Writing Exercises by Lisa Selvidge

The following extracts are taken from, or based on, exercises in Writing Fiction Workbook which can be purchased from Amazon. Lulu or from www.montanhabooks.com

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Description exercise

Location, location, location

Locations are not only sought after by property developers and TV producers, but also by writers. Many writers are inspired by other countries, cities, exotic and strange landscapes.

PD James writes, ‘Usually my creative imagination is sparked off by the setting rather than by the method of murder or by any of the characters. I have a strong reaction to place and may visit a lonely stretch of coast, a sinister old house or a community of people and feel strongly that I wish to set a novel there.’

(quoted from www.randomhouse.com/features/pdjames/faq.html)

But even mundane settings should be collected, wherever possible, and stored up in a location bank. You never know when you may use them. A part of your story (or all of it) may be set in a school, in an office, in a hospital, by the sea, on a mountainside, on a train, in a restaurant, in Russia, in your street, your town, a place you visited on holiday. The list is endless. At the time of visiting somewhere you may think that you’ll never forget the place but ten years later, when you need it, it has become hazy. Writing about locations is also a good way to begin writing and to practise writing description.

Sight, sound, smell, touch and taste are the five senses that help to create a believable setting.

1.  Next time you’re out, take your notebook and jot down as many details as you can about three different locations. For example:

1.      A train/bus station, airport/port

2.      Inner city street

3.      A seaside resort

4.      A building (inside and out)

Use the following questions as guidelines:

Visual detail
What kind of buildings/landscape surround you?
What are the street names/shops?
What kind of phone boxes are there? Or beach huts?
What types of cars?
What kind of litter?
What is written on the van of an ice-cream seller?
What are people wearing?
What kind of life is there around you?
What is the writing on the wall?
Atmospheric detail
What is the weather like?
What time of year is it?
What time of day?
What kind of light is there?
What sort of feel is there to the place?
What can you smell?
What can you touch?
What can you hear?
What can you taste?


1.  Visit a town that you're not so familiar with.  Choose a café and make some notes of what you see/hear/smell. Then maybe wander around on your own. Using the questions above jot down some impressions of the town. What kind of people can you see? 

Later, using one of the opening sentences (or make up your own) write a short story (or scene) in a page or so. Focus on the setting (the telling detail).

1) The boy was found in the old ruins of the church.

2) I arrived in .... one spring afternoon to discover that he was no longer there.

3) She laughed as she ran over the old railway bridge, carrying a bottle of whiskey.

4) The old man sat on the wall, his hands on top of his walking stick, watching the young girls leap down the granite steps.

Creating characters

Think of your characters as real people. What motivates them? What do they want? What are they afraid of? How would they react to a specific situation? Learn as much as you can about your characters. Not all this information needs to be present in a story. Most of it is for you as author only. And remember, to look and to listen to other people. This way you will learn how to create memorable three dimensional characters.

1. Sit in a cafe or public place and write a description of some of the people around you - without making it too obvious! What interests you about the way people act, dress or behave? Get into the habit of describing body language. How do people sit in relation to one another in different situations? How do they walk? Talk? Sketch out one character. Now transfer yourself to the character who interests you most and write in the first person or intimate third from that character's point of view. What is s/he thinking? Someone comes into the cafe to talk to you. You do not like him/her very much. S/he wants something from you ...

Structure exercise

Sources for stories

 Any of the following can be used to collect stories. When something interesting catches your eye, try to get into the habit of jotting it down in your notebook.

Newspapers and magazines (particularly tabloids and local newspapers). General news, human interest, gossip, obituaries, exclusives, news in brief, lonely hearts...     ¨        Radio programmes (e.g. ‘Home Truths’)     ¨        Television documentaries     ¨        Myths, legends and folk tales     ¨        History    ¨        Literature/film     ¨        Theatre/dance    ¨        Family stories    ¨        Local gossip    ¨        Memory/Experience    ¨        Dreams    ¨        Photographs    ¨        Music     ¨        Observations of people and events    ¨        Imagination

1. Choose one of the above sources and jot down a story. Write in note form the initial situation setting (time and place) and the character(s). What does the main character want? What is the trigger that sets the story in motion? What is stopping him/her - the complications? What is the crisis/climax. Consider: what is the story really about?

Then rewrite the story in your own words. If you are taking a story from real life make sure you change the names and, at least, one thing about the story. Change the ending perhaps. Or the setting. Or introduce another character.


There are very few writers who claim not to rework and edit their writing. Most rewrite many times. Extensive planning can cut down on the amount of revision we have to do, but stories rarely go perfectly to plan (and it is also important not to be too controlling) so always be prepared to rewrite. It can be difficult to delete dazzling sentences, or even an entire first page, but sometimes it is necessary in order to make your story more fluent and wordtight. As Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said, ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it - whole-heartedly - and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.’ (The Art of Writing, 1916)

 Before we begin, it is important to note that there are two main parts to revision:

1.      THE BIG PICTURE (story composition). This focuses on the visible anatomy of the work - the structure, the characters, the conflict, the pacing, the setting, the dialogue and the overall plausibility. You need to make sure every scene is necessary. Chekhov writes that, ‘If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.’ This is known as Chekhov’s gun and serves to illuminate the importance of every detail. If something is not serving a purpose then it shouldn’t be there. If a character is not playing a role, get rid of him or her. If a scene is not moving the story forward, get rid of it. If the dialogue is telling us nothing about either character or plot, delete it. The chances are these unnecessary scenes will be boring. As Elmore Leonard said, ‘leave out the bits reader tend to skip’ (see below). If nothing is happening in your story, think of Raymond Chandler’s advice, ‘When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.’ He was referring to detective fiction but the point remains the same – you need to engage the reader at all times. The effect of a man or woman with a gun is that it immediately creates tension.

2.      THE DETAIL (the writing). This is a microscopic examination of the language used. When revising the writing beware of the following:

¨        Adjectival and adverbial pileups. Too many adjectives (e.g. soft) and adverbs (e.g. softly) can make writing seem overwritten. It also has the effect of ‘telling’ us how a character feels/acts rather than showing us. Try to use more verbs that replace the need for adjectives and adverbs.

¨        Passive sentences. Compare ‘The axe was sharpened by Arthur’ and ‘Arthur sharpened the axe’. As with the van incident, the first sentence is passive - the subject of the sentence is having something done to it which makes it more wordy and potentially more abstract. The second sentence is active - the subject of the sentence is doing the action and therefore more immediate and engaging. Always try to use active verbs - make the verb muscle the sentence. How else can you say ‘is’ and ‘was’?

¨        Abstractions/vagueness. Although an image may be perfectly clear to you, to the reader, it may be abstract. ‘She washed the shrunken wrinkled green sheets, layered them into the oval terracotta dish and decorated them with slices of iced cool eyes and pebble sized blood red tomatoes.’ (cf. ‘She made a salad.’) Tell it as it is - unless it is a stylistic device.

¨        Clichés. Your writing should stand out, be original, not ‘old hat’.

¨        Generalisations. Where possible, be specific - opt for precise detail rather than general description.

¨        Bad grammar. When you are writing, you can turn off all the automatic features and write whatever - and however - you want. But when you are editing you must check your work for grammatical and spelling errors. Be careful of writing ‘its’ for it’s (it is), ‘there’ for they’re (they are) and so on. Also try to avoid too many exclamation marks - your writing should exclaim for you. If you are unsure about some aspects of English grammar invest in a grammar book (Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage, OUP) is aimed at EFL students but nevertheless provides a good all round overview).

¨        One paced. Try to make sure there is variation in the pacing of the writing. Zoom in on some parts and zoom back in others. Balance dialogue with description.

¨        Telling too much. Wave that axe about: show the reader you’re angry, don’t tell us. 


1. Select a page of your own writing and take out all the adjectives. Find other ways of description.

Useful writing links

For agents, publishers, writing tips, competitions, awards etc.

Author Network        www.author-network.com

BBC Get Writing      http://bbc.co.uk/dna/getwriting/

Writing Corner          www.writingcorner.com

Bloomsbury               www.bloomsbury.com

Short Story                www.shortstory.com

Flash Fiction              www.shortshortshort.com

Booktrust                   www.booktrust.org.uk

There are several magazines about writing, some of which accept stories for publication and/or hold competitions: Writing Magazine, Writers’ News www.writersnews.co.uk, Writers’ Forum, Stand Magazine, MsLexia, Springboard, Poets & Writers www.pw.org, The Fix and Critical Quarterly.              

 Starting points

 Real life stories, images and characters all make good starting points.

Home Truths             www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hometruths/

Images                       www.cheap-poster.com

Characters                 www.npg.org.uk


Help with research

Help with news, words, dates, geography, science and people.

Personality Types      www.personalitypage.com/home.htm

Dying words                www.corsinet.com/braincandy/dying.htm

World wide words       www.quinion.com/words

Virtual Calendar         www.vpcalendar.net

British Council           www.britishcouncil.org/home

National Geographic www.nationalgeographic.com

History                        www.historychannel.com

Nature (Science)       www.nature.com

Encyclopaedia           http://enwikipedia.org/wiki

Monthly Writing Workshops in Lagos and Monchique



Last updated 6 December 2010