21 Creative Writing Exercises to Get You Brainstorming

21 Creative Writing Exercises to Get You Brainstorming

I was inspired to rack up this list of 21 creative writing exercises because I had a change of perspective towards writing exercises lately. Prior to taking my current writing class, I prioritized creating complete stories versus attempting creative writing exercises because I valued the finished product more than I valued the writing process (which is sort of the mentality behind doing these activities).

From my class, I’ve learned that while not every exercise you start will turn into a finished story, each one you attempt offers opportunity for growth. Creative writing exercises are playgrounds for writers to play with language in a way they can’t in their five hundred page novels. They’re labs for testing out various storytelling devices. They’re the hospitals where new ideas are conceived and the childhood homes where those ideas are then nourished. All I’m saying is creative writing exercises are excellent opportunities for writers of any skill level. We just have to be willing to see them that way.

This post is divided into seven sections (character building, setting, plot, point of view, tension, dialogue, and tone). Each section has three detailed exercises to get you brainstorming for your next big hit. Without further ado, let’s get into it!

1. Character Building

  1. List the objects in your character’s fridge, living room, and closet. Write a scene in which they interact with those objects. For example, “She dove through the fridge pushing aside containers of half-eaten takeout and shrunken mushrooms, a comb stuck between her teeth and a tumbler slipping between soapy fingers. For heaven’s sake, where are those keys?”
  2. Write a few sentences from your character’s life at ages 5, 12, 25, and 38. Don’t worry if the story you have in mind doesn’t feature them at any of these ages or at only one stage of their life. For example, “At age five, Marty crashed his scooter into the family oak tree, breaking his arm. At age twelve, he had his first kiss. It’d felt like sucking on a watermelon lollipop coated in gel.”
  3. Imagine your character is going through a typical day–no remarkable events, no trophies won, no blown up buildings–just an average person’s average day. Bullet point the details of their day. It doesn’t have to be in complete sentences. What is on their to-do list? Who do they meet as they step off the bus? Do they appreciate the scent of moist vegetables as they grocery shop?

2. Setting

  1. Picture your character in a place where they are most at home, are most excited to be (even if realistically they can’t be there), and are most uncomfortable. Then, write three short scenes depicting the character’s thoughts and reactions to those places.
  2. Take a walk or choose a place to sit that you like and record precisely everything you see, hear, smell, and feel onto the page. Write as much as possible about your surroundings without much interpretation. Your goal here is to be like a camera, simply capturing the world around you.
  3. Consider the world where your character lives in the most general sense possible. The Milky Way? Planet earth? 2000 AD? What is that world like? What is the geopolitical scene like? Now, narrow it down to one specific region or country and ask yourself similar questions. In that region or country, choose a state, province, or territory and do the same. Then choose a city and record details specific to that place. Finally, find a street and picture what it’s like on a typical day.

3. Plot

  1. Flip open a book you’re familiar with and skim the first chapter you land in. Now, rewrite that chapter so that it heads in a completely different direction than how it actually does. Don’t worry about trying to make your revised version fit into the overarching story.
  2. Choose three random objects in your house. Write a story featuring these objects (they don’t have to be integral to the plot) that takes place within a day, over the course of a year, and over five years.
  3. Imagine that you’re your agent informs you they got a publisher for your novel. Whoohoo! He asks if you’d like to write the blurb and you answer yes. So, pick up your pen and start writing that blurb. You’ve got a book to publish. Focus on your main characters, the main conflict, what’s at stake, the general workings of your world–especially if it’s in the fantasy and sci-fi genre.

4. Point Of View

  1. Choose a particularly emotional moment in your character’s life. Write that moment in the first person, the second person, and then the third person (omniscient and limited). Which POV do you think worked best for this exercise? If you were to turn this exercise into a complete story, which do you think would most fit your intentions?
  2. Picture your character going about their daily routine. Zero in on a specific moment of their day. Write that moment from your character’s perspective, then write it as a stranger’s observation of that character, and lastly write it as a friend or loved one’s observation of that character. What would each notice? What would each fail to notice? How do they interpret what they’re viewing?
  3. Write a emotional scene involving the protagonist and their nemesis–the death of a child, the loss of the grand cup, the victory of the final battle. First write from your protagonist’s point of view and then from their nemesis’. How would each react to what just happened? How do they try to justify the event? Which one is bawling their eyes out and which one is calm, collected?

5. Tension

  1. Place your character and the person your character is least comfortable with in a tight space–a bedroom, the same office cubicle–somewhere where neither can escape the other’s presence. Record their interaction. Do they interact? What is their body language like? Who speaks first? Who doesn’t want to talk? Are they forced to collaborate to solve some issue?
  2. Ponder what your character desperately wants. This desire should be the thing driving them to take risks, to be willing to leave behind the comforts of their daily life. Consider the obstacles in their way. Is it their controlling stepmother? Their own fear of judgement? The government? Write a short scene in which they’re close to achieving that desire when something stops them.
  3. Write a scene pivotal to the development of a story: your crew is about to storm the overlord’s lair, you’re entering the final two minutes of the game, you’re about to surprise her with the marriage proposal. Start with everything going as planned: the overlord isn’t home, you’ve got a clear path to the goal, she’s happy to see the house covered with rose petals. Then, gradually, make things fall apart so that soon, you’re character feels out of control: the overlord’s minions ambush your crew, three players tackle you at once, she confesses that she’s been cheating for the past year.

6. Dialogue

  1. Make your character have a conversation with someone they’re intimate with– their mother, husband, mentor?–, someone they regard as an acquaintance–their boss, classmate, dentist?–, and someone they regard as a stranger?–the cashier at McDonalds, their new neighbor, a random celebrity they spotted at a cafe. Note their body language, their tone, their inner thoughts, facial expressions and those of their counterpart as they have these conversations.
  2. Imagine a situation in which Person A is struggling to tell Person B something. Once you see them clearly in your mind, write only what they have to say as if you’re a stranger secretly listening in. Leave out all extraneous descriptions of the setting, their body language, their tone of voice, etc. Keep just the dialogue. Don’t even insert quotation marks. Let the conversation spew out of them without interruption, and see where they head.
  3. Record the conversations of two friends joking to one another, squabbling over something petty, and joyfully reuniting after many long years. Keep in mind their relationship dynamic. Ask yourself how long have they known each other? How would their dispositions, cultural backgrounds, or religious beliefs affect what they have to say regarding certain topics? Is one more aggressive than the other? Are they foils for one another?

7. Tone

  1. Imagine someone running away from a monster in the woods. Write this scene through the voice of a snarky bounty hunter who’s been in these sort of skirmishes a thousand times. Write it through the voice of an average, middle-aged salesman who’s freaked out of his pants. Write it through the voice of a monster who’s ecstatic about chasing people. Go back and circle all the words and phrases you used (ex. “sweaty palms”, “a wry smile”, “galloping heart”, or “wagging purple tail”) to convey the tones you were trying to express.
  2. A lot of times, writers can use setting to convey tone. For example, “it was a dark and stormy night.” Of course, we don’t have to make our strategy as obvious as it is in that example. Even a subtle “flash of sun on the rim of his spectacles” can tell the readers something about how one character views another and the tone of scene. Write a scene in which a character anticipates meeting someone they haven’t seen for years. Try to incorporate setting in conveying the tone: Does the airport look somber with its few straggling passengers? Is its fluorescent light giving your character vertigo? Does the arched ceiling of the terminal resemble a hollow heart?
  3. Write a scene in which a character has to break into their own house. Write it using your preferred writing style then write it using a style opposite your own. For example, if you find you tend to use long, flowy, descriptive sentences, rewrite it using simple, terse language. This exercise challenges you to switch up your style when necessary to fit the intent and tone of different types of stories.

21 Creative Writing Exercises To Get You Brainstorming

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