High Intensity Writing Workout No. 4


A lot of writers—especially beginning writers—choose to believe that writers fall into one of two camps: Plot-based writers and Character-based (or Organic™) writers. The problem with this view is that it suggests that one can have plots without characters and vice versa. And, I suppose, this is true in a general sense; but not in cases where the writers are writing top-notch stories.

This week’s exercise is designed to make this point fairly apparent. I’ll run an example, then provide you with a clean set of instructions.

The first step in all this is to create a character. Don’t waste a lot of time on this. It’s okay if the character is rather shallow. Like Sylvester, my character. (All I know about him is that his name is Sylvester and, apparently, he is male (or self-identifies as male).) To this I’ll had a handful of facts:

1) He enjoys non-team sports for participation.
2) He was raised Catholic but has since lapsed.
3) He’s not adventurous where food is concerned—meat and potatoes (burger and fries) are his preference.
4) He’s single, doesn’t date much and certainly not seriously.
5) He works a third-shift job in a food supply warehouse, noon to midnight, four days a week.

Looking at those facts, Sylvester doesn’t seem very remarkable. Of note, he appears to be a bit of a loner. That could be due to his job, since he works very odd hours so probably doesn’t have time to connect with friends. He likely runs or swims or bikes to keep fit. His lack of a dating life may also go to his job status, since his schedule isn’t likely to fit well with those of most women he meets.

Once you’ve generated that handful of facts, I need you to create three other things pertaining to your character. Create two short term goals (6 months or less completion) and a long term goal (a year or more for completion).

For Sylvester we have:

A) (short term) His brother is getting married, so he would like to find someone nice to take to the ceremony so the family won’t think he’s a loser.
B) (short term) He’s decided to take a class or two because he thinks he’s in a rut and wants to break out of it.
C) (long term) Wants to get a new job, white collar job, and have a career.

It’s pretty easy to see that his goals, if accomplished, would significantly change his life circumstances. He’d meet more people, become more social, might find a soulmate, might return to religion, clearly would ditch his horrid schedule, have more money and probably would have a much nicer life.

At this point I’m pretty sure you’re beginning to run scenarios for stories through your brain. Sly takes a class, meets a young woman who’s very attractive, but his efforts to woo her falter since he’s too white-bread when it comes to choosing restaurants. He makes an effort to try new things. She goes to the wedding. His family hates her, her family hates him, so together they work hard at the classes, fall in love, get good jobs and tell all the evil people in their lives to die in a chemical fire.

That’s probably the lowest-hanging fruit on the story tree, but it fits with all of the above and alters Sly’s life experience. At the end of the story his goals are accomplished and facts 3-5 are certainly no longer true. 1 and 2 are up for grabs, but certainly could be altered completely in the course of the story.

Now, back to the important part of this exercise. Look at the five facts about Sly. Change one. For example, we’re going to change No. 1. Instead of non-team sports, he loves playing team sports. He’s rough and tumble. He plays flag-football as an adult, maybe in a rugby league, and there’s the Saturday game with his buddies from high school at the Y from 4-5 pm.

That’s not much of a change, but it might change his goals. The long term goal, for example, might evaporate or face resistance because his basketball buddies also have blue collar jobs and wouldn’t want him getting above his station. (Well, above them.) That sort of attitude likely would kill his short term goal of taking classes, too. I’m also going to guess that because he’s only doing team sports for exercise, and has the grueling schedule he does, that he might have put on a few pounds—especially since burgers and fries come with beer after a game.

So, we’ll switch the classes short term goal to “lose 20 lbs,” which will make him a better athlete and might make it easier to find a date for his brother’s wedding. And with the wedding there, and his friends determined to preserve the past by never growing up, his longer-term goal will be to grow-up. (This supposes that his current life chafes a bit (in comparison, perhaps, with the wonderful life his brother has?).)

The new goal list, then is:

A) (short term) His brother is getting married, so he would like to find someone nice to take to the ceremony so the family won’t think he’s a loser.
B) (short term) Drop twenty pounds.
C) (long term) Wants to figure out what he’s going to do with the rest of his life, and start down that path.

If you take a look at where we are now, the story is more personal, more tightly focused and driven by his dissatisfaction with his life. He has his brother as an example of what he could attain were he to apply himself. He has his buddies who aren’t growing up and don’t want him to grow up. Definitely a coming of age/change of life story.

The immediate story idea that comes to mind for him which will connect all of those dots is that Sly gets into a yoga class at the Y, but it’s not going to make him lose weight. The instructor, an attractive woman who has rejected all the other guys on the team when they’ve taken a run at her, suggests that if he wants to lose weight, he’s going to have to work hard. He accepts the challenge. She says she’ll help him, but wants something in return: there’s a group of kids in the youth league that play on Saturday morning who just lost their coach. He takes that job on, she’ll train, help coach and so on. Things heat up between them, he chooses the kids team over his buddies; the instructor joins him for the wedding, it’s all good. And, through working with the kids, he finds he really likes coaching and helping others, so he finds his direction in life.

It’s key that you notice how such a simple change in Sly, when examined for consequences, generates new stories. The first isn’t completely foreign to the second, but they’re certainly not the same. And if we go back and change Sly’s job from four-twelves, to a sixty hour a week job with an investment bank, where he’s risen well beyond anyone he knows, things can flip again. Or if he’s very religious instead of lapsed, and has learned an unsavory secret about his brother’s intended. One simple adjustment to the facts reshapes the character, and reshapes the stories told about that character.

The Workout:

Just follow the steps. Lather, rinse, repeat five times, changing one fact each time. It doesn’t matter which fact you change. You might only change one, taking it darker or lighter with each step.

Step One: Create a character and list five facts about him or her.
Step Two: Create a simple profile of this character based on those facts.
Step Three: Create two short term goals and one long term goal that this character would realistically pursue.
Step Four: Briefly sketch out a story or two that achieves all the goals and incorporates (or alters) the five facts.
Step Five: Alter one of the facts, then follow Steps Two-Five again.

At the end of five passes through this process, you should have five different characters, about whom you could write many different stories. Understand that those simple adjustments are exactly the kind of thing that happens during the process of writing. It’s been my experience that when a character develops as the story is written, the story becomes the stronger for it. This process isn’t something to fear, it’s something to embrace. Sure, it may complicate revisions as you bring the old stuff up to speed with the new, but the story will be so vibrant and entertaining, you’ll be overjoyed you went with the changes.

Please feel free to share some of the more interesting results in the comments below.

©2015 Michael A. Stackpole


I’m really enjoying writing and sharing these exercises. I hope you’re finding them useful. I really want to thank everyone who has retweeted the notices, and especially those who have turned around and bought something out of my online store, like 21 Days to a Novel. The fact that these exercises caught enough of your interest for you to invest in your writing is a great incentive for me to continue.

If you’re serious about your writing, you’ll want to take a look at my book, 21 Days to a Novel. It’s a 21 day long program that will help you do all the prep work you need to be able to get from start to finish on your novel. If you’ve ever started a book or story and had it die after ten pages or ten chapters, the 21 Days to a Novel program will get you past the problems that killed your work. 21 Days to a Novel covers everything from characterization to plotting, showing you how to put together a story that truly works.

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