Feeling less than inspired? These six easy writing exercises will build core strength in your creative muscles, and they won't take up much of your time.
[This article originally appeared in Writer's Digest magazine. Subscribe today to get inspiration like this all year long.]
Many people think of creativity as an elusive thing. They believe you either have it, like a talent inherent at birth, or you don’t. I think this is nonsense. Creativity is more like a muscle: If you practice regularly, flexing and training your mind to absorb inspiration from various sources, that muscle will get stronger. Eventually you’ll be able to come up with ideas on demand, almost like turning on a faucet.
With that in mind, here are six of my favorite creative exercises to help you train your brain to run at peak performance.
1. Image File
People say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but I think it’s more like 100,000—which is why an image file can be such a valuable asset. I have a small tin where I store postcards I’ve collected from museum visits over the years. From portraits to landscapes to photographs, I look for images that convey a sense of story.
Pictures with people in them can become inspiration for new characters—I often turn to the paintings of Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec because they are especially good at capturing the personalities of their subjects. A single image can spark an entirely new story, or help you go deeper into a story you are currently developing. Landscapes or cityscapes can serve as settings where you can place your existing characters to see how they react. I’m partial to vintage photographs of cities, as well as pictures from travel magazines. Aim to file away one image each week (digital folders work equally well, of course), and within a year you will have a solid collection.
2. Character Compass
The character compass is a tool I use for evaluating how well I bring a character to life in a given scene. The compass is based on the four basic elements we use to show character: thoughts, actions, dialogue and appearance.
Begin by drawing a circle, then bisect it twice with a vertical line and a horizontal line—essentially drawing crosshairs. Clockwise from the topmost point, label the axes: “T” for thoughts, “A” for actions, “D” for dialogue and “A” for appearance.
Now re-read a scene you have written, and mark each axis with a dot depending on how much of each character element you employ with your focal character in that scene. The more you have of that element, the farther out toward the circle you should place the dot. Connect the dots and shade in the resulting shape, and you will have a visual representation of how—and how well—you have shown that character in that particular scene. The illustration above depicts a compass for a scene showing character through a lot of dialogue and action, but very little thought and appearance.
3. Color Theory
Each character has a signature color that captures his personality. Every time I start a project, I go to the hardware store and select paint swatches to match my protagonist and important members of the supporting cast. Don’t overthink this—just choose a color that feels right for each character, and trust your instincts.
Now you’ll employ some abstract thinking—using these signature colors and basic elements of color theory to inspire more drama between the characters in your story.
Every color exists somewhere on a color wheel (as shown below). Colors adjacent to one another are called analogous, and those across from each other are complementary. For instance, red is complementary to green, as blue is to orange and purple is to yellow. I’ve noticed that every time I put characters with complementary signature colors together, I always end up with a more exciting and dramatic scene. Where do your own characters fall in respect to one another? What shades are begging to be included?
4. Negative Space
In art and design, negative space is the area surrounding an object as opposed to the object itself. But this concept doesn’t apply only to visual arts; books have their own version of negative space. When an author crafts a good story, it feels as though the characters extend beyond what we see on the page. We imagine these characters having lives and experiences outside of that small slice we see in the book itself.
While scenes from your story’s negative space may never appear in your final draft, they can give you powerful insights about your characters or the world in which they live. If you find yourself getting stuck, write a short scene where you follow a supporting character “offstage” or into the negative space. Even if you never use that scene in the story itself, you will get a better understanding of that supporting character and her motivations.
5. Word Box
I have a word box on my desk. In it are slips of paper, each containing a single word. When I need a boost of inspiration, I close my eyes and pull between five and seven slips from the box. Then I start writing and don’t stop until I have used all of the words therein. (If the paper and pencil version is not your style, you can also use a web-based random word generator like the one at randomlists.com/random-words.)
Similar to morphological forced connections, this exercise pushes you to make do with what you’re given, drawing unexpected connections.
6. Acrostics & Word Puzzles
Though most famous for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll also penned many acrostic poems and other literary brainteasers. In the spirit of Carroll’s poetic puzzles, you can create an acrostic of your own. Start by writing a name or word vertically, one letter per line. Now craft a poem or paragraph of prose around that vertical word. You can make each letter the first in a sentence, or you can simply embed those letters into the text at random. Keep in mind, however, that if you want someone else to be able to “decode” your puzzle, you will need to follow some sort of logic in how you hide the letters. Another fun way to use this tool is to create an acrostic bio for a character in your story. In this case, each letter of the name corresponds to some trait or quality of that character.
As with any exercise regimen, the key to building strength and stamina is consistency. The same is true when training your brain. Don’t worry if what you write for these exercises never makes it into your work-in-progress. Trust that if you practice flexing that creative muscle, you will have the skills strengthened and ready when it really counts.