My Five Favorite Writing Exercises to Unlock Creativity
Ask any writer what their biggest daily challenge is. I guarantee you that most answers won’t focus on plot holes and flat characters, but on finding the inspiration and motivation to write. Even as someone who writes both professionally and in my spare time, I still have days where I stare at my computer screen for ages without typing a word, mind drawing a total blank.
It’s particularly discouraging when this happens during a creative writing session. After all, if your own project can’t compel you to write, what can? But in truth, no matter how great you feel about the piece you’re working on, sometimes you just need to reboot.
In my experience, the solution isn’t to break from writing altogether, but to shift your attention to a different exercise that will stimulate your creativity. It might even give you some ideas for your main project!
On that note, here are my five favorite writing exercises for tapping into inspiration when I’m feeling sluggish. And of course, if you need more, you can always turn to Now Write! Fiction — the entire first section is devoted to tackling this very obstacle.
1. Write a “missing” scene from a recent read
Unless you exclusively read hyper-detailed, stream-of-consciousness fiction, you’ve probably read a novel recently with at least a few blank spaces in it.
One of my favorite creative exercises is to construct these “missing” scenes — usually one that’s implied or mentioned in passing, but not shown happening to the characters. These scenes can also be something I invent myself, though they’re more satisfying to write if they fit canonically with the original work.
In any case, this is a fun challenge that’s fantastically low-pressure, as the author has already done the hard work of fleshing out the characters and their world You can simply step into that author’s shoes for a few minutes and see how you like it. Indeed, it can be creatively stimulating to not only write about someone else’s characters, but also to try and mimic their style. This may even inspire you to incorporate new stylistic elements into your own prose (though you obviously don’t want to copy them completely.)
Regarding which book to pick for this exercise, I find that more recent reads are better for me, as the details are still fresh in my mind — but you can also pick a book you’ve read so many times that you’ve committed it to heart. I also prefer this tack with fantasy and speculative fiction over realistic fiction. There’s much more flexibility when the world you’re writing about isn’t tethered too closely to our own.
2. Choose a moment from your day and expand it
Here’s another low-pressure exercise for when you’re feeling stuck: take a sliver of something from real life and turn it into a piece of creative writing.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be a full story — though I have had great success starting short stories this way — it can be a few words of scenery description, an interlude about your feelings on a certain subject, vague psychological prognoses about strangers while people-watching, or whatever else you like.
This is an especially fruitful exercise when you only have a small window of time to write. I used to employ it between college classes — sitting on the campus green and pondering a fellow student, a song lyric, the poetry of a slice of pizza. Sometimes I would recap parts of my day in profound detail, creative nonfiction-style; other times, I’d go off in a more fantastical direction.
I would occasionally develop these bits of writing into full-length pieces later on. But the many passages that remained “unfinished” still served a purpose: they kept me looking out for new ideas. For those who are really burnt out on their current project, I would absolutely recommend this exercise — it’s the most enjoyable way I’ve found to refresh your mind without losing too much writing momentum.
3. Pick a prompt that’s outside of your comfort zone
Then again, maybe you write to escape reality.
If that’s the case, a good old-fashioned writing prompt can serve the same catalytic purpose as a moment from your day. However, if you want to push yourself creatively, I’d suggest getting out of your comfort zone and choosing a prompt in a genre or on a topic you wouldn’t normally tackle.
That’s not to say you should pick a prompt that doesn’t interest you at all. But I find that, left unchecked, I gravitate toward the same types of prompts and write the same types of stories over and over. Defying complacency is key, so seek out something that intrigues you in a new and different way. For example, I’ve written very little romance, but last week I started with a “cute-meet” prompt and was quite happy with the resulting piece — not to mention the skills I honed by writing it.
On Reedsy, we have a writing prompts directory you can sort by genre, which may help you be more intrepid in your prompt selection. Or you can work with one of the hundreds of exercises available in the Now Write! books. Whatever prompt you choose for this, don’t feel like you have to write an entire story based on it. As with the previous exercises, it’s more about flexing your creative muscles than committing to a brand-new project.
4. Write in reverse chronological order
If you want to play the game on hard mode, here’s an exercise for you: write a story in reverse chronological order.
It takes more effort than any of the others on this list, and shouldn’t be your first move if you’re already feeling discouraged… but if you’re craving a creative challenge that is likely to yield interesting results, give it a try.
The beauty of this exercise is that it forces you to create a plan before you write. That might sound like a drag to some writers (Pantsers, I’m looking at you,) but it can only make your story stronger structurally. It’s also a great way to practice writing twists, which seem to function particularly well in reverse-chronological stories.
A couple of examples for those who want to see this in action: The Final Dayby Edward Gold, a story that won our short fiction contest last year, and the music video for Breezeblocks by Alt-J. (Trigger warning for violence in both of them.)
In these narratives, the audience is led to believe one thing based on where the characters have “ended up,” but the reversed scenes cleverly reveal something else. Try challenging yourself to pull this off in your own piece.
5. Write a blurb about one of your projects
This final exercise circles back to your current project, but bear with me — it’s an incredibly useful tactic for seeing your work in a new light.
For this exercise, you’ll basically come up with your story or book’s elevator pitch: the hook, brief summary, and any other information that might compel readers.
Doing this forces you to evaluate your work through a reader’s eyes, so you can identify your story’s strengths and weaknesses and revise accordingly. For example, if you think you have a strong story on your hands but can’t write a hook to save your life, that’s a sign you should revisit your premise What elements can you add, or subtract, to make it more unique and interesting?
Or, maybe, in writing your blurb, you realize that certain elements of your work are derivative of someone else’s. Now’s your chance to fix it before you’re accused of plagiarism.
Another nice thing about this exercise: if you eventually self-publish on Amazon, or any other platform, you’ll have killed two birds with one stone. The blurb you wrote to gain creative clarity about your work will become the blurb that attracts new readers. So if you try this one, don’t phone it in — it could make a huge difference to your sales down the line.
Of course, perhaps the best part about creative writing exercises is that you can pick and choose what works for you. Writing a blurb might help you develop your novel, but that doesn’t mean you haveto publish it.
Similarly, you might not end up completing any of these exercises, but even starting them can help immensely. Remember this as you press on, and good luck!
Savannah is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, she enjoys reading contemporary authors, writing short stories, and drinking iced coffee.
SOULFUL SCREENWRITING: AN EMPOWERING INTERACTIVE WORKSHOP SERIES
Explore the soul of a screenplay and yourself as the writer:
Tuesdays – January 5, 12, 19, 26, February 2
4:30-6:30pm Pacific / 7:30-9:30pm Eastern
In this empowering 5-week interactive workshop, participants receive a big running start toward beginning a project from scratch or rewriting a current screenplay effectively.
We discuss crucial dramatic ingredients along with common screenwriting pitfalls and creative writing exercises and tools for solving them.
Each session includes one or two writing exercises culled from several of the Now Write! books to help you get out of your own way, get creative juices flowing, and benefit your screen stories.
This intimate workshop is a safe space to talk about your work – limited to 10 participants.
Soulful Screenwriting was designed by Laurie Lamson, a produced award-winning screenwriter, screenplay consultant, 4-year telecon host for International Screenwriters’ Association and author/editor of three Now Write! anthologies.
Secure your spot:
Eventbrite: $150 including fees
Venmo through December 31, 2020: $135 – Venmo to @Laurie-Lamson
What people are saying:
“Your exercises have proven very helpful! It’s a good reminder to me, to keep taking workshops because there will always be new ways of looking at things. Thanks so much for a beneficial and thought-provoking workshop.”
by Rebecca McClananan
(Now Write! Nonfiction contributor)
Red Hen Press (September 1, 2020)
A middle-aged couple leaves North Carolina to pursue a long-held desire: to live in New York City. As they struggle to find work and forge friendships in a city of strangers, Rebecca takes her mother’s advice to “make a home wherever you land.” She tracks the heartbeat of New York, finding in each face she meets the cumulative loss, joy, and stubborn resilience of a city that has claimed her for its own.
by Venise Berry (Now Write! Fiction contributor)
Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers (May, 2020)
In the 21st century, we need a more nuanced understanding of racial constructions and how the nature of racial ideology has changed in our society. Yes, there are still ugly racists who push uglier racism, but there are also popular constructions of race routinely woven into mediated images and messages. This book examines selected exemplars of racialism moving beyond traditional racism.
by Steven Torriano Berry and Venise Berry Scarecrow Press (September, 2009)
Covering everything from The Birth of a Nation to Crash, this book provides a deep understanding of the role African Americans play in film history, with loads of photos and hundreds of cross-referenced entries on actors, actresses, movies, producers, organizations, film credits and awards.
by Christopher Moore
(Now Write! Mysteries contributor)
William Morrow (May, 2020 – hardcover, Kindle and audio)
Shakespeare meets Dashiell Hammett in this hardboiled murder mystery take on the Bard’s most performed play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Pocket, the hero of Fool and The Serpent of Venice, along with his sidekick, Drool, and pet monkey, Jeff. A New York Times bestseller.
by Christina Hemp (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor)
Arcade (February, 2020)
The close-knit Hemp family believes beauty and humor outshine the most devastating circumstances, but when the author suffers a dangerous fiancé, her mother’s dementia, unexpected death and illness, a feisty little Arabian horse, with his own history to overcome, offers a chance to look back on her life and learn to trust herself (and others) again.
by Henry Perez (Now Write! Mysteries contributor) and J.A. Konrath (June, 2019)
Jury duty is not how newspaper reporter Alex Chapa wants to spend his day. But when he learns Chicago Homicide cop Jacqueline Daniels will play a key role in the trial, his curiosity gets the better of him—with potentially lethal results.
by Laurie Lamson
(Now Write! Screenwriting and Now Write! Mysteries co-editor/author; Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror editor/author)
JaZzyMaE Media (May, 2020)
A variety of simple tools collected and practiced over decades of research into the most effective ways to feel better. With a little practice, these “quick fixes” can become habitual – healthy habits for the mind, body and spirit, bringing you more into alignment with the Real You. Soon you will be able to count on them as friends and allies on your journey through life.
Now Write! contributors are extremely prolific. Here is a small sample of books that came out in the last two years.
God: A Human History by Rezla Aslan (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor)
Random House (November, 2017 – hardcover)
The bestselling author of Zealot and host of Believer explores humanity’s quest to make sense of the divine in this concise and fascinating history of our understanding of God. In Zealot, Reza Aslan replaced the staid, well-worn portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth with a startling new image of the man in all his contradictions. In his new book, Aslan takes on a subject even more immense: God, writ large.
Music Is Power by Brad Schreiber (Now Write! Screenwriting and Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror contributor)
Rutgers University Press (November, 2019 – hardcover)
A guided tour through the past 100 years of politically-conscious music, from Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie to Green Day and NWA. Covering a wide variety of genres, musicians take a variety of approaches to fight for a fairer world. Shines a spotlight on seminal, politicized artists, and offers a new appreciation for classic acts such as Lesley Gore, James Brown, and Black Sabbath, who overcame limitations in their industry to create politically potent music.
Strangers and Cousins by Leah Hager Cohen (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor)
Riverhead Books (May, 2019)
A novel about what happens when an already sprawling family hosts an even larger and more chaotic wedding: an entertaining story about family, culture, memory, and community.
One of The Washington Post’s ten best books of the year.
A look at one family led by a charismatic, defense attorney father – a lovable, impossible man of gargantuan appetites and sloppy ethics, a criminal defense attorney who loved his drug-dealing clients a little too much and went to prison as a result.
Blood Prism by E.E. King (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror contributor)
Flying Feline Productions (January, 2018)
Penny Dreadful meets American Gods. Like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Blood Prism is a blend of history, fantasy, and Americana. A cast of real and mythological traverse the Catskill Mountains, the River Styx and into an alternate San Francisco during the start of the AIDs crisis, where love might just be stronger than destiny…or maybe not.
William Morrow (hardcover and Kindle, August, 2019; paperback August, 2020)
Called “a modern-day Nancy Drew for grownups” by actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
Emily Harlow is a professional organizer who helps people de-clutter their lives and she’s married to man who can’t drive past a yard sale without stopping. She distracts herself from marital problems with new clients who have a mess that might be too big for her to clean up. “Careful what you wish for,” as the old adage says . . . Emily might lose her freedom, her marriage, and possibly her life.
Now Write! anthologies belong on every writers’ bookshelf – the perfect gift for the writer in your life. Now Write! contributors have a number of their own writing books that can make the ideal companion gift to encourage your favorite writer.
(Note: Now Write! editor Laurie Lamson was the host of International Screenwriters’ Association’s free teleconferences for four years. Many Now Write! contributors were guest speakers – podcast links provided below when available.)
A practical study of how classic film genre components can be used in the construction of a screenplay. Based on Jule Selbo’s popular course, this accessible guide includes an examination of the historical origins of specific film genres, how and why these genres are received and appreciated by film-going audiences, and how the student and professional screenwriter alike can use the knowledge of film genre components in the ideation and execution of a screenplay.
Explaining the defining elements, characteristics and tropes of genres from romantic comedy to slasher horror, and using examples from classic films, Selbo offers a compelling and readable analysis of film genre in its written form. The book also offers case studies, talking points and exercises to make its content approachable and applicable to readers and writers across the creative field.
My First Noveledited by Alan Watt (Now Write! Screenwriting contributor)
contributors incl: Cheryl Strayed, Rick Moody, Aimee Bender (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror contributor), Janet Fitch, Jerry Stahl, David Ulin, Merrill Markoe, Dan Fante, Sheri Holman and many more
Writer’s Tribe Quest (Aug. 2013)
Have you ever wondered how your favorite authors got their start? How did they make the leap from closet scribe to published author? In My First Novel: Tales of Woe and Glory, twenty-five authors recount the variety of hurdles, both internal and external that they had to overcome on their journey.
Designed for both beginning and established writers, this is a complete writing workshop in just one book. From first draft jitters to completing a polished manuscript for publication, the material is presented in a fun and informative progression filled with ideas for brainstorming plus checklists and writing exercises. Chapters include full coverage of characterization, plot, setting, dialogue, and marketing and query letter techniques. Besides end-of-chapter writing assignments, the book concludes with a strong question and answer section.
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between by Lee Gutkind (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor) Da Capo Lifelong Books (August, 2012)
Offering new ways of understanding the genre, this how-to guide from the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction” (Vanity Fair) helps writers of all skill levels thoroughly expand and stylize their work.
What is creative nonfiction? It’s simple: true stories, well told. And yet—it’s not so simple. Telling true stories can be hard work, but worthwhile. It’s the hottest genre in the publishing industry.
Frank, to-the-point, and always entertaining, Gutkind describes and illustrates each and every aspect of the genre with depth and clarity. Invaluable tools and exercises illuminate key steps from defining a concept and establishing a writing process to the final product.
The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty Moore (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor) Wisdom Publications (April, 2012 – hardcover)
Explores how a lifelong pursuit of writing and creativity helped open me to the path of Buddhism. The book explores these ideas through sixty writing quotes, from Buddhist writers such as Pema Chodron and from others, including Flannery O’Connor and August Wilson. Each of the quotes is discussed in a short page or so, revealing the similarities between artistic awareness and mindful thought.
Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing (and not getting eaten) by Pen Densham (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror contributor)
Michael Wiese Productions (2011)
An artist-friendly screenwriting guide to success, with a non-dogmatic approach to finding your own personal creative process.
Pen draws from his own extremely simple breakthrough techniques, shares his inspiring philosophy of finding a personal well of creativity from your inner voice, to overcoming the many challenges in a unique business, managing stress, the real secrets to selling your work, finding the right agent and being true to one’s nature to create a lasting and passion-filled career.
Most books approach character development using a winnowing process involving general categorization and list-making. Dating Your Character focuses instead on the importance of the individuality of characters: their eccentricity, drive, and relative “basis in fact” inspired in part by people you know or you yourself.
The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within, 2nd edition by Alan Watt (Now Write! Screenwriting contributor) The 90-Day Novel Press, 2010
Get the first draft down quickly! The 90-Day Novel is a day-by-day guide through the process of getting the first draft of your novel onto the page. The 90-Day Novel was workshopped at LA Writers’ Lab over three years and has helped hundreds of writers complete their work. Some of Watt’s students have gone on to become bestselling authors and win major literary awards.
New York Times best-selling author shares the secrets to crafting an unforgettable mystery. The essentials of craft and the plan to execute them. This completely revised and updated edition features solid strategies for drafting, revising, and selling an intriguing novel that grips your readers and refuses to let them go.
Breaks down the art of pitching in Hollywood step by step. From choosing the right idea, to selling it in the room, this book tells you how it’s done, in clear language, suitable for the beginner or the seasoned Hollywood professional.
With decades of combined experience working in Hollywood as buyer, seller and teacher, the authors, Douglas Eboch and Ken Aguado, have created the definitive book that will demystify the pitching process, supported by a reasoned, logical point of view and supported by numerous specific examples.
If you want to work in the Hollywood creative community, you must know how to pitch. This book will show you how to succeed.
Unlock the unique secrets and techniques of writing comedy. Kaplan deconstructs sequences in popular films and TV that work and don’t work, and explains what tools were used (or should have been used). While other books give you tips on how to “write funny,” this book offers a paradigm shift in understanding the mechanics and art of comedy, and the proven, practical tools that help writers translate that understanding into successful, commercial scripts.
The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script, 5th Edition, Expanded & Updated by David Trottier (Now Write! Screenwriting contributor) Silman-James Press, 2010
One of the most popular, authoritative, and useful books on screenwriting, this is a friendly guide through the Hollywood morass. The new edition offers expanded coverage of dialogue writing and character development, the latest in proper screenplay format, a new section on jumpstarting your career, new advice on creating and delivering pitches and much more.
Rewrite 2nd Edition: A Step-by-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in your Screenplay by Paul Chitlik(Now Write! Screenwriting contributor)
Michael Wiese Productions, 2008
A step-by-step process to take your script from first draft to submission draft. Chitlik reveals the hidden structure of screenplays, sequences, and scenes, as he guides you through the process of examining your draft, restructuring it, and populating it with believable, complex, and compelling characters. Along the way he outlines how to make your action leap off the page and your dialogue crackle.
Learn the secrets to writing a great screenplay from a major movie studio Story Analyst. Master the structure and principles used by 95% of commercial movies by studying detailed breakdowns or “Story Maps” of several recent and classic hits in all different genres.
Story Design analyzes the dramatic structures found in some of the most commercially successful and popular movies ever produced. This second edition includes detailed analysis of WIZARD OF OZ and AVATAR.
* An essential and inspirational hands-on guide for creating and crafting compelling characters
* An invaluable resource analyzing and referencing over 220 Hollywood, independent and foreign films, offering 34 screenwriting exercises, and providing six templates from fictional scripts
* Accessible, fun, and thought-provoking screenwriting exercises geared to develop characters in each vital element that comprises a successful screenplay.
Learn how to create believable, compelling and gripping characters with distinct characterizations, motivations, and behaviors, and how these people can best drive your plot forward in a meaningful and plausible journey.
If you’re a Now Write! contributor with a writing book not listed here, please post the details as a comment here. Thank you!