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 Structure
What are the underlying structural elements that are essential to strong story-telling? One key element is plot. Regardless of structure, the fundamental plot components are motivation, choices, and change.
Plot commonly relies on the convention of conflict and resolution, but can also be non-confrontational. Resolution is a common ending for a plot; however and ending can also involve a revelation, reversal, or explanation. A plot can fail if it is marked by uncontrolled wandering, unintended confusion, pointless pointlessness, or a disappointing ending.
Exercise: “Plotting the Rhyme”
Think of both a character-conflict plot structure and a non-confrontational plot structure around the concept of hunger.
Using the plot structures as guides, write two different poems.
You can follow each plot structure in either a sequential or non-sequential manner.
Exercise: “One Beginning, Many Endings”
Conceive of a story beginning (character and setting). Then create three one-page story summaries or outlines.
Each one needs to describe a different plot (motivation, choices, change) from that same beginning.
One of the plots must be character-conflict.
One must be non-confrontational.
One should attempt to combine elements of both plot types.
Think of both a character-conflict plot structure and a non-confrontational plot structure around the concept of betrayal.
Using the plot structures as guides, write two different songs. You can follow each plot structure in either a sequential or non-sequential manner.
As an extra challenge, compose the songs such that the chorus is the same in each.
Exercise: “There’s Action, but Is There Plot?”
Define a scene with two characters and an action (what happens but not the why). Then plot out the motivation, choices, and change that surround the action.
Write out the full scene.
Exercise: “Finding the Whys in the What”
Think of a situation between two people you know well.
Plot out the motivations, choices, and changes behind the actions that occurred in the situation.
Incorporate as many factual details into the plot as you know and then use poetic license to fill in gaps based on your knowledge of the people.
Consider your favorite books, movies, television shows. How is conflict essential to strong story-telling?
Stories that make progress too easy or convenient for a character lack conflict and become uninteresting.Conflict is tension or pressure that inhibits progress toward a desired goal or condition. Readers and listeners like determined characters facing difficult circumstances.
Conflict is not necessarily violence or shouting match; the converse is also true in that violence or a fight is not automatically conflict. Rather, conflict involves a fear of loss.
Exercise: “But I Don’t Care”
Write a poem in which something is lost and the importance of that loss is denied.
The poem should explore the conflict underlying both the loss itself and the denial of that loss, with the goal coming under tension being the goal of happiness.
In writing the poem, you should take care not to overindulge in the emotions of the situation but rather explore the nature of the conflicts.
Exercise: “Without a Word Spoken”
Begin with two characters and a goal that one of the character wants. The other character provides the source of conflict.
Place the characters in a setting of your choosing. Now write a short story that portrays the conflict that occurs.
The catch is that neither of the characters speaks or physically engages the other.
Exercise: “When Love Falls in Triangles”
Write a song about two characters who are both in love with a third character.
Each alternating verse of the song should portray the conflict from a different one of the two characters.
For an extra challenge, the chorus should portray the conflict from the point of view of the third character.
Exercise: “In Absentia”
Write a scene in which two characters are in conflict over a goal. The characters can speak and take any nonviolent action.
There can be as many character entrances and exits in the scene as you wish to include.
The catch is that the characters can never be on stage at the same time.
Write a short memoir account of a time when you wanted to achieve a goal but were prevented from doing so by something other than a fight or other violent action.
The memoir should explore:
- the nature of the conflict or conflicts behind the situation,
- the source of the conflict or conflicts,
- the ways in which your progress was inhibited,
- the emotions that resulted.
Setting is one of the underlying structural elements that are essential to strong story-telling. As a writer, you must incorporate setting as an integral part of story design.
For setting to exist, it must be made visible to the reader. The specifics of the setting should be essential to the story. Vague or generic settings weaken the force of a narrative. Keep in mind that well-crafted settings can reveal aspects and qualities of characters and plot.
For example, construct a setting of an unoccupied room in which the details reveal qualities of the person living there.
Exercise: “Embedding Scene in Verse”
Select a scene in which a poem will be placed. The poem does not need to be about the scene, but must incorporate aspects of the scene.
Write the poem such that the stanza structure conveys or mirrors a movement through different aspects of the scene that surrounds the poem.
Exercise: “Spiraling In”
Begin a story with a broad description of a setting.
Over the course of several sentences spiral the description of the setting into a specific location. When arriving at the specific location, we must discover a character.
Continue to develop out the character and the beginning scene of the story.
Exercise: “It’s the Same but Different”
Choose a setting which changes throughout the year. This does not have to be a nature setting, just any place in which the details change in some way.
Now write a four verse song that explores the change in the setting.
Exercise: “Before We Even See Them”
Imagine a setting for a play that consists of three rooms in a house.
Write set dressing instructions to describe each of these rooms and their contents.
The details in the set dressing should suggest the characters we are likely to meet in the play and events that might happen.
Exercise: “Filling in the Spaces”
Select an older person you know well.
Write a detailed description of that person’s bedroom as a teenager.
As you write, incorporate as many factual details into the description as you know and then use poetic license to fill in gaps based on your knowledge of the person.
Form and Structure
Often overlooked by writers, form and structure comprise underlying structural elements that are essential to strong story-telling. Elements of the form and structure you chose comprise the underlying narrative framework of what you are writing. Every story requires a framework that holds elements of the story together; this is referred to as the structure. If a structural element holds no tension or movement in tension, it should be discarded.
A story must have a shape that holds narrative tension in balance; this is referred to as form. Story form can take numerous shapes such as spiral, intertwining, zigzag, and circular. Stories that seem to have nothing in common can have the same underlying structure.
Exercise: “Finding Form in the Formless”
Engage in automatic/free writing for fifteen minutes.
From the results select elements and concepts. Then plot a form structure that connects them.
Write a poem based on the form structure and incorporating the elements and concepts.
Exercise: “It’s the From Here to There That Matters”
Start from the situation of a teenager whose parents do not want him or her to dropout of college.
Decide on an ending situation. Then define a form line for the plot and identify key incidents along the form line.
Write a short story that incorporates the form line and incidents.
Exercise: “The Tension of a First”
Recall or imagine the experience leading up to and including a first kiss or a first breakup.
Construct the structure of the tensions of that experience with a form line that plots key moments of the experience.
Write a four verse song that conveys the tensions and emotions of the experience.
Exercise: “Realty Inspired Form”
Write out a story from real life.
From the written description, circle the key incidents within the story. Plot the incidents on a form line in any manner you choose.
Finally draft an outline of a fictionalized play, first at the act level with paragraphs that summarize each act and then at the scene level with paragraphs that summarize each scene.
Exercise: “Finding the Form in Real Life”
Recall a big fight or disagreement.
Reconstruct the structure of the fight with a form line that plots key moments from the fight.
Write a memoir account of the fight using the form line to bring out the quality and experience of the tension that occurred over the course of the fight.