In my workshops I often use writing exercises around objects and images. They make excellent jumping off points for writing practice, but you can also use these exercises as a way to move deeper into your story. Below I have included 3 different exercises you can use to inspire your writing.
You’ve probably heard writers chant SHOW not TELL a hundred-thousand times. One of the ways to do this is to constantly come back to the image. As you’re writing, ask yourself, if this were a movie, what would I see on screen?
Here’s a nice warm-up exercise if you just want to write, but aren’t working on anything in particular.
Take a walk outside for 10-15 minutes. Do not talk with anyone, do not write anything down, simply observe anything and everything as you walk. Make a mental note about what you see. Sometimes I say hello to the images as I notice them. It sounds silly, but it works. Something like: Hello tennis shoe hanging over telephone wire… hello dead crow in the green grass… hello blonde twins boys on the monkey bars… hello ant playing tug-a-war with another ant over a bread crumb… Any image that strikes you, make a mental note.
Then, go inside and LIST as many of the images that you saw. Don’t do anything other than list them at this time:
Black tennis shoes hanging on telephone wire
Mutilated dead crow in green grass under tree with spring blossoms
Blonde twin boys in blue jackets swinging towards each other on the monkey bars
Black BBQ in the empty parking lot at the firestation.
Give yourself 5-10 minutes to make this list.
Then, go through and circle the images that speak to you. When I do this in my workshops, I have other people pick three lines for you. Pick ONE line and use it as a starting off piece for a poem or a piece of prose. Write for 7-10 minutes without stopping. (you know the drill)
A black BBQ in the empty parking lot of the Fire Station as if
young men had to interrupt hamburgers on a warm blue day
to attend a meeting
no sense of emergency
who would secure a lid if sirens were blaring?
who would take time to bring in the mustard if
flames leapt across homes?
who would bring in the trash, the bag of buns, the relish
who would manage the utensils
if bells were jarring the senses?
no, everything from this picnic walked away
the blue-uniforms still wear their crumbs
there may even be dishes to wash
but for now they digest their bit of summer’s end
and let the BBQ rest
for there is no rain
IMAGES FROM MEMORY
If you’d like to do some backstory work for your W.I.P., pick a character from your current story and think about images that come to her mind when she thinks about her childhood.
We all have images from our childhood that we’ve attached meaning to. When I think of my childhood, some of the images that come up for me are the huge almond tree in my front yard that delivered bitter nuts, my dad’s tools in the garage, the 500 National Geographic magazines my parents refused to throw away, and our enormous square record player that was more a piece of furniture.
Think about your character’s past. What images come up for her when she thinks about her childhood? Make a list of at least 10 images, the more, the better.
Once you have your images, select one. Let’s say my character thinks about her father’s broken watch that sat on his desk for months. Take that image and set your timer for 7-10 minutes. Write about the associations that come with that image. Do not stop or edit your work.
Startline: When my character thinks about ____________, it always reminds her of…
When Polly thinks about her father’s broken watch on the counter, it always reminds her of how many broken things she has in her life. Things get broken and don’t get put back together. The basement window, the lawn mower, the reclining chair… how many things have to break around her until she breaks? Until she can no longer be put back together…
FROM IMAGE TO ACTION
Using the same idea of image listing, pick a scene from your story that you’d like to work on. Let’s say I want to work on the scene where “Mavis confronts Prof. Herbert’s wife, Terri.”
Take 5-10 minutes and do an image listing exercise around this scene. What do I see in my mind as this takes place? Set your time and do not stop listing images, even if you are unsure of them. You don’t have to use them for anything later, and you don’t want to miss anything that comes to mind.
(BTW – if you ever need to think about a scene before you start, simply write “The scene I need to write next is the scene where…” and write spontaneously for 5-10 minutes)
Mavis kicks Terri’s door
Terri in a grey sweatsuit with paint stains
Mavis in her nurse’s uniform
Terri and Mavis drinking wine on the back porch
Terri showing Mavis a photo of her son
The full moon when Mavis steps off the porch
Then, write the scene starting with whichever image you want. It doesn’t have to be the first thing that happens in the scene, it just needs to launch you into it. Keep all the other images in mind as you write.
Terri and Mavis sit on the back porch, feet on white stools, a bottle of red wine between them. Mavis has removed her nurse’s cap and Terri has a bathrobe on over her sweats.
“He’s no demon, you know,” says Mavis.
“I know,” says Terri, “It’s just easier to think of him that way.”
Have a great weekend writing!