6 Writing Exercises to Help You Start and Finish Your Novel
From Guest Blogger Arielle Contreras: When you work on something you love, you never really work a day. Or at least, that’s some variation of the famous quote. It’s what inspires so many of us to decide to write a novel. What they don’t warn you about is that sometimes when you turn a passion into work, well, that passion starts to feel a whole lot like work.
That’s why you have to keep things fun! Yes, finishing a novel takes dedication and concentration, but practicing creative writing exercises can be a great way to: 1) ensure your craft skills stay strong and limber, and 2) to bring some much-needed recess into what can often be long hours of work.
These are our top six writing exercises that will not only provide you with a refreshing break but will also help further your in-development manuscripts — whether you’re at the start, middle or end of that process.
Writing exercises for starting your story
Do you have a solid story idea in mind but you’re finding it impossible to get the ball rolling? This can be a really tough period for writers because a hundred per-cent of the battle still feels uphill. Try a few of these writing exercises and, in no time, you’ll kick that block out of your way and feel the wind at your back as you start tackling your story.
1. Once Upon a Time…
I’d be amazed if you could find a great novel that was written in chronological order from start to finish. Actually, I’d be gobsmacked. That being said, writing an opening line that excites you can be a great way to open the gates so that the rest of your story can take shape. So without too much regard for exactly where your story will go, write a list of 10-15 opening lines — and try to make each of them as distinct and fun as possible. Once you’re done, pick your favorite and analyze why you like it best. How does it set the stage for the story you want to tell?
For inspiration of opening lines from classic novels, head here.
2. The Short Story
A popular pain point for many writers starting a novel is the outlining phase. Hence why many prefer to call themselves “pantsers” — authors who forego planning and just write whatever comes. The risk with this method is that your story may end up floundering, forcing you to go back and undergo lots of rewriting.
So if you have a burgeoning story idea and you’re stuck trying to develop it into an outline, try scaling it back a bit.
Don’t worry about planning a full-length novel’s worth of plot points. Give yourself a goal of 3,000 words and explore your idea through the form of a short story. You may end up writing a much more condensed version of the novel you’re hoping to write, or you may explore just one significant moment of the novel, which you can then use as a jumping off point for filling in the rest of your outline.
Writing exercises for getting over your story’s mid-way hump
May as well keep going with this mountain metaphor: you’ve huffed and puffed halfway up, and now you’re starting to slow down… you can’t help but glance over your shoulder and wonder if you’ve made mistakes along the way. Perhaps you’ve taken the wrong path? Is the view from the top really going to be worth all this work?
Before you let the prospect of potentially needing to retrace your steps or the view of the rest of mountain psych you out, take a deep breath, and give these exercises a shot.
In an episode of Friends, Ross enlists Chandler and Rachel to help get a new couch up to his apartment. They struggle to carry the hefty couch, to which Ross continuously yells “PIVOT!” as though if he exclaims this enough, the couch will glide on up the staircase. By the time they're done, the couch has been chopped in half.
Don’t mangle your story to get it from your desired point A to point B. When you reach a point in the plot where the path seems irrevocably blocked, PIVOT on your heel and find another way. It doesn’t mean you can’t come back to this spot and try again later, but as Ross proves, kicking and screaming is not the best way forward.
For this exercise, go to the point of your story that’s troubling you and take it in a completely opposite direction. And go wild with it — introduce dragons and have the sky fall down and start writing in second person POV. You might just find that taking the strangest path helps you recalibrate your story’s compass.
Often, the feeling of a disconnect between a writer and their story stems from a disconnect between a writer and their protagonist. If the line between you and a primary character is starting to feel a little choppy, and their edges are looking blurred, take a moment to get reacquainted with them.
One great way of doing this is by further developing their past. If you haven’t already created a timeline of your protagonist’s history, do that. Once the timeline is complete, pick a moment or period of their life that bears significance on the novel you’re writing and flesh it out by writing a short story about it. Don’t write this short story with the goal of including it in your novel — you don’t even have to edit it. Just write it to put your character’s past into better context. The more informed you can be about your character, the easier it will be to guide them through your story.
Writing exercises for ending your novel
Anyone who’s ever said that starting a novel is the hardest thing to do has never tried ending one.
5. Go All Out
Part of the fun of being a writer is creating endless possibilities. One of the responsibilities of an aspiring author is giving readers an end worthy of the story they’ve just read. No pressure right?
If you’re struggling with knowing how to end your story, shrug that sense of responsibility off and throw all storytelling limitations out the window. In other words, end your story with the most dramatic, tear-inducing, nail-biting, gasp-worthy, absurd ending you can think of. The kind of ending that would leave readers shouting, “WHAT!?”
And then reel it in slightly… Search through the chaos for any bits that might actually work. If there are none, ask yourself why this ending is so preposterous, and take note of what’s wrong with it until you start to get an idea of what the right ending looks like.
6. And the Moral of the Story Is…
Writing a satisfying denouement (the last part of a narrative arc) can be tricky — you don’t want to go on for so long after the climax that the ending starts to feel anticlimactic. On the other hand, you don’t want to end so fast you give your readers whiplash. A good way to achieve this balance is to have a closing scene that subtly underscores your novel’s theme.
However, that’s easier said than done. So if you’ve nailed down your climax but are now struggling to close your story, try throwing subtlety out the window for a moment.
Write a final scene where readers are repeatedly hit on the head with your story’s theme. In fact, have one of the characters say, “And the moral of the story is…” Make it as clear as day, and then some. This will reiterate for you what your novel is trying to say — and once you’ve firmly pinned that down, you can get to work on constructing an ending that's a bit more understated, yet still thematically resonant.
Arielle Contreras is a staff writer at Reedsy, a curated marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers and marketers. Over 2,500 books have been produced via Reedsy since 2015.