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Fiction Writing Basics 3 - Sample Assignments

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Sample Assignments

These five exercises are adapted from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction .

1. Take a simple but specific political, religious, scientific, or moral idea. It may be one already available to us in a formula of words, or it may be one of your own, but it should be possible to state it in less than ten words. Write a short story that illustrates the idea. Do not state the idea at all. Your goals are two: that the idea should be perfectly clear to us so that it could be extracted as a moral or message, and that we should feel we have experienced it.

2. Take as your title a common proverb or maxim, such as power corrupts, honesty is the best policy, walk softly and carry a big stick, haste makes waste. Let the story make the title ironic, that is, explore a situation in which the advice or statement does not apply.

3. Taking as a staring point some incident or situation from your own life, write a story with one of the following themes: nakedness, blindness, thirst, noise, borders, chains, clean wounds, washing, the color green, dawn. The events themselves may be minor (a story about a slipping bicycle chain may ultimately be more effective than one about a chain gang). Once you have decided on the structure of the story, explore everything you think, know, or believe about your chosen theme and try to incorporate that theme in imagery, dialogue, event, character, and so forth.

4. Identity the belief you hold most passionately and profoundly. Write a short story that explores an instance in which this belief is untrue.

5. Write a short story that you have wanted to write all term and have not written because you knew it was too big for you and you would fail. You may fail. Write it anyway.

These eight exercises are adapted from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction .

1. The playwright Bertolt Brecht had over his desk a sign that read, “The Truth is Concrete.” You will notice, however, that this sentence is an abstraction (he didn’t mean that the truth is cement). In your journal, cluster the word “concrete.” Write a passage about it. When you’re finished, check whether you have used any abstractions or generalizations that could be effectively replaced by concrete details.

2. Paint a self-portrait in words. Prop a mirror in front of you and describe, in the most focused sight details you can manage, twenty or thirty things that you see. Then try to distance yourself from your portrait and choose the two or three details that most vividly and concisely convey the image you want to present. What attitude do you want the reader to have? Should we find you funny, intense, pitiable, vain, dedicated? Add a detail of sound, touch, smell, or taste that will help convey the image.

3. Write a passage using significant details and active verbs about a character who conveys one of the following:

  • belongs to another country
  • complete harmony
  • brains are fried
  • out of control
  • kittenish or puppy-like
  • the absolute boss.

4. Write a description of a rural landscape, a city street, a room, or the desk in front of you. Use only active verbs to describe the inanimate as well as animate things. Avoid the pathetic fallacy.

5. Write about a boring situation. Convince us that the situation is boring and that your characters are bored or boring or both. Fascinate us. Or make us laugh. Use no generalizations, no judgments, and no verbs in the passive voice.

6. Write about one of the following and suggest the rhythm of the subject in your prose: a machine, a vehicle, a piece of music, sex, something that goes in a circle, an avalanche.

7. Write about a character who begins at a standstill, works up to great speed, and comes to a halt again. The rush may be purely emotional, or it may represent the speed of the vehicle, of pursuit, of sport, or whatever you choose. The halt may be abrupt or gradual. In any case, let the prose rhythm reflect the changes.