in the air and I broke my leg, and I had to drive all the way back home with a broken leg.
This is how you would intuitively, without much practice, tell a friend this story over coffee. As it stands, there is no sensory information in this example passage.
Let’s change that.
What’s the most immediate physical action that we can attach to or the reader can attach to in this scene? The seesaw.
You immediately want to put the reader on the seesaw. Now what does it feel like on your thighs? Maybe you can feel the loose paint chips stab into your thighs.
A seesaw has motion. What does it feel like to be moving up and down? Is your stomach moving with it? Are you at the top of it?
Is there a handle? Is it cold to the touch? No. It’s hot, which tells you it’s summer. Maybe it’s worn from use.
Do you look around at the top? What do you see? Are there trees around you? Do they have leaves? What colour are the leaves? What kind of tree is it? Maybe they have knobby branches.
So you’re at the top of this seesaw, and the loose paint chips stabbing are into your thighs, the hot handle is burning your hands, the knobby tree is in the background, and what do you see? You see your brother across from you.
What does he look like? He has tight brown curls. What’s his mouth doing? It’s open, like he’s about to scream. And his eyes? They’re brown and wide. Maybe you want to say he’s excited, but excited is an abstraction. What does excited look like? “Eyes wide, about to scream” already fits. By showing us what it is like to experience his expression, you no longer need to tell us what we need to know. The reader already knows. They’ve already experienced it through their own inner mental projection.
Now what happens? Your brother pushes off the ground and you begin to fall. What does that feel like? Your stomach jumps into your throat and your butt unsticks from the seat. There’s a sudden rush of air around your thighs, the smell of metallic sweat. You come back hard on the chipped paint and sand flecks against your bare shins.
The leg breaks, but you want the reader to know more than the leg breaking. You want them to feel the leg break, to imagine it, to take the place of the protagonist and be that little girl for a moment.
What does it sound like to break a leg? There’s an audible snap. She screams. And there is pain. It crawls outwards from your shin. What does it look like? There’s a lump and something is protruding from the skin. You scream again.
Now put it altogether into another narrative and compare the two. Which one evokes a more emotional inward movement? Which one puts you into the eyes of the story? Which one shows and which tells?
This is how you grab a reader’s attention. This is how you hook. As you write more, you want this type of sensory writing to become second nature. Once you can master this type of writing, you’ll master telling a story that is rich and full of depth.