42 tips, tricks, exercises from the pros on how to write a memorable narrative for your publication

Advice, Exercises and Readings For Writers By Writers


By Rob Melton
Narrative is structured in the same way whether it is fiction or nonfiction. It uses all the devices of the narrative. Training young journalists in the art of reporting and interviewing for the kinds of details and perspectives needed for nonfiction narrative can be effectively developed through the application of the following advice, exercises, and reading.

Advice from writers:

1. Cover your eyes when listening to a story, Listen for the one best line out of the piece and memorize it.  Write it down, or say it back to the author.

2. Get past sight information, and use smell, taste, touch. (Use highlighters in different colors, one color for each of the senses.)

3. Use stage directions to naturally move a character through a scene.

4. Use telling details.

5. Use mood/attitude to create subtext.

6. When you are crafting your plot, take the advice from film school: Something that happens to turn the action around and send it in another direction. Initially, it needs to be something that frustrates your character. What does your character want? Why can’t they get it now? Start the story with action.

7. Three essentials when creating an invented character (when in doubt, make it up): 1) the character is defined by what he or she look like — physicality, dress, smell (too much cologne); 2) how they behave, what they do, action; and 3) how he/she speaks, talks, or not, cam be implied; what they say.

8. Point of view: Recommend first or third person. Writers struggle with who to have tell the story. Lot of contemporary writers use first person. Traditionally third person omniscient. Write first person point of view from your character the first day. On the second day, turn it around so the he or she in your story becomes the I looking at your character.

9. The longer a piece, the more companionable you need to be. Short pieces are better if they are weird and short.

10. Part of being a writer is being an actor. This is the energy, engine of a story. You always want drama.

11. Advice: Nobody in their heart of hears wants to read about religious or political views they don’t agree with.

12. As a writer, you are always looking for a balance between what is familiar to your readers and what is foreign to your readers. The more foreign what it is you’re talking about, the more familiar elements must be. People are curious about things they don’t understand or haven’t been through.

In freewriting, be quiet and listen for your inner voice. Let it guide you. Follow its lead.

Writing Exercises from writers:

13. Pick one of the following that describe a character, and write a 1-1/2 page story: paranoid, in love, depressed, obsessed, a miser who has won the lottery. The story must be in first person. It is 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and the character hasn’t done any shopping yet. The character goes to the mall to do shopping for one hour. Everyone writes the same scene.

14. Identify three things that make you angry or afraid, and write a paragraph. You cannot say “I am afraid of rats….” Say, “When I was a child I enjoyed the dark until….”

15. Brainstorm a list of 6 story ideas. When you find something interesting, your mind and hear sit up and take notice. there is a place hwere good writing comes from. The only good writing you will do is what interests you. Start with something meaningful and embellish it from there.

As a writer, you are always looking for a balance between what is familiar to your readers and what is foreign to your readers. The more foreign what it is you’re talking about, the more familiar elements must be. People are curious about things they don’t understand or haven’t been through.”

16. Ahead of time, clip full page magazine photos of one or two people without advertising or words on the page. Pass out photos of the characters from the magazines. Starting with the character’s name, write a present tense narrative. Collect descriptions. Tack pictures to the wall. Read descriptions and see if class can guess which descriptions match which photos. Think about how effective it is to describe your subject in that moment.  Underline your favorite sentence in the story.

17. Write a profile about a person, about who they are stripped of what they usually project. To tell the truth is the highest purpose of a writer. What makes great writing is that it rings true.

18. Give each student a piece of paper with a word on it that could be a personality characteristic. Describe this person eating in the cafeteria using this characteristic. Think about what they’re eating and how they are eating it. The words to choose from are: lovely, nervous, creepy, dumb, content, sick, shy, pathetic, joyful, anxious, child-like, clumsy, polite, hungry. You have to describe the person without using the word you received. Telling takes us out of the actual moment. When you are writing, freeze the moment, then take your time and exapand it.

19. Take five minutes to visual a memory — a really small moment, such as sitting at the table eating cereal, and make a story out of it. First person, about you. Freeze time and recreate the moment.

20. Group story. Start with a noun and end with a word or phrase on a note card or sticky note. Must all be in the same setting. Leader writes beginning and ending. What student gets is the last transitional sentence, something like: “I am a ____.” “but she was afraid of _____.” “She heard a _____.” “She screamed and it was a _____.” “…much like a  _____.” Each student’s segment begins with a noun. This is a good activity to illustrate plot turns. Disneyland makes a good setting. Written in first person. A motivation word for character helps, too.

21. To develop descriptive writing awareness, take a famous name and put it on a card, and stick it on a student’s back. The student has to figure out who he/she is by asking questions about who they are (except name of person).

22. Think of someone you met who had a strong impression upon you, or make up somebody. Take that person and begin writing imaginatively. Divide into groups. Read to each other. Listen/look for: 1) what strikes you most about what you hear, the thing you spark to, the most interesting. 2) what’s missing. Reader/listener will pick up more about what’s missing “I want to know more about.” Pick one story from each group to read to the class. Cover your eyes while listening the the story. Choose a “telling detail”, listen for a solid, conversational voice.

23. Set-up is important. Get past sight info. use smell, touch, taste. Stage directions. Naturally move character through a scene, using telling details. Read Ileana Parks, Brandon Scheulein pieces.

24. Come up with six ideas of stories you could write. By the end of the period, settle on something. From your six ideas, present 3 to your group. “This is the part where I will leave you at the trailhead.” First draft for credit due Tuesday.

25. Come up with a good first sentence. A good opening should intrigue the reader, creating questions, as in To Kill A Mockingbird.

26. List the things you’ve memorized.

27. Tell a story about a lie you’ve told.

28. Write down a secret on a sheet of paper. No names, please. Throw it in a box. Each person then draws one of the secrets out of the box and has to write about it. This gets you out of your own point of view and into someone else’s point of view. Have the class read their stories without revealing the secret. After each person is is finished reading, have the class try to gues the secret. This is also good for getting at character motivation.

29. Write an early childhood memory. Then exaggerate each element of it until it is a new story.

30. Communicate the way dreams do with this activity. Make four lists: 1) list 4 ordinary human activities 2) list 4 human emotions 3) list four observations from the natural world 4) list 4 objects. Combine 1 and 3, and 2 and 4. Then write a story using the combined elements from the lists.

31. Pretend to be someone you are not. Develop the character that results into a short characterization.

32. List five concrete details in three rooms in your house that reflect who you are. Using these descriptions, write a story that reveals who you are only through the objects you identified. Begin with “I am from…”

33. To develop a sense of plot, have students think of a dramatic ending to their story. Once they have written that down, have them work the plot backwards, beginning each line with “Before that….” until they have written 15-20. Then have then start the story from the beginning, with action.

34. Write a one page description of a person’s room without the person being present. Describe only the place. This helps writers create a sense of the character’s tastes, background, and place as a way of defining a character.

35. To explore point of view, write two pages of the same event (four pages total) from two different characters’ points of view. Write two pages from one point of view, and two pages from another point of view. Events can be the student’s choice. This works well when combined with the newspaper stories activity.

36. Ahead of time, clip 20-30 newspaper stories that showcase dramatic conflict — murder, deceit, theft, disaster. Have students go through their story and underline all the characters involved in the story. Have them choose the most interesting point of view and try writing a narrative from that point of view. Allow them to depart from the facts of the news story if they like. Follow this with the two point of views activity above.

37. Knife, egg, moon. For this activity, have each student write down three objects. Then have each student describe a landscape with no people in it. Allow enough time for them to clearly picture the landscape in their mind (they don’t have to finish this part of it). Now have them uses the three objects, in order, with a character they’ve invented with one of the previous activities (above) in the setting they described.

Readings from writers:

38. Read “Sunday at the zoo” to give a sense of how big story will be that you are writing. One to two characters is fine for a short story. the more detail, the better.

39. Create subtext. This is like a bad horror film. the girl who goes back in the house, except in a more subtle way. Read “Reading the paper” by Ron Carlson. Her attitude creates subtext — she doesn’t look at it as odd.

40. “Any minutes mom should come blasting through the door” from anthology. This is one incident that happened over five munites, wringing out every meaning possible. This is what two pages can do.

41. Read “The Final Wish.” Write a sarcastic thank-you note.

42. Read “The Things They Carried.” List the things you carry around with you. Then write a story that uses all the things in order through the story.

What are your favorite readings to use as models or to inspire young journalists? What is your favorite writing exercise or bit of advice?