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Journaling is a popular way for writers to improve their skills and practise their craft on a daily or regular basis. The concept is simple enough; it’s like writing a diary—you write in it every day (or near enough), and you only write as much or as little as you want. Like a diary, no one else is ever meant to read it. It’s a safe place for you to write, to experiment, to muse, and to explore. Sometimes the words you write in your journal may make their way into other pieces or poems that you do intend to share but that happens when and if you want it to.
This list is a series of activities you can use regularly to help develop your skills and ideas. They’re designed to be flexible and reusable so that you don’t have to come up with a new concept every day.
Listen in on someone else’s conversation and try to transcribe it word for word. At the same time pay attention to other aspects of the conversation. How do people address each other? What sorts of words do they use? What pace do they talk at? Do they talk loudly or in hushed tones? Is it an equal exchange of both people talking or is one talking more than the other? What do you notice about how their conversation looks on the page compared to how it sounds when you listen?
Each time you attempt this activity, try to choose different people. How does the relationship between the two people change the way conversation sounds?
Dialogue often serves two functions in a story: revealing information and revealing character. By doing this exercise, you quickly get a feel for which parts of the conversation need to be transcribed and which things are implied through the speaker’s voice and the relationship with the listener. You’ll probably notice that large portions of the conversation aren’t needed to understand the gist of what’s happening. You’ll also notice that some parts of speech reveal something about the characters and their relationships to each other which may save you exposition. Experiment with how chopping and changing what parts of the conversation you use changes the meaning you see on the page.
2. Appearance is everything
Describe a stranger you come across in a random setting. Focus your description entirely on their appearance. What does it convey about them? How do their clothes, hair, makeup, jewellery, bags, sports items, water bottles, headphones, glasses, nail polish etc. serve to give you a certain understanding of who that person is and what they value? How do certain aspects of their appearance challenge the stereotypes or assumptions you’ve made about them based on other parts of their appearance?
If you’ve ever heard the saying ‘show, don’t tell’ but you struggle with the concept, this activity is for you. Consider a lady walking towards you on the street with a Gucci bag, Prada shoes and wearing a Louie Vuitton dress. You’re likely to assume that this is a woman who has a large amount of money. But then you notice that the shoes look very worn, the dress appears to be a little out of fashion, and you think the bag might be a knock-off. So then we infer that the woman is someone who wants to appear wealthy but may not necessarily be so. This is the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’. The description of her character is much more interesting than my assumptions about her.
Use this activity to improve your ‘showing’ skills. After you’ve written your description, go back and look at where you’ve accidentally ‘told’ something. How did you come to that conclusion? The chances are you’ve already implied it through your description, or you’ve focused your description in the wrong way.
3. Rhythm in writing
Listen for the rhythms of the world around you and try to imitate that rhythm in your writing. How does the pace of your writing change when you are writing at the beach versus in a café, on a hike through the bush versus a playground full of children? How can you replicate the rhythm and, therefore, the mood of your setting through the length and rhythm of your sentences?
We often think about rhythm in writing as being within the domain of poets. However, this is also an effective way to build atmosphere in prose. You can convey the contrast between your characters’ chaotic mind and the calm of your setting through the rhythm in your writing. You might show your character calming down or getting excited through the gradual change of rhythm in their internal monologue.
You probably already do this to some degree without noticing but now is the time to intentionally think about the rhythm in your sentences. The best way to do this is to travel to settings with different paces of their own (like the examples above) and try to imitate that rhythm and sound in your writing. You can then compare your examples and start to figure out how to incorporate those rhythms more widely.
4. Undo what’s been done
Write a short scene in which something changes, starting with how things are and moving forward to show how they become. Maybe a new building goes up where your character’s childhood home was, a truck crashes and spills oil into a river, a young boy has a fight with his father, or a grandmother knits baby booties for her first grandchild. Now try writing the scene backwards. Starting with how things are and moving backwards to how they were. How does changing the order in which you tell the scene change the meaning or tone of your story?
Deciding where to start a story and how to tell it is one of the most common problems that writers face. Do we tell the story in a linear fashion from start to finish? Do we start in the middle and provide flashbacks to relevant information? Knowing where to start is all about recognising how the way we tell a story impacts the tone and meaning behind it.
Try this activity with lots of different variations and see how the shift in timeline affects the story.
5. Many parts make a whole
To start this activity, you need an image. I highly recommend classical paintings with a big scene played out on canvas (which you can easily find on google), but postcards, photos and digital art work too. Once you’ve got your image, break it down into smaller parts (e.g. the top right-hand corner, the top left-hand corner, the bottom centre border) and describe each part separately. What are the dominant colours, shapes, components, subjects etc? What do you see in each component? When you come back to the overall picture, how do these smaller components shape the overall scene? Can you forge a relationship between each element?
This is a little bit of the ‘show, don’t tell’ again but this time we’re looking at scenery and action. It’s tempting when we have a big scene with lots of things going on to feel that we need to describe everything, but there are ways of implying the emotion by describing the action.
Take, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting The Last Supper. Without knowing anything about the bible or what this scene represents we can immediately see that certain individuals in the painting are agitated. Think about how you would infer this to a reader by describing the painting. You might know that the figure in the centre (Jesus) has said something that makes the others upset because he is the only one that looks calm. You might describe the three men in the corner all gesturing towards Jesus as if trying to resolve a problem. You might talk about the three men leaning into him as if demanding more information, and the man on the other side of the room with his hands raised palms out in surprise. All of these things have shown that everyone is alarmed and upset without you having used the words.
6. Making the unreal real
Take a concept that is impossible in our world—make it something relatively confined like flying pigs, teleportation, fairies, or the ability to talk to trees. Try to make it as plausible as possible. What would the world be like if this thing existed? Would children ride flying pigs at the royal show? Would you still have airports and if so, would they still have departure times? Would fairies be employed on farms to help grow crops? Would trees have a system of government and be represented in the UN?
This is an exercise in recognising the patterns in our world and how changing small things may have a domino effect. Science-fiction and fantasy writers need to do this a lot. To make readers suspend their disbelief, they need to make the unreal feel real. But general fiction writers or poets can use this to great effect as well.
Understanding how each thing feeds into another can lead you to consider how small changes in one aspect of your story may impact others. How does changing the location, the age of your character, or the time period of your story change all these little things that feed into the character’s life? By choosing totally unrealistic elements (like flying pigs) for this exercise, you take yourself right out of the world and ask what are the elements of the real world that are so strong that they could make a reader believe this unreal thing is plausible?
7. Less is more
Tell a story in less than 250 words. Remember a story should have some sort of problem for the main character to overcome. Depending on how you normally write, you may want to first try writing a longer story and then try rewriting each paragraph as a single short line. You may want to start at the summary stage and then ask yourself what different ways you can tell the story.
To begin you’ll probably find that you rely on telling more than showing but with practice you’ll start to find that you can achieve so much more with showing. You’ve probably seen those Facebook memes that look like text messages between two people. Those are a type of flash fiction and they’re very effective. Maybe you’ve heard of Ernest Hemingway’s famous micro-fiction: ‘For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.’ Notice how these examples tell a story without needing to explain exactly what’s happening. Normally relying on an image or a conversation and implying so much more than they are.
This is an exercise in reeling in your verbosity as well as, you guessed it, showing not telling. It’s about recognising how few words you need to make your point and about recognising where you can use it in your wider writing.