English 50 – Intro to Creative Writing: Exercises for Story Writers

Basic Theory:

    What is a short story? As soon as someone delivers a definition, some good writer will write a story that proves the theory wrong. About the only thing we can say for sure is that short stories are short and that they are written in what we call prose. Some attributes, however, seem to show up more often than not.

    Short stories

  1. have a narrator; that is, someone tells the story;
  2. have at least one character in them;
  3. have some action occur (or perhaps fails to occur);
  4. take place somewhere; that is, there is a setting for the action;
  5. and someone either learns something or fails to learn something (theme).
With these five characteristics in mind, we can create an almost endless supply of exercises to help sharpen our techniques of story telling.

Narrative Voice

    Twenty or so years ago, voice was the "rite of passage" into a successful writing career. Young writers were told that they should write until they developed their voice. The way to do this was to simply write (and read) as much as possible, having others read your work and comment on it, until your voice became distinct from others. The evidence to support this theory was generally drawn from the body of work of successful writers. Everyone agreed that you could read a Hemingway story, for instance, without factual evidence that the story was written by Hemingway, and recognize it as his work because of his distinctive voice. Faulkner provided an even clearer example of this philosophy. In more recent years, the notion that one must discover a unique voice has become a secondary issue as any number of successful writers have demonstrated that they can write in more than one narrative voice.

    Nevertheless, a narrative voice that sounds like it could be anyone's voice or is bland and boring, or riddled with pointless clichés will fail to capture and hold the reader's attention. And a voice that is inconsistent will tend to confuse the reader about the narrator's attitude towards his/her characters and the story that is being told.

NOTE: It is quite common for writers in the early stages of their careers to imitate the writers they are reading or admire most. Often we are not even aware that we are doing this when we write.

  1. Locate a relatively long descriptive passage in a short story or novel that you enjoy, and write a blatant imitation. Follow the sentence structure and syntax word for word. Do this exercise for as many different writers as you can. You should write at least 250 words each time you do this exercise.
  2. Use a text like Best American Short Stories, containing about 20 stories from as many writers, and write imitations of the first page of each short story in the text.
  3. Write a complete short story in imitation of your favorite writer from each major historical period for the past three centuries. (Note: you can change the subject matter, sex of the main character, and other such details and still write an imitation.)
  4. Locate a writer whose work you do NOT particularly care for and write a parody of the story.
Point of View

    Language is always uttered from some point of view; that is, it comes from someone. Scientific writers and legal writers (lawyers, the court) may try to hide this fact by writing in a voice so passive that it begins to sound as if it were uttered from some completely impartial god outside of the human experience, but no one argues more passionately than those folks who write within these two areas.

    When writing a short story we use one of the following points of view:

  1. Third Person Restricted: We recognize this from the pronouns "he" or "she." In this point of view, probably the most popular, and some would argue the most natural, all the action takes place in the presence of the character from whose point of view we learn the story. If we are taken "inside the head" of a character, it is only within this character's head. The narrator does NOT tell us what anyone else thinks or feels. This character may or may NOT be the main character of the story.
  2. First Person: We recognize this from the pronoun "I." Like third person restricted, all of the action takes place within this character's presence, and we learn only his/her thoughts and feelings in any kind of direct fashion.
  3. Omniscient: As the word implies, this is a god-like point of view. The narrator freely moves from one character's perspective to another. This point of view was far more popular in previous centuries than it has been in the current one, reflecting both the tastes of authors and the reading public. Using this point of view within a short story is very difficult to pull off with any success because of the space restrictions. It takes time to develop more than one character's point of view.
  4. Second Person: We recognize this from the pronoun "you." This point of view is rarely used except in some experimental writing. Literally "you" means the reader, and a story told from this point of view can quickly become tiresome. Authors often, however, slip into the highly vernacular syntactical structure of using the pronoun in a casual manner—I kind of "you know what I mean" statement—because the language used to tell stories is more often than not colloquial.
  5. Pure Dramatization: This really isn't a "point of view" but occasionally a writer will produce a story that is very close to a play. That is, we receive almost all dialogue and very little narration, which usually seems little more than stage direction. Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is about as close to this as any successful short story trying to accomplish this technique.
Exercise: Take any story you have written and rewrite it from a different point of view. If you originally wrote the story in first person, try it in third person restricted. You'll discover that you need to do more than simply changing the pronoun.  You should find that it is easier to be more objective about a character you are rendering in third person.

If you've written a story in third person, try it in first. This can be an especially fruitful exercise if you've had trouble making the character sympathetic.

A wonderful example of the use of point of view in a novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Most casual readers remember this novel as a third person novel, but it is actually told from the first person point of view. We learn everything from Nick's perspective, Gatsby's neighbor.

As a variation on the exercise, you can take someone else's published story and render passages, especially paragraphs of narrative of at least a half page in length in a point of view other than that which the author used. Once again, watch what happens to the language as you change the point of view. What is it you need to add, take away? How does this change affect the emotional relationship the reader develops with the character.

The T.S. Eliot/John Gardner Killer Exercise: This exercise is quite possibly the most difficult, demanding and important exercise a writer can ever do. The poet and critic, T. S. Eliot, coined the phrase "objective correlative" to designate what he believed was the most important element in writing: Rendering the description of an object so that the emotional state of the character from whose point of view we receive the description is revealed WITHOUT ever telling the reader what that emotional state is or what has motivated it.

The late John Gardner, recognized in his lifetime as the leading creative writing teacher in the United States, developed the following exercise for students:

    A middle-age man is waiting at a bus stop. He has just learned that his son has died violently. Describe the setting from the man's point of view WITHOUT telling your reader what has happened. How will the street look to this man? What are the sounds? Odors? Colors? That this man will notice? What will his clothes feel like? Write a 250 word description.

Go back to the previous page? Go on to the next page? Go to poetry?

This page created and maintained by Jim Manis; last updated February 3, 2000.