Cud Flashes In The Pan

David M. Fitzpatrick

This month’s theme:
Writing Exercises

No fiction this month! Instead, what follows are a series of writing exercises—some of those I use in the classes I teach. The goal with any of these exercises is to get you writing. Don’t worry about quality, whether or not it makes sense, spelling, grammar—just write. All that matters is putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and getting your creative juices flowing. If you find you’re on to something good, you can edit and improve later. First, we’ll start with six basic exercises; then we’ll move on in a way that will stretch your skills even more.

These six exercises to flex your creativity and get you writing. Again, don’t worry about quality; just write.


Basic Exercise #1:
By David M. Fitzpatrick

Choose one item from each of the word lists below and type them into your word processor. When you’re ready, write something—anything from a scene to a story to freeform rambling—using every one of those items. Be sure that each thing matters in some way to the story; don’t just throw them in with a quick mention.

Write for 20 minutes.

Albino - Captain - Dancer - Fiddler - Killer - Mime - Policeman - Prostitute

Boston - Burbank - Delta Vega VI - Iceland - Lake Michigan - Springfield - Tokyo - Zimbabwe

Carrot - Dynamite - Ferris wheel - Jewel - Magazine - Purse - Spaceship - Vibrator

Duck - Elephant - Ferret - Lobster - Monkey - Rabbit - Skunk - Water Bear

1525 - 1763 - 1847 - 1931 - 1977 - 2004 - 2136 - 2329

It’s always interesting to note the vast numbers of students who choose natural matches, such as “rabbit” and “carrot,” or “captain,” “spaceship,” and “Delta Vega VI.” Try to resist the urge to pick matching words; challenge yourself by disparate things that make it tougher to work together.

It’s also amusing how many people—male and female—work “vibrator” into their stories.


Basic Exercise #2:
By David M. Fitzpatrick

Get several sheets of paper. Index cards or Post-It Notes work well. Turn them landscape-wise (wider than tall) and draw dividing lines down the middle of each. Now create two-word titles consisting of an adjective as the first word and a noun as the second word; the pairs should be natural matches, such as “Red Rose” or “Blue Skies.” When you’re done, tear the sheets in half and shuffle the adjectives around. Pair them up with nouns that they weren’t originally paired with. Go for outlandish and strange if possible. So perhaps you started with:

Competitive Games
Loose Women
Intergalactic Space
Mischievous Gremlins
Enchanted Items

When you rearrange, you might end up with something like this:

Intergalactic Games
Enchanted Women
Loose Space
Mischievous Items
Competitive Gremlins

Or this:

Competitive Items
Loose Gremlins
Intergalactic Women
Enchanted Games
Mischievous Space

Pick one that grabs you (or several, if you’d like) and write about it. Doing this exercise with other people makes this exercise a lot of fun; you can each come up with titles and swap adjectives.

Write for 20 minutes.


Basic Exercise #3:
By David M. Fitzpatrick

This is a three-part exercise designed to get you writing extremely brief stories.

Step #1: Write a 300-word story. It should be complete, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Step #2: Now copy that text and paste in a second version, and edit that 300-word story down to 150 words—without ruining the story. It should be the same story told with half the words.

Step #3: Now copy that text and edit that 150-word story down to 75 words, once again preserving the story.

Bonus Step: If you feel adventurous, see if you can then cut the 75-word version down as small as you can—say, to 25 words.

The key thing about this exercise is to NOT start with 75 words and expand. This exercise is about learning to trim and pare down a story. Treat each variation as a different project. When you’re done with all of them, read them over and decide what you like and don’t like about the various versions. You might be surprised to discover which was easiest and which you prefer.

In class, I have students write the 300-word versions, and they don’t know they’ll be cutting it in half. It’s amusing to watch them sweat through the first one (“An entire story in 300 words?! It can’t be done!”), panic for the next one (“Impossible!”), and utterly lose it for the third (“I’m going to kill this instructor!”).

Meanwhile, to those of you who protest about 300-, 150-, and 75-word stories as flash fiction when I write a flash-fiction column with stories ranging from 75 to 1,200… I know. It hurts.


Basic Exercise #4:
By David M. Fitzpatrick

Visualize two characters alone together in a room. Who they are and why they’re in the room is entirely up to you. This exercise is about creating believable characters who are different, and showing us how they compare or contrast.

Begin writing for 10 minutes from the point of view of one of the characters, but don’t use dialogue. Get into his head. Show us what he’s thinking and how he feels about the other person in the room.

When you’re done, add a scene break and shift the point of view to the second character. Now write for 10 minutes about that character.

This exercise is to get you writing from the perspectives of two separate characters in a scene, getting into their heads and engaging the reader without using dialogue—the opposite of the next exercise.


Basic Exercise #5:
By David M. Fitzpatrick

First, visit and read Terry’s story “They’re Made out of Meat.” This story is entirely dialogue—without any dialogue tags (such as “he said”). It features two characters having a conversation, but it tells a great story.

Your task is to write a story in that fashion. Using only dialogue—and without even using dialogue tags—tell an engaging story featuring two characters.

This exercise is great practice for learning to write believable, natural, non-contrived dialogue. Writing good dialogue can be challenging. What I always urge writers to do is to read their dialogue out loud; if it sounds contrived, stilted, or forced, you’ll usually know it when you hear yourself saying it. And in a story that only has dialogue, you’ll have ample opportunity to test your dialogue-writing skills.

It’s often too easy to rely on narrative, and to forget the importance of well-written dialogue. Writing a story with only dialogue is one of my favorite exercises; readers of my column have seen several short-shorts here using this method. I first read “They’re Made out of Meat” when it was published in OMNI magazine a long time ago, and I was immediately struck by Terry’s ability to tell such a marvelous story with nothing but dialogue—and knew immediately what a great way it was to test dialogue-writing skills.

Write for 20 minutes.


Basic Exercise #6:
By David M. Fitzpatrick

This one is pretty straightforward: Identify the genre you dislike the most and write a story in it. This is a tough challenge, because if you truly despise romances or Westerns or sci-fi more than anything, it might feel a bit masochistic to force yourself to write that way.

Obviously, the purpose of this exercise is to force you to get outside your comfort zone and expand how your creativity works. Be fair; if you don’t like sci-fi but abhor sword & sorcery, don’t wimp out and write sci-fi; make yourself do a sword & sorcery piece.

This might seem like a miserable task at first, but students frequently find it far more enjoyable than they possibly expected. In fact, in one class, a student who detested everything science fiction not only discovered she enjoyed the tale she whipped up but she later did her semester project story in that genre, to impressive results.

Then again, a few students who have suffered through this exercise have considered hiring hitmen to ensure that could I never make them do anything like it again.

Write for 20 minutes.


Now it’s time to really challenge yourself. You’re going to do those six exercises over again… sort of. But this time around, they’re going to be more complex. And instead of freeforming and writing scenes or pieces of stories, your task with each exercise is to write a complete story in each exercise, from beginning to end.

But that’s not all. For each of these stories, you’ll need to incorporate five key things. These five things are found in virtually every quality fiction novel, and in many short stories. It isn’t the only way to write stories, but it’s a damn good way. I teach it so students will learn the importance of these five things. In the next set of exercises, every story you write should have all five of them.

This is the main character. Hero or antihero, good guy or bad, he’s the central character—the one who is trying to resolve the story’s plot.

The antagonist is what works against the character as he’s trying to attain his goal. The antagonist could be an opponent, nature, a situation, or even the protagonist himself. The antagonist creates conflict for the protagonist; without conflict, the story won’t be very interesting.

This is why the story is happening, and through the actions of the characters, what happens in the story. It’s the reason we have a story.

This is the story’s end, when the plot is resolved. But what many writers miss is that the protagonist should participate in the resolution; he must never be a bystander who watches someone or something else resolve the plot.

This is also often missed. When all is said and done, the protagonist should have changed in some fundamental way. Perhaps he learns a lesson, sees something a different way, etc.; whatever it is, if the protagonist is the same guy on the last page as he was on the first page, something is lacking.

For example, let’s say we have a story where an evil wizard has kidnapped the princess, and the knight is trying to save her. The protagonist is the knight, the antagonist is the evil wizard, and the plot is that the wizard has kidnapped the princess and the knight must rescue her. The resolution would be the knight succeeding in the rescue. But unlike fairy tales, we should have the knight change in some way. Perhaps he despised spoiled princesses and never believed he could love one, but during this adventure he falls for the princess he’s rescuing, learning that he can change his ways.

In class, I drill these five things into the students until they can recite, “Protagonist, antagonist, plot, resolution, and change!”

These six advanced exercises are replays of the six basic exercises, with a few differences. First, each has different twists that make them more complicated. Second, in every exercise you will write complete stories, so no scenes or story pieces. And finally, in every exercise, your story must contain protagonist, antagonist, plot, resolution and change.


Advanced Exercise #1:

By David M. Fitzpatrick
Choose at least one item from each of the word lists below and type them into your word processor. If you can incorporate more than one from each list, all the better. When you’re ready, write something—anything from a scene to a story to freeform rambling—using every one of those items. Be sure that each thing matters in some way to the story; don’t just throw them in with a quick mention. And remember, this story should have protagonist, antagonist, and plot (supplied by the lists), as well as resolution and change (which are entirely up to you).

Albino - Businessman - Criminal - Dancer - Musician - Law-enforcement officer - Legal professional - Military commander - Performer - Prostitute

Albino - Businessman - Criminal - Dancer - Musician - Law-enforcement officer - Legal professional - Military commander - Performer - Prostitute

Pursuit - Escape - Rescue - Revenge - Rivalry - Underdog - Love - Hate - Sacrifice - Quest

Carnival/circus - Drugs/alcohol - Explosives - Food/drink - Magazine or book - Money - Purse or wallet - Sex toy - Spaceship or ship - Valuables

Alien planet - Big city - Foreign country - Forest - On the water - On the road - Prison - Small town - Theater - Underground

1525 - 1763 - 1847 - 1932 - 1977 - 1998 - 2004 - 2136 - 2201 - 2329

WILD CARD: Now choose any one thing you already haven’t chosen off any of those lists. That thing should be the central factor of the story, around which the characters and the plot revolve.


Advanced Exercise #2:
By David M. Fitzpatrick

This time around, draw vertical lines to cut your sheets of paper, index cards, or Post-it-Notes into thirds. Now you’ll create three-part titles: at the left is an adjective or adjective phrase; in the center is a noun or a noun phrase; and at the right is a prepositional phrase. You can use articles and conjunctions if you’d like. Be complex, but make the titles sensible. Then, like before, cut the papers into thirds and mix them all up. So perhaps you started with the following (separated to show the pieces):

Competitive Games in Stadiums
Loose Women in Brothels
Intergalactic Space across the Universe
Mischievous Gremlins under the House
Enchanted Items of the Grand Wizard

When you rearrange, you might end up with something like this (you can adjust singulars and plurals, or drop or add articles, so that they make sense):

Competitive Women across the Universe
Loose Gremlins of the Grand Wizard
Enchanted Space in Brothels
Mischievous Items in Stadiums
Intergalactic Games under the House

These tend to be even crazier than the first version of this exercise. This is really good when you have several people participating and swapping title pieces. Pick the one that grabs you and write a complete story, being sure to include protagonist, antagonist, plot, resolution, and change.


Advanced Exercise #3:
By David M. Fitzpatrick

You’ll do the same thing as you did in the basic version: write a 300-word story, then copy and paste that and cut the new version to 150 words, then copy and paste that and cut it to 75 words. You can keep cutting if you choose. The difference, of course, is that you’re going to do these very brief stories so that each has protagonist, antagonist, plot, resolution, and change.

This can really test your skills. In my defense, if you read back over every piece of fiction I’ve written on The Cud, you will be hard pressed to find even one that doesn’t have PAPRC—even when I’ve done super-short flash pieces. Protagonist, antagonist, and plot are the easy parts; resolution is a bit more challenging; but change seems to be the one that slows people down in such brief word counts.

In class, this is timed. If you feel like really challenging yourself, watch the clock and write the first version of this in 30 minutes. Hack it in half in 20, and in half again in 10.


Advanced Exercise #4:
By David M. Fitzpatrick

Like before, you’re going to visualize two characters alone together in a room. But before you write from their points of view, spend five minutes writing about the actual room. Write in narrative, as an author describing a scene. But as you do, bring the room alive. Describe it in detail in a way that makes the reader feel that the setting of the story is as important as the characters.

Once you’ve set this scene, spend ten minutes writing from the point of view of the first character, ensuring that his tie to this room is very important. When you’re done, write for ten minutes from the point of view of the next character, observing the same rules.

Now comes the twist: Write from the point of view of a third, unplanned character. This third character knows what is happening in the room, but the two characters in the room cannot see him. Perhaps he’s a spy, a ghost, a pet, an inanimate object, a deity, etc. During this section, your protagonist (whichever that is) must participate in the resolution of the plot, and experience change. If you have to switch to another character in the room for resolution and change, do it.

This is a very challenging exercise. Good luck!


Advanced Exercise #5:

By David M. Fitzpatrick
You wrote dialogue-only with two characters in the basic exercise. Now, write a complete story with protagonist, antagonist, plot, resolution, and change—but with three characters. No dialogue tags—which makes your task of ensuring that the reader knows who’s speaking al the more challenging.

There are several ways to subtly manage this. Having one character command the conversation and ask questions of others by name can work, as can characters calling each other by name or rank as needed. Characters who speak in certain ways, such as with accents or by using particular vocabulary, are also good markers.

Now, if you really feel like challenging yourself, add more characters. When you get to four or more, you might allow yourself to use occasional dialogue tags to avoid having lots of characters constantly addressing each other by name (which could sound contrived very quickly). But even if you opt for dialogue tags, use them very sparingly—only as you feel you absolutely need them.


Advanced Exercise #6:
By David M. Fitzpatrick

It was bad enough writing in your least-favorite genre. This time, identify your three least-favorite genres and merge them into one story, all while including protagonist, antagonist, plot, resolution, and change. So if your three least-favorite genres are romance, Western, and sci-fi, perhaps your story involves a spellcasting gunslinger who is in love with the heroine. Use only the three genres you dislike the most; don’t make it easy by adding in genres you enjoy.

A follow-up to this exercise is to merge the genre you love the most with the genre you hate the most—sort of a consolation prize for all the suffering you’ve been through.


David M. Fitzpatrick is a fiction writer in Maine, USA. His many short stories have appeared in print magazines and anthologies around the world. He writes for a newspaper, writes fiction, edits anthologies, and teaches creative writing. Visit him at to learn more.