Writing exercise: back stories

Here’s an exercise that can help you get from an idea to a piece of flash fiction, from flash fiction to short story, and from a short story to a novel (or trilogy!).

I am often asked how I got from the short story “Man/Machine/Dog” to the novel The Pale, and this is one of my favourite techniques.

It also works to reduce writer’s block and start your imagination. All you need to start is one word. Give yourself a minimum 10 minutes to try this exercise, and let me know what you finished up with.

Step One:

Come up with a name. Just one name. [Betty or Blip or Foxy or Xianny, Miko or Tehuano or Dot. It doesn’t matter.] Write it down.

Step Two:

Give me FIVE adjectives to describe Blip. Just five, and as quick as you can. Don’t over work this part. [Blip is old, crabby, tired, inventive and smart.]

Step Three:

Answer these four questions:

  1. WHEN is Blip?
  2. WHERE is Blip?
  3. WHAT is Blip doing?
  4. WHY is Blip doing it?

[Blip lives in the twelfth century. She’s in a monastery. She’s trying to steal a scroll. She wants to learn to read.]

Step Four:

Who are Blip’s parents? Give me two more names. [Betty and Nomo.]

Step Five:

You have created a character and you know quite a lot about that character. Now write FIVE sentences to create a small story about your character.

Step Six:

Have a look at your five sentences. Now decide what, if anything, you as a writer can do with the results of your exercise.

For example, do your five sentences already form a piece of flash fiction? Do you want to write more about this character and her situation? Can you fill in more details about her parents, using the same technique? Can you create another character, using the same technique, and join their stories? Do you want to ditch the character, but work on the situation? Can you use what you’ve written as a back story to ground another idea?

Writing, for me, is a bit like creating an iceberg, that thing that you only see the top bit of. There’s a lot more backstory than ever appears in the final piece of work that is presented to the reader. Even if you never use the work you have done today, at least you have exercised your imagination and your writing skills. The best way to write more is to, um, write more!

Today’s great photo is by Ian Myles, from Flickr at
https://www.flickr.com/photos/imphotography/6953920766/

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