57 Genius-Sparking Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
The best writing exercises for fiction writers are the ones that help you tap into the story you already wanted to tell.
Sometimes we writers get ourselves overwhelmed by the thought that there’s something we “should” be writing. We play fill-in-the-blanks with the supposed formula for a bestseller or obsess over style rules until writing is more confusing than fun. That’s why we need writing exercises.
To be clear, I’m not against formulas. Plot structures, character archetypes, and genre tropes exist to help us create seamless, compelling stories that satisfy expectations.
But writing exercises allow us to step away from the formulas, think purely in terms of creation, and harvest our inner fields of genius.
After all, you are a writer because the urge to tell stories is already within you. There is something you want to communicate, even if you haven’t quite put your finger on it, yet.
A great writing exercise helps a fiction writer like you pinpoint that something. It helps you find inspiration in the world around you and connect it with the deeper purpose that drives you. It can even help you improve your voice and style without having to analyze the living daylights out of these elements.
And lucky you! We’ve put together 57 writing exercises just for you. Whether you need help finding story ideas, fleshing out a work in progress, or advancing your prose, you’ll find something here that does the trick.
What’s the Point of Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers?
Unlike, say, math exercises, writing exercises are designed to spark unique responses. There are no correct answers here. There’s only the vast sea of your imagination, washing magical objects up onto the shore when you summon its waves.
Writing exercises can fulfill a wide range of purposes (more on that in a moment), but one thing they all have in common is they’re meant to inspire new ideas. In many cases, they also challenge you to add complexity or nuance to your storytelling.
And—my favorite benefit—they help you stay connected to the joy of creativity even through the tedious, pride-crushing editing process.
When to Do Writing Exercises
Do writing exercises whenever you need them! Seriously. All writing exercises fulfill at least one of these four needs:
- Inspiration to get started
- Help getting unstuck
- A guide for perfecting your craft
- Something to reignite creative enthusiasm
That pretty much covers every conceivable goal you might have when you sit down to write.
Not sure what to write about? Do a writing exercise. Your scene description reads like you vomited a thesaurus onto the page? Writing exercise. Discouraged, bored, or distracted? You know what to do.
You can even use a writing exercise as a warm-up before every writing session. The possibilities are endless.
Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
Okay, let’s get to the goods. Here are 57 writing exercises for fiction writers, organized by category. Some prompts are designed to help you come up with new ideas, while others are meant to help you go deeper on an existing project.
Try the exercises that speak to you, skip the ones that don’t, and adapt anything to meet your needs.
- Start a story folder. Anytime you come across an article, social media post, or even an ad that sparks thoughts like, “I wonder what that was like,” or “I wonder what happened next,” cut it out or print it out. Put it in a folder. When you need inspiration, open the folder, pick an item, and write the part of the story the article doesn’t show.
- Look at your own life and ask “What if?” Imagine if you’d made a different decision or if your biggest worry (or biggest dream) actually had come true. Write that story.
- Try a modern day retelling of a myth or fairy tale.
- Here’s a fun question: what’s going on in your life right now in a parallel universe? Write that story.
- Wander an art museum and find a work of art that speaks to you. What’s the story here? Even if the art is three hundred years old and you don’t write historical fiction, identify a narrative, theme, or emotion. Place it in the modern day (or whenever your stories take place) and get writing.
- Choose three objects at random, then look them up in a dream dictionary. Write down what each object symbolizes and imagine the person who would dream about them. What is the dreamer going through? Build a story from there.
- Start with a character goal. Write down an obstacle that makes reaching that goal hard. Think of a bigger obstacle that makes it even harder. Do that again three more times. Find an obstacle so big you’re not sure how your protagonist can get around it. Build your story from there.
- Write the last line of your favorite book. This is the first line of your story. Keep writing.
- Think of an invention you wish existed. Who would invent it? Tell their story.
- Start with a problem. A shocking murder, a struggling marriage, melting ice caps… anything. Now create a character who seems like the least likely person to solve this problem. Explain why they’re actually the best candidate for the job.
- Search your soul. What ideas do you feel strongly about? What societal issues weigh on your mind? What do you think is the best or worst thing about being a human in the world? What makes you laugh? What does it mean to hope? Love? Rescue someone else? Rescue yourself? Once you find the themes that tug at you, find the story.
- Someone is cleaning out their garage, and it’s a bigger deal than it seems. What are they hiding, clearing out, or preparing for?
- A hurricane has trapped two people together in a tiny island airport. They have opposing goals, personalities, or viewpoints. What happens?
- Take a walk or go to a park. Find a really cool tree. Write about its shape, angles, health, stature, movement, scent… whatever stands out to you. Then use the same descriptions to write about a new character.
- Eavesdrop on a conversation in a public place. Zero in on one specific person. Listen until you have a grasp on their voice. Then write a completely different conversation involving that person.
- Remove a random object from your junk drawer. This is the most important thing to someone. Write about that person and why the object is so valuable to them.
- Explore your character’s signature style. Take inspiration from television characters, magazines, and friends as needed. Write a description of your character’s three favorite outfits and how they feel in those clothes. (For a little help, check out our article on clothing description.)
- What was the defining moment that made your character the person they are at the start of your story? Write that scene.
- What’s something your character feels very strongly about? Write their rant.
- Someone else is toasting (or roasting) your character. Write their speech.
- What is the opinion, desire, fear, or behavior that makes your character unique? Write about it from their point of view. Keep digging until you hit on the universal emotion at the core of that seemingly unusual trait.
- Imagine someone who would be the polar opposite of your character. Describe them: how they look, what they love, what they hate, what they believe… everything. Then pick one trait and make it part of your character.
- Write a dialogue between you and your character. You’re giving them a heads-up about the flaws they can’t see in themselves. How do they take it? Are they ready for this conversation?
- Write your protagonist’s one-sentence definition of love. Do the same for every character in your story.
- Who does your character love most in the world? Write a scene showing where that relationship is ten years after the story ends. If that person is no longer in the character’s life, write a scene from each person’s life without the other.
- Rewrite the climactic scene of your favorite book from the antagonist’s point of view.
- Write a tense, dialogue-only scene where your characters never really say what they’re really mad about.
- What is the worst thing that could happen to your protagonist? Write a scene where it happens and make their most trusted friend the reason it happens. (I know it hurts. Try it, anyway.)
- What is something your protagonist would never, ever do. Now make it something they have to do to reach their goal.
- Write a scene that makes your reader think everything is going to be okay. Put it immediately before the most devastating scene of your story. See what that does.
- Write about the biggest mistake your protagonist has ever made in their pre-story life. Then decide what mistake they can make within the story that is even bigger than that.
- Revisit a scene where a character gets bad news. Make the news worse. See what happens.
- Write an apology letter to your character. Tell them you’re sorry for all the misery you are about to put them through. Explain why it’s necessary for the story—why you can’t hold back or solve all their problems immediately. Let them forgive you. Forgive yourself. Writing is brutal.
- Write a monologue in which your character confesses what they hate most about themselves. Don’t add the monologue to your book, but see what happens if you give that same quality to the antagonist.
- Write the villain’s most painful memory from their point of view. Keep writing at least until you feel genuine empathy for your villain. Read the memory every time you are about to write a scene between your villain and hero.
- Pick a scene that’s already heavy with conflict and throw a little nature into the mix. It can be as small as an obnoxious gust of wind or as destructive as a tornado. It just has to be an antagonistic force that cannot be controlled or persuaded to back off.
- Think about your favorite vacation spot. Look up their local online newspaper and get a sense of what life is like there. Write about a community event from the perspective of someone who was born there.
- Think of a place that is incredibly familiar to you. Imagine it, or—if you can—go there. Describe it like you’re discovering it for the first time.
- Write about the place where your character feels the safest.
- Write about the place where your protagonist feels like an outsider.
- Take a tour of your home like you’re at an estate sale or open house. Draw conclusions about the people who live here.
- Write a scene where something huge happens in a small place or something small happens in a huge place.
- Write a scene in which the setting is important. You can describe exactly five details about the setting. Which five do you pick to give the reader the most vivid image? How can you use dialogue or character actions to deepen the sense of place?
- Think of a place that makes you feel big feelings. Describe that place, trying to get the reader to feel what you feel without using any emotion words.
- Describe a setting that embodies isolation. Terror. Hope. Anticipation. Security. Adventure. Menace.
- Do an Internet search for “abandoned places.” Pick one. Write a scene that takes place there either in the present day, in that location’s heyday, or at the time when it became abandoned.
- Pick a scene from your story. Find every abstract description in your narration—any instance where you talk about an emotion or a “vibe.” Replace it with something concrete that creates the same feeling. (Example: “The guy was creepy” becomes, “He didn’t break eye contact as he wiped his hands on his bloodstained shirt.”)
- Highlight all the adverbs in one scene. Delete each one. If it feels like they’re needed to clarify the adjectives or verbs they describe, try finding better adjectives or adverbs.
- Try the exercise above but with adjectives. When you remove an adjective, can you replace the noun it describes with a more specific noun? “Louboutins” instead of “expensive shoes”?
- Get wild and reckless with language. Make a list of ten nouns. Then write a scene using all ten nouns as verbs. Have your protagonist “flashlight” a memory or attempt to “drywall” someone’s reputation. Don’t worry if it works; just play.
- Think of a real-life person whose voice you know very well. Rewrite the first page of your story as in that voice. Then write the page one more time in your own narrative voice. Has anything changed from your original version?
- Rewrite a scene as a poem, twelve lines maximum. When you have to recreate your scene as something much shorter and (probably) more emotionally driven, what do you discover? What is the core story at the heart of this scene? How do you draw that out of your prose?
- Choose a mundane thing you do every day. Write a story or scene where this action takes center stage as a symbol of something greater.
- Choose ten textbooky words from a textbook. Words like “theorem,” “chlorophyll,” or “gerrymandering.” Work them into a scene that is not about that topic.
- Buy a postcard. Write a message on it from an imaginary sender. In that one message, tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
- Go to your local hardware store and get a bunch of color chips from the paint section. Organize them by character. Who would wear cupcake pink? Whose apartment would be painted in glacial stream? Add one color to each of your characters’ worlds.
- Read. Write down sentences that stun you. Explain what you like about them. Read them again before your next writing session.
When in Doubt, Try Fanfiction
On a grand, philosophical level, fanfiction is a beautiful testament to the way we connect with one another’s stories. On a practical, writerly level, it’s a darn good way to sharpen your storytelling skills.
I was about to disclose that I have never actually written fanfiction myself, but then I remembered that Anne of Green Gables/Little House on the Prairie hybrid play I wrote when I was about nine. My cousin and I performed it for our grandma, and I’ll have you know: she loved it. As for me, it was a useful writing exercise, because it allowed me to play with elements that already worked.
With fanfiction, you’re starting with compelling characters whose rich backstories are already known to you. The world and its rules are clear as day. You’re clear on motivations and goals. All the pieces are there for you to play with. You can take things apart, rearrange them, and reconstruct them.
It’s a hands-on way to understand why things work. Not to mention, it’s not unheard of for a work of fanfiction to morph into its own successful series.
Where Do Your Best Ideas Come From?
People will ask you this someday. A lot. When you’re on your book tour or being interviewed on television, people will want to know where you get your ideas.
For most writers, this is a semi-impossible question. Our best ideas are often a weird soup made from childhood memories, song lyrics, and the evening news. And of course, writing exercises.
If you need somewhere to manage that mess of ingredients, I recommend Dabble. Between the Character Notes, Story Notes, Plot Grid, Comments, and Stickies, there are plenty of tools for organizing your bursts of inspiration as you plan and as you draft. Bonus: you can try all the Premium Features for free for fourteen days without involving your credit card. Just click here.
And even if you’re not ready to become a full-fledged Dabbler, you can still find inspiration and support in the Story Craft Café community. It’s free, and it rocks.
TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING...
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