Writing snippets are practical, creative exercises that let you work on specific elements of your writing and explore styles outside your comfort zone.

Everyone has a reaction to writing. It can be to draw a blank, feel nothing, or judge it as “awful.” It can be any range of other, more interesting and productive reactions. Reading can bring out emotions you never expected, teach you new ways of relating to familiar situations, or be a way to experience something entirely new. The best writing inspires you.

Snippets as writing prompts

The internet is replete with writing prompts for writers. They are usually a single idea to use as a starting point: write about a spaceship, a three-legged cat, or a pizza delivery man who goes to a house that’s on fire.

It’s often easier to start with something other than a blank page. It’s easier to dig in. You might be itching to change up existing things on the page or to continue on.

There are three writing prompts at the end of this post. Think of them as opened-ended starts that lay down some basic constraints: a character, a setting, and a problem. You can do anything you like with them or nothing at all.

What happens next?

If you feel like it, as a private exercise (or better yet, shared in the comments section), put your creative-writing brain to the task and decide what happens next. Can you extend or even complete the story?

If none of these prompts appeal, take the challenge and create your own. Share it — perhaps someone else will choose to extend it!

Writing snippets, from a paragraph to a short passage of text, can be freeing and educational. The point is not to write a complete story, or the perfect book opening, or a brilliant, polished setting description. It’s an opportunity to give yourself complete freedom to write whatever spills out of your brain at that moment onto the page. It’s that simple.

This exercise costs little effort, but over time can offer big gains. Since they are short and independent of one other (unless you choose to link them), you can work on many levels, honing skills that are transferable to the project in your heart. Or freestyle — don’t dictate what purpose a snippet will serve. Just get words down on paper. You can determine why those particular words appeared and assess their quality at another time.

The fact is, what you write doesn’t matter. That’s actually the point. You can write anything you like, just think about it critically and learn from it. These snippets are useful in that they aren’t to show, or even to keep, unless you want to. Since they are of so little individual value, you shouldn’t stress over them.

So, why do them? Because you learn an immense about yourself and the craft of writing when you do. They are building the muscles that run your creative mind.

Snippets can be used to hone your writing skills at any number of levels. The beauty is that they don’t need to be polished, or complete, or hit all the marks. They just need to push you forward in a single area of building your written fluency.

This exercise is not for everyone, and if you are knee-deep in your dream project, stay there, of course! This is for other times. But, writing a snippet every night — of anything and for no other purpose than to explore how you write — offers many benefits.

Here are some of the levels of focus this process can help expand and improve:

  • Ideas. Just bang out as many ideas as possible and don’t worry about the wording or getting anything polished.
  • Descriptions. Work on experimenting with how you describe a scene, a character, a setting. Take chances. Stray from your comfort zone. What do you have to lose?
  • Structure. How do your ideas and thoughts hang together? Focus on the scaffolding of the scene. You don’t have to write it all out, or even finish it. You are looking at the pearls on a necklace.
  • Paragraphs. A paragraph is the smallest unit of real meaning in a book, says Stephen King, not the sentence. Focus on getting a good unified thought expressed in a tight, vibrant paragraph.
  • Sentences. Work on writing the perfect sentence. Even if you just get one done in a night, it’s huge progress.
  • Words. Just work on extracting a descriptive, fabulous vocabulary from your mind.
  • Tone and voice. Explore different characters and scenes to see if you can hit upon a unique voice that sings out in as little as a paragraph or two. This is the trick you need to pull off in the opening pages of a book. What readers (and agents and editors) are looking for in the first words is the promise of a great read, and that means distinctive voice.

Getting inside your own head

Exploring a wide range of snippets lets you examine the inside of your mind. Never tried to write a thriller, as you do romance, but are curious if you could? Just spend a few snippets on it. You might get the curiosity out of your system or you might find that itch to write in this domain is something you need to follow up on.

While your serious book project might be a historical romance, you could still use a bit of bibliotherapy now and again. Maybe you need to write down a problem that is perplexing you or an uncomfortable scene that took place which is bothering you. Writing is well known to have palliative and problem-solving side-effects. A snippet might just suit the need.

Sometimes, writing a snippet just hits the spot in another way. You might need to clean the pipes of something you are gnawing on and get something creative out of your system. You might want to write down an especially vivid dream you had. You might want to see if you can describe the most extraordinary ocean sunset you just watched.

You can write snippets even if you don’t have a lot of time. You can come back to them, or be finished with them as soon as you get one done. You can write them even when you are in a period of silence between big writing projects, when things percolate and stew. You can even write them when you have writer’s block. They can be as singularly trite and terrible as you like.

Best of all, a snippet might just be the thread you start to pull that leads to your best project yet.

Prompt #1

Greg flopped down on the paisley futon and stared at the ceiling. He was in full tantrum mode tonight. Was it a full moon? His mind was loose and sloppy and he wasn’t even drinking. He couldn’t contain his fury at his wife. “EX wife,” he mumbled to himself. When would he get used to it? He pounded a fist on the soft cushions. She’d left him a year ago and he still couldn’t take it in. He held dominion over everything in his life with the clear and complete exception of her. She ruled him, she always had. Her beauty, her charm, her irreverence. She’d cheated, stolen from him, and left. He’d become a hermit up at their isolated cabin, wishing every moment that he wasn’t in a rage and and that she were there next to him.

“I can spin a tale from anything. I can tailspin. I’m glib. I’m a wordsmith. I’m a con. I stink of beer and I sit by the fire. I smoke cigars and eat sardines out of a can. I built this stone cabin, high up above the tree line, so I could walk out on the deck in my bare feet in the snow and no one would care. I can see farther than anyone. I can eat from the pot and no one will know. I can pick up and throw books as I please. I can stay in bed all day and roll over and sleep through the night. I make my living writing books. That’s where I exile the voices.”

At least he was getting his next book out of all this pain. He was milking it, putting all his misery into boiling hot words. He’d never written so much in so short a time so easily. When the book was complete, he’d take his revenge. He just needed time to plan.

He saw a spider on the ceiling. Jesus, would he make her regret walking out on him.

Prompt #2

She’d written the outlines for a book that night, sitting hunched in the deck chair on the porch, listening to the ocean in the dark distance. She had no idea she had it in her, and yet there it was, word for word, on the computer screen. She scrolled up. She scrolled down. Tired eyes told truth. Tonight, she’d attempted to recreate her night at the Copenhagen IceBar, drinking vodka with red currents from a glass carved of river ice. The last great night before the whole freakin’ mental cyclone hit. The best she could do here was vodka over crushed ice, but the effort seemed to have paid off. Through the haze of alcohol, she’d knocked out a map to her future.

Would she still like it in the morning? Or would a night’s sleep wash away the shine? This had to work. She had to liquidate her problems.

She closed the laptop lid, hoping she could do the same with her bloodshot eyes. These days, they seemed to have a mind of their own, staying open no matter how exhausted she was. She rubbed them ‘til they burned. Open eyes didn’t see within. No nightmares, except the waking kind, which proved far more tolerable. In the daylight, it was just panic attacks, spawning like dust devils across the desert of her life, sweeping away every layer of confidence and peace from her landscape. Hopefully, this outline was her ticket to paradise.

Prompt #3

They had him now for sure. The pinpoint of light grew. Nine feet of metal darkened to black as the surface of the door was backlit by the beam. In seconds it was eating the door, cutting a hole in the stone floor. The laser moved towards him, threatening to cut him in two. Jason threw himself backward as quickly as his damaged leg would allow. He winced and threw up his bronze shield, the family crest emblazoned across the front. Reflected light filled what remained of the hallowed hall.

The light teasingly changed from white to red to violet as if it would cool off, capturing his undivided attention. After reaching a deep purple hue, an ear-splitting noise rocked the castle. It vibrated Jason such that he feared it would stop his heart. Emanating from the other side of the 2-foot-thick door, the noise grew so loud Jason passed out.

 

Did you get ideas about what might happen next in any of the above story prompts? Run with it! Feel free to share your work in the comments section.

 

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Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 62 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.

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