Here is an entertaining way to push your writing muscles to the max while lounging on the couch or having fun with family and friends.

We know we have to build our muscles to run a marathon, but how do we build our muscles when it comes to writing a book? Maybe you’ve started by keeping a diary, writing short stories, or taking creative writing classes. These are all great ways to build up writing muscles. These are like training runs compared to the marathon that is the book.

Writing a book, the length of which starts around 50,000 words and is often nearer to 100,000 words or more, takes serious planning and time. A book has a longer arc than a short story as it will naturally have many more ups and downs as the story builds towards the climax and resolution. It will have more characters and more plot twists. It could incorporate a significant amount of research. Once you’ve written one book, it is far easier, mechanically speaking at least, to write the second. This is because you’ve developed some serious writing muscles.

If you are writing a book, you are in training. You know this because by the time you are done you are a different writer. You will have writing muscles you didn’t know existed. Plus, you can feel your existing writing muscles better as they are so much stronger (and hopefully not strained or pulled). Like the big calves and hamstrings you build training to run long distances, you’ll have strengthened your creative writing muscles as well as the ones for good grammar.

Aside from writing your actual book, how can you build those muscles? Shorter writing activities might hone different skills and muscles, but the point is to get used to book-length story arcs, so how do you exercise those book-sized muscles? There is one very easy and fun way to give them a true workout without much effort:

Get creative with the books you read and the movies you watch.

In this form of mental exercise, you get to dip in and out of famous books and movies, and learn about yourself and the mechanics of these great works. Doing this with crap movies also works as you see in detail where they should have gone or what makes the story so awful. Knowing where not to go with the story is almost as valuable as knowing the right direction.

Use the book or movie as writing prompt – and you don’t have to make the effort to write anything. You couldn’t anyway. You don’t have time to write a whole book or movie just for fun. That is the whole point of working out your book writing muscles in this way. You work in your head – and ideally over a very short amount of time – to see what you can do to advance a plot. Even if you pull a complete blank, you’ll learn a lot when you see where the real writer went. You’ll learn how to bring in the element of surprise. You’ll learn how great writers are free to take the story in any direction they like. And you’ll also be honing your understanding of one of the most important concepts in literature and screenwriting:  the Three Act Structure.

Most mainstream movies and best-selling books are based on the Three Act Structure. If you don’t already know it inside and out (you should as a writer), you should brush up on this literary device. In its basic form, this is the practice of dividing the story into beginning, middle, and end (or setup, confrontation, and resolution).

You can do this as much or as little as you like for a movie, or just when it strikes your fancy to do so. Stop the movie and try to fill in how the plot with continue. What will the writer do next based on what you’ve seen so far? What will happen to each character? Where will the next big drama come from? Do you think the writer intends to bring in new characters?

The end

In general, there are two types of endings: one that is known from the start, and one that draws its strength from the element of surprise. There are variations, like mysteries which are total surprises, but you always know there will be crime and a solution. The plots of many movies can’t be predicted, but some of the best clearly can.

For stories with “announced” endings, especially blockbusters, like alien attacks on the earth where the heroes always win, the entertainment is not in the ending per se, but in seeing how the author chose to get the characters from start to finish. If the story is billed as a romance, you know the couple will fall in love, but the joy is in seeing it happen. We are just waiting for that exquisite resolution at the end, and the more improbable it looks in the middle, the better bang the end will be.

For stories built around surprise endings, it can be more fun because you’ll feel amazed if you come anywhere close to predicting the real ending from the clues the writer leaves behind. Most times, if the writer is worth the paycheck, you won’t be anywhere near the right neighborhood. In this process, you’ll learn how great writers throw curve balls and bait and switch with the best of them. You’ll feel those jaw-dropping plot twists with a whole new appreciation for the talent behind them.

You’ll also get the rhythm of the Three Act Structure if you look for its hallmarks. Once you have the opening scene behind you, pause and have a think about where it might go. To kick off the action, the lead character(s) will be confronted with a terrible conflict or choice: the inciting incident. Stop and think, “How will they will handle it?”, Can you predict the midpoint, or the lowest point, where all seems lost, that comes before the climax? How will the lead respond? See if you can determine how the writer will move the plot to the climax and resolution. If you are really paying attention and have the creative juices flowing, see if you can tie up all the loose ends with equal or better solutions in the denouement. What final secrets might be revealed?

This is really more of a game, but the mental fitness benefits are surprising. It also means a chance to learn and grow as a writer while “goofing off.” There are many great movies out there, some based on best-selling books, so this can easily be turned into a very serious pursuit. The trick is just getting a great movie that you don’t already know the plot of. Try this once, and you might find you do it a lot. This is like getting a taste of formulating lots of book-sized stories from start to end, which ends up being a serious workout over time.

 

Making 
money with your eBook

 

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Radical Revision: Four Ways To Blow Up And Rebuild Your Story

 

Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 31 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

18 thoughts on “A fun way to build your writing muscles

  1. Marie Hatton says:

    I watch lots of BBC murder mysteries and find myself looking carefully at plots and character development, often seeing well ahead what eventually happens, “who dunnit”, and who will end up with who in the end. It is fun to “call it” and be right, and often even more fun to be entirely wrong. I now appreciate the training it gives me when writing my own stories. Now, to actually finish that masterpiece or short story I have started already, and do more than train those writing muscles.

  2. C. K. Crouch says:

    I rarely watch anything but Crime Drama or suspense shows. I tire of situation comedies easily. I grew up when TV was filled with suspense and crime shows even the old westerns had a mystery usually. I read a book and I look at it thinking about how the conflicts between the characters took place. Things like that.

  3. Laura McGaffey says:

    I’ve done this but not deliberately. For years I’ve read/studied “How To” books about writing. This naturally led to my reading novels and watching movies with my “inner critic” attuned to the good, bad, ugly and virtually plagiarized in stories.

    I’m repeatedly amazed at all the books and movies critically acclaimed for their “originality” that are actually nothing more than conglomerations of action, concepts, themes, and even dialogue and tag lines taken from other books or movies.

    While I continue to read warnings of the doom, destruction and failure that awaits if one does not come up with a “unique” hook for an agent or publisher, I take solace in how many made-for-TV romance movies play on Hallmark channel and other such “women’s networks”.

  4. Interesting conversation. I’ve published two fictional mysteries and a true crime book – two of them were best sellers in first publication, and again recently in Kindle/digital. When I wrote my first one – a hard-boiled noir thriller set in San Francisco – I bought a shopping bag full of similar books by. I decided to do everything that other writers in that genre did not do. Much of my work is based on real events – my last novel was on the great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake – so I did years of research to find out what HADN’T been told. I found some shocking things – drum roll, big cymbal crash – the politicians lied and covered up what really happened, setting a death count that was 5% of what it should be. As E.L. Doctorow said: “the historian can tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” I do both. The punchline is “read.”

    1. RGregory says:

      LOVE your approach! I get really tired of cookie-cutter books.

  5. CjCd says:

    Because as we all know, there’s no such thing as different people liking different things, just good and bad. Awesome.

  6. I like to pursue wikias of various different books. Looking at the work other authors put in really helps build the ‘muscle’. Your comment about writing everyday is so true.

    Thank you for the great article!

  7. Great ideas on how to practice plot structure while enjoying a movie or reading a book. Thanks so much for sharing this. I’ve shared it in social media.

  8. V. Lofft says:

    Thank you. An interesting approach. Sometimes I find myself unconsciously doing this, particularly while reading. Never thought of it as an actual exercise before. Sound advice.

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