Writing Prompts

From John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Writing Exercises

  1. Write the paragraph that would appear in a piece of fiction just before the discovery of a body. You might perhaps describe the character’s approach to the body he will find, or the location, or both. The purpose of the exercise is to develop the technique of at once attracting the reader toward the paragraph to follow, making him want to skip ahead, and holding him on this paragraph by virtue of its interest. Without the ability to write such foreplay paragraphs, one can never achieve real suspense.
  2. Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. Describe this event, using the same characters and elements of setting, in five completely different ways (changes of style, tone, sentence structure, voice, psychic distance, etc.). Make sure the styles are radically different; otherwise, the exercise is wasted.
  3. Write three effective long sentences: each at least one full page (or 250 words), each involving a different emotion (for example, anger, pensiveness, sorrow, joy). Purpose: control of tone [and punctuation] in a complex sentence.
  4. a) Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or the death.

b) Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.

c) Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird.

d) Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.

5. Write a dialogue in which each of the two characters has a secret. Do not reveal the secret but make the reader intuit it. For example, the dialogue might be between a husband, who has just lost his job and hasn’t worked up the courage to tell his wife, and his wife, who has a lover in the bedroom. Purpose: to give two characters individual ways of speaking, and to make dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed. Remember that in dialogue, as a general rule, every pause must somehow be shown, either by narration (for example, “she paused”) or by some gesture or other break that shows the pause. And remember that gesture is a part of all real dialogue. Sometimes, for instance, we look away instead of answering.

Additional Prompts

  • Bananagrams writing contest – found here; requires that you use the seven words provided in a short story or poem. Easy enough – ready, go.
  • In the spirit of Truman Capote’s dynamic journalistic style, write down everything that happens in the space of one day. Later, use that material as the basis for a piece of writing.
  • Craft a short narrative or monologue concentrating on crafting a strong voice for your character.
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