Idea Starters | Writing Programs | Advice

Idea Starters: Writing Tips and Exercises

  • Bobbie Ann Mason keeps a notebook in which she records interesting bits of overheard conversation, descriptions of unusual people she sees, and other fragments. “Then, when I get ready to write a story,” she says, “I might glance through my notebook and pick out some stuff.... I use it as a catalyst.” Try this method yourself as a means of starting stories. You can start with a line of conversation, an image, a place.

  • Mason’s story “Love Life” opens with a description of a retired teacher watching a music video on television. The video’s images seem comic, even absurd, when described without reference to the music. Turn on MTV with the sound off and, without naming the band or the song, write a one-paragraph description of what happens on the screen.

  • Pick a town corner or shopping mall near you. Go there and sit and watch what takes place in one of the stores or the public walkway. Without naming the people or place you’re observing, write down what you see.

  • The next time you’re watching TV with other people, notice any conversations they have while watching it. Record those dialogues in your notebook, without mentioning that they’re taking place in front of the set. What sense does the talk make on paper? What can you add to it? Start a story from it.

  • Mason has often spoken of her effort to write objectively about people, without condemning or condoning the choices they make. “I have a very detached view of things,” she says, “so that I observe things [without being] strongly opinionated or involved in ego. I like to look.” Try writing a story from this perspective. Think of a big problem you or someone you love is facing, perhaps one for which no answer has been found. Writing in as neutral a tone as possible, describe what some people may have done to cause the problem; then describe their efforts to escape or solve it.

  • In In Country, Sam Hughes learns about Vietnam despite the apathy of some folks in her community. Think of an instance when you got at the truth of something, or achieved something, against the odds. Were there people who encouraged you? Others who didn’t? Write your story.

  • Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Ed McClanahan keeps three thesauruses at his writing desk. He says that, when he’s writing, he uses a thesaurus sometimes not just to find “the right word,” but to find synonyms, “to see what other nuances I can come up with. You can’t use a thesaurus haphazardly. But I find the thesaurus is like a little mine of ideas.” To discover the variety of expressions a thesaurus offers, look up these words: run, light, fair, green, tranquil. Thesauruses are arranged in different ways. You may find it easiest to use one published in dictionary form.

  • The protagonist of The Natural Man, Harry Eastep, loves sports writing for “the assonance, the alliteration, the sheer mythmaking hyperbole, the splendid excess of it all” [emphasis added]. Look up these terms and the term consonance. Try writing a paragraph that displays these qualities.

  • McClanahan describes an early draft of The Natural Man as containing language that was “jacked and pumped.... I had a lot of wind in my sails.” For the fun of it, try writing a paragraph that could be described that way. For instance, try using two or three similes where ordinarily you might use only one. In The Natural Man, for example, McClanahan wrote not just that Newton Ockerman was fat, but that he “was as ponderous as three hundred pounds of vanilla custard on the hoof, the sort of fat man whose girth was greatest just below the belt, like a gravy boat or a soup tureen.”

  • Using the first-person point of view, write a story about a time when you were treated unfairly by someone bigger than you. Write the story again, but from the point of view of that bigger person. Then write the story yet again, using the third-person perspective. In writing one of those versions, consider exaggerating what happened or how it felt to one of the characters. What other adjustments do you have to make—in someone’s personality, in dialogue or setting—for that version of the story to be interesting?

  • Practice reading what you write aloud to someone at home, then read it aloud to a group.

  • Once, in discussing her childhood, [playwright] Marsha Norman said she learned from her family to respond to serious problems by making jokes. For a time, later on, that habit made it “very hard for me to express anger directly. But I find that I write perfectly wonderful fights.” Is there someone or something you’re angry about? Try writing a dialogue in which the anger is shown but not spoken of directly.

  • Marsha Norman has often drawn her inspiration to write from “an emotional memory, a moment I was in great pain, or ... desperately afraid, or ... in awe of an act of courage.” She advises beginning writers to “pick an event that happened at least ten years ago. That’s enough time for all the insignificant experiences to have fallen away.” Think back to a time in your childhood when you experienced such a moment. Describe it from your point of view at that time. Where were you? What time of day was it? Who was around? What sounds did you hear? What happened?

  • List at least ten things you like about the place you live in, however you might define “place.” Draft an outline for a play that mentions at least three of those things.

  • In giving advice to writers, Marsha Norman says, “Save writing for the things you can’t talk about.” If you don’t already keep a private, personal journal, get a notebook and start one. Unlike a diary, a journal is more than just an account of daily events. It’s a place for recording hopes, fears, descriptions, questions, thoughts. What can’t you talk about? Write about it in your journal.

  • With a minimum of props (for example, a kitchen table, a fishing boat, a line of waiting people), write a dialogue between two people in which each has a secret from the other. Do not reveal the secret, but make it possible for the reader to infer it. For example, a wife who has just lost her job and hasn’t worked up the courage to tell her husband comes in the door right as he has finished hiding the surprise gift he’s bought for her birthday. Try to give each character an individual way of speaking. Let the dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed. And don’t forget stage directions—gestures can be revealing, too. So can the failure to answer a question.

  • If your class is studying a Marsha Norman play, break into groups of three or four. A week ahead of time, assign each group to perform the same scene from the drama. Let each group sort out among themselves who plays which part (actual gender needn’t matter), who directs, how the scene ought to be “blocked out.” The players need not memorize their lines, but each group should rehearse the scene at least five or six times before performing it before the rest of the class. When all have finished, let the class discuss each group’s interpretation.

  • Solely from memory, write down some portion of the most important conversation you’ve had this year. Write down one you had five years ago.

  • [Playwright and director] George C. Wolfe has shown us in his plays how ridiculous our stereotypes of one another are. Write a scene for two or three characters in which it becomes obvious how silly a particular stereotype is. Use humor and hyperbole to help make the point.

  • Wolfe has often been praised for his staging. His sets are meant to convey very particular emotions—by the objects he selects, by their arrangement, and by the way they are lit. Think of a place where something happened that produced strong feelings in you, and then write a description of that place that will reproduce those same feelings in someone else. What time of day was it? Were there certain smells in the air? What sounds could you hear? Remember: Don’t mention those feelings by name.

  • George Wolfe has written: “Every time I return home, my parents know that I’m plotting to abscond with some prized family possession. Two Christmases ago, it was my grandfather’s coat. Last spring it was one of my great-grandmother’s quilts.... I can use all the ancestral protection I can get.” What does he mean by “ancestral protection”? Are there family hand-me-downs or heirlooms that you feel so strongly about that you’d like to own them yourself? Why? Write a couple of paragraphs in which you try to explain your attachment to these objects.

  • Growing up in the segregated South was very important for him, Wolfe says, because it “forced me to develop an inner strength that has served me well.” Think of a time when you overcame an obstacle that once seemed insurmountable. Did overcoming it help you “develop an inner strength”? Write a scene for several characters that depicts your predicament and illustrates how you grew by confronting and overcoming it.

  • Different cultures have taken very different approaches to drama, and George Wolfe says that he’s drawn upon those differences to make something new. Split your class into three or four groups and have each group study a different kind of drama (for instance, Japanese Kabuki theater, Indonesian shadow puppet plays, or classical Greek drama). Then have each group report back to the class about what they learned. Try to include examples in your report, either by acting out a scene, demonstrating a unique style of stage makeup, or constructing an unusual prop.

  • Critics have praised [novelist] Lee Smith for her vivid descriptions of life in small towns of the South. Make a list of all the things you can think of that make the place where you live like no other. Avoid abstractions (“beautiful scenery,” “nice people”); be as concrete and specific as possible (“soaring palisades rise on either side of the river,” “old men sit on a bench in front of Carson’s Drug Store, laughing and gossiping”).

  • In several of her novels, Smith allows several narrators to tell the same story. Of course the story changes, depending on who’s doing the telling. Ask several family members to tell a story about your family, a story they all know well. Compare the different versions. How do they differ? Why do you think they differ? Discuss the results of this experiment in class. Then try writing the story from the various viewpoints you’ve collected.

  • The best writing comes from writing about something you love. Lee Smith grew up listening to bluegrass and country music; later she made a more formal study of the music, and the result was The Devil’s Dream, a novel about a family of musicians. Try writing a story that incorporates something about which you are passionate, whether it’s fishing, rollerblading, physics, or stamp collecting.

  • Lee Smith is known for her use of humor. Her very first story, written when she was a child, was about Adlai Stevenson (a politician) and Jane Russell (an actress) running away to Utah to become Mormons. Today, that would be like writing a story about Newt Gingrich and Sharon Stone running away to Tibet to become Buddhist monks. Try writing a humorous story about well-known people doing something that is extremely unlikely. Of course it will be unbelievable—but try to make it as believable as you can, too, because that’s what will make it funny.

  • Try keeping a journal. Don’t simply list the day’s events, like listings in the TV Guide. Write only about the day’s most important event or moment. Write about it in detail—and, again, avoid abstraction and be concrete and specific.

  • Barbara Kingsolver says it’s wrong to assume that fiction is autobiography—“I think it’s selling the artist short on imagination.” On the other hand, the writer has to use what he or she knows best as a basis for fiction. Try writing about an incident that produced a strong emotional response in you. But here’s the catch: Give it a different, but believable, ending.

  • Now try writing about that same incident again. Only this time write about it from someone else’s point of view—someone who was as affected as you were by the incident, but in a very different way.

  • Barbara Kingsolver says that she was a solitary teenager, but that she “had an excellent education in wallflowerhood. You learn more about people that way.” Go sit quietly in some public place—the mall, or a bus stop downtown—and watch and listen to the people around you. Then use some of what you observed to start a story. You might start with a specific line of conversation you overheard.

  • In The Bean Trees, Taylor Greer tells us that she took her name from Taylorsville, a town where she ran out of gasoline. Look at the town names on a map of your state and make up several characters’ names from the town names on the map (like Morehead Sharkey or Verona Crittendon). Then write a short description of each of your characters, thinking about what kind of person that name sounds like. For instance, doesn’t Morehead Sharkey sound like a wiseguy, a bit of a troublemaker?

  • In Heart of the Land, a publication of the Nature Conservancy, Kingsolver has an essay entitled “The Memory Place,” in which she advances an argument for the preservation of land that is less than pristine, even—to one degree or another—already despoiled. For her argument, she uses the example of Horse Lick Creek, which runs through Jackson County, Kentucky. Think of a place you would like to see preserved or returned to its original state. Then write a descriptive essay designed to convince someone else that the place is worth saving.

  • Kingsolver describes herself as a political writer and uses fiction as a way to explore the issues that concern her. What issues do you feel strongly about? In your journal, brainstorm ideas for a story and characters you could use to explore an issue of your choice. You could, for example, take the place you described in the previous writing suggestion and make it the setting for a story that will make your reader want to preserve it. If you decide to draft a story based on a particularly promising idea, the challenge will be to create a good story as well as make your case.

These suggestions originally appeared in the teacher’s guide for Signature, a KET-produced series of documentary profiles of six contemporary Southern writers—including Bobbie Ann Mason and Ed McClanahan. The entire guide is available on our guides download page. The Signature series is also available on videotape. In Kentucky, call or e-mail KET Tape Duplication, (800) 945-9167. Outside Kentucky, contact Annenberg/CPB, (800) LEARNER.