We have distilled the principles and exercises from the VerbalEyze writers workshop curriculum into a series of online mini-lessons. Each lesson below begins with a discussion of best practices related to the lesson topic. Then there are one or more exercises in each of five genres of writing (poetry, fiction, song writing, playwriting, and creative non-fiction) that give you help you put the best practices to work.
These mini-lessons are not intended to be a one-time experience. We encourage you to revisit each of these lessons and the related exercises several times as a way of continuing to hone your skill as a writer.
If you have found value in these mini-lessons, please consider a donation to support the work VerbalEyze is doing with young writers. Thank you.
Writing Is Narrative
The objective of this lesson is to consider how theme emerges and contributes to narrative engagement for a reader. Theme sits at the intersection of character, setting, situation, and actions. However, starting with a theme in mind can cause characters to come across like puppets if you are not very careful. An alternate approach is to develop out the story and be aware of what theme is emerging; then by making small modifications to story elements, you can effect alterations to the emerging theme.
Exercise: “Controlling Metaphor”
Decide on a theme for a poem.
Now conceive of a controlling metaphor, based on an animal, which will illuminate the theme.
As you develop out the metaphor in a poem, you must prevent the theme from seizing control of the metaphor.
The metaphor should illustrate but not become the theme.
Decide on a theme.
Then create a character who knows nothing about the theme and is doing something with a motivation unrelated to the theme.
Write a story in which the theme comes to light as a result of the character’s actions but leaves the character unaware of the theme.
Do not reduce the character to a puppet serving the purposes of you, the writer.
Exercise: “It’s in How You Say It”
Decide on a theme for a chorus.
The chorus cannot simply state the theme, but must use creative or figurative language.
Write the chorus and then write three verses that expand on the theme.
At no time can the theme be directly stated in the song lyrics.
Exercise: “Beyond the Weather”
Think of a theme related to the topic of betrayal.
Now write a scene in which two characters primarily discuss the weather.
The scene must relate the theme about the topic of betrayal.
One or both of the characters can be aware of a betrayal, but they cannot be aware of the theme.
Exercise: “Themes in Retrospect”
Think of a situation involving family or friends in which you were either involved or not involved.
Write a short essay about the situation and what happened.
Without changing any of the events or statements made by the participants, use the narrative to illustrate a theme of which the participants are unaware.
What are the key components that result in narrative engagement for an audience? As a rule narrative structures should demonstrate coherence, symmetry and balance. Of course, as always, knowingly breaking the rule can also be effective.
An effective story is designed to evoke a planned series of emotions or responses from an audience. Coherence is a critical part of story development: the parts must fit together in a way that makes sense. Symmetry in story includes both structure (beginning and endings) and motif (symbols and imagery). Achieving balance means story elements must be in proportion to each other.
Try deconstructing a popular movie or story. Describe ways in which characters, imagery, conflict are proportionate and balanced. Also consider any instances in which them seemed unbalanced or disproportionate.
Exercise: “Balance in Diamonds” Choose a topic and then identify two pairs of contrasting concepts related to the topic. Now write a concrete poem with four stanzas laid out in a diamond shape. Each stanza explores one of the concepts:
- how it relates to the topic,
- the other contrasting concept,
- and the overall meaning of the poem.
Exercise: “Starting in the Middle”
First conceive of a story situation. That situation becomes the middle of the story.
Now develop a beginning that will lead to that middle situation and an ending that will result from the middle situation.
Emphasis should be given to coherence and overall balance of story elements.
Write the story.
Exercise: “Connecting the Unconnected”
Write down an emotion that will be expressed in a song.
Then write down an emotion that is not obviously related to the first emotion (e.g. love, boredom).
Write a song that develops coherence and symmetry between the two emotions.
Exercise: “Connecting Beats”
Write a beat (the smallest dramatic unit which contains action, conflict, and an event/outcome) between two characters.
Then write a beat between two different characters.
Finally write a middle beat that creates a coherent connection between two first beats.
Exercise: “The Before and After”
Select a day in your past that you remember distinctly and briefly describe an event that occurred.
Now describe events on the day or days preceding the day you choose and events on the day or days following that day.
Your description should demonstrate the connections that lead up to and flowed from the key event on the chosen day.
Character motivation is an essential component for building narrative engagement with an audience. Motivation drives the development of both characters and plot lines. However a character’s motivation must be different from the author’s motivation (theme); otherwise the character is a puppet.
For a story to resonate, characters must have motivations proportional to their actions. Bigger is not always better: often subtler motivations (e.g. friendship) can work as well as sensational motivations (e.g. murder). One thing to consider during story revisions is if a minor character has a stronger motivation than the main character, that might be the real main character.
Exercise: “The Why You Never Heard”
Think of someone you know who did something but never explained why.
Now write a poem that explores the possible motivations that person had for doing the thing he or she did.
Exercise: “For No Reason?”
Begin with the following story situation: a stranger walks up to a random person on the street and gives that person one thousand dollars in cash.
Write a short story about the events that lead up to that situation with a focus on exploring the motivations behind the character’s actions.
Exercise: “Maybe This Is Why, Maybe That”
Think up a specific action or event. That action or event becomes the basis for the chorus of a song.
Write the chorus and three verses. Each verse presents a different motivation for the action or event in the chorus.
Exercise: “It’s in the Action”
Place a single character in a scene. Decide on an action the character is about to take and the motivation as to why that character will take that action.
Write the scene without any spoken lines so that the actions of the character in the scene convey both the upcoming event and the motivation.
Exercise: “What Photos Don’t Say”
Think of a family photograph you have seen but of which you were not a part.
Now write about the events that may have surrounded that photograph.
Focus on exploring the motivations behind those events.
In this mini-lesson, you will focus on how characters result in narrative engagement for the readers. The more complexly developed the characters, the more narrative engagement results. Characters succeed if the audience is allowed to build a connection and/or opinion about the character: love, hate, sympathy, curiosity, and so on.
As an author you must understand each major character intimately, believe that they are real, be able to list both positive and negative qualities. No character is all good or all bad and will have things he or she cares about and wants to see happen. Characters must be human, even if they are not human beings.
Exercise: “While You Were Away”
Write a poem which portrays a character. The catch is that character is absent from the poem.
Paint a well-defined picture of the character through the setting, tone, and atmosphere of the poem.
Exercise: “Thinking Like the Other Sex”
Start with a story idea and plot out beginning, middle, and ending situations for the story.
Now, if you are female, write the story with a male main character. If you are male, the main character must be female.
Focus on portraying the opposite sex’s perspective and mannerisms in a realistic manner.
Exercise: “Give Voice to the Other Sex”
Write a song in which the voice in the song is a character of the opposite sex from you.
This character is singing about a second character who is the same sex as you are.
Any emotion can be expressed by the song. You must focus on portraying the perspective of the opposite sex in a realistic manner.
Exercise Build out a character description that includes:
- general qualities,
Then create one for a second character.
Write a scene in which the two characters interact. The scene should be set in the house or room of one of the characters and convey a sense of that character.
Exercise: “Finding Sympathy”
Write a short non-fiction essay about a person you do not like.
In the essay, you must portray that person sympathetically and as a good person.