Writing exercises that will help you surprise yourself and the reader
You don’t have to be suffering from writer’s block to feel like you’re in a creative rut.
Maybe you’re wildly prolific, but all your material is starting to sound the same. Maybe you’ve written a short story you love, but just can’t find the right way to end it. Maybe you’ve been working away on a sonnet that really wants to be a villanelle.
Oftentimes, plot (or what we could call direction/momentum/impulse in a poem or piece of experimental fiction) can open up in interesting ways when we leave it alone for a minute and simply listen to the tone or voice of the writing itself.
Here are a number of writing exercises you can use when you’d like to experiment with voice, strengthen your writing muscles, and take your poetic or storytelling skills in surprising new directions.
1. Use an unreliable narrator
And here’s the thing about unreliable narrators: when you know you can’t trust them, you believe in them all the more!
So next time you write, step into the mind of someone evil, someone painfully insecure, someone shady, someone with a mansion-sized ego, etc.
2. Harness the power of ambiguity
On the one hand, I feel this way. On the other hand, I feel that way. Yin/Yang. Day/Night. Ebb/Flow. Winter/Summer. Life/Death. Dualities (or multiplicities) pull us in all different directions, but you don’t need to be loyal to any one force. Stay in the middle and let yourself feel those competing tensions. Write it!
3. Toy with tone and create surprise
Alternate your style and diction. Disagree with a statement you’d just made a moment before. Include a couple mundane details and then hit them with the whopper of all confessions. If you can surprise yourself and it still feels true — that’s good writing.
4. Parataxis Vs. Hypotaxis
Well, I could use a whole blog post to talk about Parataxis vs. Hypotaxis — so I’ll just point you HERE instead. Related to this, try alternating the length of your sentences or lines. What happens?
5. Consider rhythm
If you tend to write rhythmically, succumbing to the music in your mind, resist that urge and write against the rhythm (which is, of course, its own new rhythm!). If you don’t have innate rhythmic impulses in your writing, try to hear the lyrical nature of your words; play with repetition; and imagine yourself singing your sentences out loud.
6. Directness vs. obfuscation
What are you really trying to say? Is it more interesting if you come right out with it, or is it better to write around that subject or theme? Should your reader feel the quick punch or thrill at the slow reveal? Both methods can yield interesting emotional results. Try ’em out!
7. Got rhetoric?
Rhetoric is the kind of speech used to persuade or motivate. Think of Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for an excellent example. For less impressive examples, turn on CNN or Fox News and listen to our elected officials. Rhetoric is not ordinary, everyday speech. Often it’s aim is to tug on your heart strings and appeal to your reason, while at the same time, it maintains a certain aloofness.
Rhetoric often assumes authority — and that’s where it can be particularly interesting as a device in fiction or poetry. You can say something banal in an authoritative tone. You can experiment with how rhetoric alters emotional impact. You can make a statement in a high-flying fashion, and then swoop low to undercut it. Play around. If it doesn’t work in your writing, you’ll at least be honing your skills for the next Town Hall meeting you attend.
8. Compression and expansion
Think of an epic storyline — something that would take 500 pages to tell. Now compress it into 1000 words without it reading like a book report. If you find it difficult to maintain a musicality to your writing while compressing a storyline so dramatically, read some prose poetry for inspiration.
Conversely, think of a single idea — it can be something that fascinates you or something that seems totally unassuming — and then obsess on it! 5 pages. 10 pages. More. What did you discover? Where did it lead you?
9. Embrace the tropes of another genre
Oftentimes, when we attempt to ape elements from other genres, we end up with something uniquely our own. For instance, what do you get when you cross the archetypal hero’s journey with Samurai films, Buck Rogers, Westerns, and the Grail Quest? You probably know the answer: Star Wars!
So set your next romance novel in the world of LA Noir/crime/mystery. Write a vampire book in the form of a self-help memoir. You get the idea.
10. Use “uncreative” writing
No, I’m not talking about Kenneth Goldsmith’s version of Uncreative Writing, though that could open up some new creative possibilities for you too. What I’m referring to is the writing you have to do AROUND and ABOUT your main creative writing projects: website copy, press releases, blurbs, bios, pitches.
By writing THAT stuff before (or alongside) your creative writing, you might learn some interesting things about your project, voice, approach, inclinations, etc.
And yes, I know writing bios and press releases and copy CAN be creative.
Hopefully these ten writing exercises help you break out of patterns that are no longer working for you.
I’d love to hear some of your methods for bringing a sense of play back into your writing. How do you surprise yourself and your reader? Let me know in the comments section below.
[Image of ruts from Shutterstock.]