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"Exercise" Plan for Writers

© 2011 Anna Furtado

Yes indeed, it's another new year full of promise for writers everywhere. New Year's resolutions regarding increased physical exercise are common. Yoga. Pilates. Zumba. Why not do the same for your writing? Roll up your sleeves for a few brain stretches. Do some imaginative jogging to enhance your writing, and you could end up mining lots of creative juices. So climb on your spin bike and twirl out some inspiration for yourself!

Many writing exercises begin with the question: What does your character want? That question often leaves my head spinning and my stomach churning. What my character might want is sometimes so all-encompassing, I can't even begin to articulate it, especially early in the writer process.

If that question doesn't work for you, how about this one: What is the single thing your character wants least—or what is she most trying to avoid? What's one thing that makes her really unhappy?

Ask the questions of the character, not of yourself. Be prepared to listen to the emotion with which the character speaks. Write every word down. You'll be surprised at what you learn, and it will be important to refer to the responses later. Count this exercise as the first rep of your brain push-ups.

Want your character to reveal motivations for actions? If you ask, "Why do you do that?" and only get a shrug and a "because," it might be time to rephrase the question. Focus on something the character could do, but hasn't. It might be a subtle action, one that might seem insignificant in a scene.

Example: Your character walks into a house, negotiates a hallway, and passes a closet door. She proceeds to the kitchen, where the main action takes place. However, if you asked your character, "Why won't you open the hall closet door?" You might simply get an answer like, "Because I didn't think it was important." However, you could also hear, "Because I'm afraid of small, dark places." Bingo! Time for follow-up questions—and counting another brain push-up rep.

Perhaps what motivates your character is pretty obvious, but the story seems to lack that pizzazz that will make a really popular tale. Could you learn more by asking what stops her in her tracks? "What paralyzes you?" could yield a powerful insight. Your character might reveal a fear of boats, but in the end, she may actually have a fear of drowning.

Want to develop a character bio or history? Listing name, age, where the person was born, occupation, and physical characteristics is important, but go deeper by asking what one significant event influenced her during her teenage years, or you might ask, "What has happened to you in the last six months that has profoundly affected you?" This could prove very insightful—and count another rep for yourself!

Here are some other "lifts" that might raise your story to another level:
If you truly want to study a character's motivations, ask her: What's the one thing you cannot live without—and why?

If your character was born and raised in a large liberal town, "what if" you relocated her place of birth to a small town filled with rednecks? Her experiences would be very different, shaping an outlook on life that might make her more interesting, or more brooding, or more easily able to live in a state of denial.

And how about your character's iPod play list? That could be very revealing. Ask her what music she listens to or what her favorite movies are—the ones that she watches again and again. If she's a reader, ask her what books inspire her. Be sure to listen to more than the words you hear (and write down). Listen to the emotion the character feels as she talks about the music, the movies, and her favorite books along with the reasons she loves them.

When you're finished with these interviews, put the answers away for a while. When you do reread them, you'll see things in the answers that you didn't "know" while you were writing.

Here's another one: Write one sentence that summarizes your story. For example: A woman grows up in a small town in Kansas, but escapes the bonds of homophobia in her town by coming to San Francisco where she finds work as a receptionist in a law office and meets an acerbic junior partner for whom she can do nothing right.

Now play with it. What if…
She grew up in New York City and was street-wise and very savvy instead of a naive country kid?

What if…
She came from a prestigious, well-educated family with liberal parents who were open-minded university professors?

What if…
She was out and proud instead of closeted?

What if…
She was a powerful lawyer who goes toe-to-toe with the junior partner?

What if…
She is very good at what she does and the junior partner is thrown off balance, feeling inadequate in her presence?

In other words, turn the plot on its head. Then turn it sideways. What's the most far-fetched variation you can come up with? Once you've written down the possibilities, put it aside for a day or two before looking at it again. Do any of the scenarios seem more interesting than others? Perhaps you'll be able to enhance your current tale, or you might find a whole new story. By the way, count another rep for the work you've done.

Here's a great warm-up question to pose to a character: What really wicked thing would you have liked to have done in your life, but didn't have the courage to do? Can you use that regret in the story? Or what if she did do that really wicked thing? What if it were a deep, dark secret? (Are you still counting your reps?)

Here's another one: It's two o'clock in the morning. Your protagonist walks into a bar (No, really, she does!). The bartender is behind the bar, talking on the phone with her back to your character. The only other person at the bar is a woman in a tuxedo. She's sitting at the far end of the bar. As your character sits down, she notices the woman isn't wearing any shoes or socks. What conversation takes place between your character and this barefoot woman?

Finally, ask your main character to imagine an amusement park she would conjure up in her imagination. What would it look like? If you ask, what would she tell you is her favorite amusement? Is it a ride? An entertainment venue? A midway game? A food booth? Ask her why it's her favorite. Ask her to describe it. What sights, sounds, smells, and feelings does it invoke? After you've gotten the good stuff out of the way, ask what would be repugnant to her in an amusement park? There's another rep for you.

If you use these questions to develop character and story (and you're writing the information down to reference it later), you may start to recognize trends. If you're just starting to develop your story, character and plot may start to take shape. If it's a story in progress, you may find material that can make it more exciting and interesting to your reader. As you reread what your character has dictated, you may have more depth and richer detail to embroider into your story.

Enjoy your new "exercise plan." In the words of Agatha Christie's master detective, Hercule Poirot, stimulate "the little gray cells." By doing so, you can get into the best writing shape for the new year with a treasure trove of material from which to draw new stories or make old ones more interesting and exciting. Happy writing in 2011!
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist); The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles; and The Heart's Longing—Book Three of The Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write (JAW) and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.

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