All writers can benefit from a challenging workout. This exercise adapted from Katherine Haake’s book What our Speech Disrupts will guide you through 50 sentences that will result in a fictional story. I’ve shortened up the initial round of brainstorming from Haake’s book, but I highly recommend trying all of the arduous exercises if you can get your hands on a copy of her book.
This post originally appeared over two and a half years ago, so I wanted to share it again to reach new readers and possibly inspire anyone who’s been in a writing slump lately. Plus, it’s summer and I’d much rather be outside than slaving over a post!
In order to arrive at your first sentence, brainstorm a quick list of subjects that trigger your writing. For example, my list would include things like Montana, the outdoors, feeling apart, water, family, etc. Just make sure they are things that really motivate your writing.
Now pick what you feel is your strongest triggering subject. Make a list of ten assumptions you have about that subject. You might use one sentence, a few sentences, or an entire paragraph. The trick is to record details that set your observation apart from what most other people might note about that subject.
These steps are minimalistic, but don’t cheat. You want to make sure that each sentence follows the given guidelines and flows from one sentence flows into the next as a connected narrative.
1. Begin your story with one of the ten assumptions that you brainstormed. Write it down.
2. Write a sentence that repeats one word, but no more than one, from your first sentence.
3. Write a sentence that repeats one word, but no more than one, from your second sentence.
For the rest of your sentences in this Sentence Sounds exercise, write a sentence that includes:
4.a place name.
5. a dash.
6. a color and a name.
7. more than thirty words.
8. less than ten words.
9. a colon.
10. a part of the body.
11. the conditional tense (The conditional tense is the tense used to talk about what we would do or what something would be like.)
12. a first person pronoun.
13. an interruptive clause (Set off by commas within a sentence and it contains nonessential information).
14. quotation marks.
15. two interruptive clauses (See above. This makes for a very complex sentence).
16. three articles of clothing.
17. a simile (A comparison using like or as.)
18. any form of the word “try.”
19. a geographical formation.
20. italics (Underline if writing by hand).
21. a dictionary definition.
22. a metaphor (A comparison of two like things, not using like or as.)
23. a parallel structure (The same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. The usual way to join parallel structures is with the use of coordinating conjunctions such as “and” or “or.”)
24. exactly twenty-nine words.
25. exactly seventeen words.
26. exactly five words.
27. a comma and a semicolon.
28. the same word four times.
29. a brand name.
30. a question mark.
31. reference to a past event.
32. a familial relationship.
34. alliteration (For example: Jon jumped joyfully.)
35. reference to a movie star.
36. exactly ten words.
37. exactly twenty words.
38. exactly thirty words.
39. reference to the time of day.
40. a name of a city.
41. a comma splice (Two independent sentences joined by a comma.)
42. two dashes.
43. something seen.
44. something tasted.
45. something heard.
46. something touched.
47. something smelled.
48. an equivocation. (The same word used with two difference meanings. For example: The sign said “fine for parking here”, and since it was fine, I parked there.
49. the future tense. (For example: Jon will go to Jill’s house tomorrow.)
50. the present tense. (For example: Jon smiles.)
Now it’s time to finish the story. Write a sentence, or a paragraph, or another page. However much you need to reach the end.
Do you ever try guided writing exercises such as this Sentence Sounds one?
Permission must be granted by Jeri Walker to use the image in this post.
Wow… I love these posts! I keep a file of these prompts / exercises to use when I need something to kick start things. 🙂
Let me know if you ever give this one a try. I’ve only done it once, back in college. I did assign it to some “advanced” senior comp students long ago, and they were pretty much ready to kill me!
I think that we forget that I am super lazy. This is more work than I could ever do.
Says the man who now has two blogs!
Interesting exercise, Jeri. I dont write fiction (and am not interested in doing so) but will definitely tweet your link as I’m sure there are many people who would like to try the exercise.
Doreen, it’s great that you will share this with others. Who knows who might give it a try?
I love this. When I used to be a teacher we would do round robin writing where each person would write for, say 3 minutes, then pass the paper to the next person and they would continue the story. Then we would read the stories out loud when we were all done. Some of them were so so silly. I can remember getting tears in my eyes. This is something that would be really fun to do in a writers workshop as well.
Thanks so much for sharing.
Julie, I’d say fun writing activities like that are one of the things I most miss about teaching! Years ago, with my college composition students, we wrote a collaborative story in the class’s online discussion board. Needless to say, it was hilarious and very DIRTY!
Love it; you know, I might just do this one day for fun. I thought the interruptive clauses were interesting though; I used to use those a GREAT deal, but coming to realize oftentimes that they made me digress too much, and while I find they CAN bring new ideas to the storyline too, they most definitely do have to be contained – I had a tendency to go off on a tangent with them in the early days. That said though, I find my stories evolve by using them – some bringing new ideas (but now, only by plucking them out and using them in their own right).
S.P. I can only imagine that you attempt at this writing exercise would be nothing short of spectacular!
That’s a pretty cool exercise… I don’t write much fiction, but some of these steps can definitely help to bring nonfiction stories to life. Thanks for posting!
Dan, I can definitely see the prompts working for real life stories as well. That’s a fabulous idea and one I may have to attempt.
Sounds like a great workout to get your typing fingers on their way to something great. Thanks!
Krystle, I don’t do exercises like these often enough, but I should since they work wonders for getting the creative juices flowing.
I am going to give this a whirl when I finish my current round of edits. I love to challenge myself with writing…you never know what an exercise like this might spark!
Millie, thanks for visiting my blog for the first time and I hope you’ll find the posts usual and entertaining. I stopped by your blog as well. Congrats on participating in NaNoWriMo!
Thanks, it was really fun. It’ll be exciting to finish up my first draft and then start the edits. I entered my first novel in the ABNA tonight. There’s always something to do…
This will be a fun project to do. I love the way it helps guide you to the end result. This could really help with my story development, don’t you think?
Susan: Guided writing exercises are a great way to help writers develop their skills since they make you use your writing muscles in ways you normally wouldn’t.
Do you have something for those of us with ADD?
Made, this one is a bit long isn’t it? My ADD peep might like the 15 Sentence Portrait Poem activity I posted a while back. Thanks for stopping by and good luck with your vlog.
I’ve been doing a lot of drawing and visual exercises – maybe I should try a few of your writing exercises. I have another writer friend who has started to blog some of her exercises. Thanks for teaching us!
Leora: What is your friend’s blog? I’m always looking for exercises to try.
This is fantastic! I haven’t studied writing in any seriousness since leaving school, but this made me really want to do a course.
I like the challenge of first just doing it and then teasing it into something actually worth reading!
btw, I’ve just grabbed a copy of your Poe collection from Amazon. I’ve been looking for a way to get into him for ages, so cheers.
Thanks very much
Mike: Hope you enjoy the exercise and thanks for giving my version of Poe a try.
I don’t write fiction, either, but the list seems rather daunting. I wonder what the rationale was for each of the exercises? It feels like being shoehorned into a template and you don’t know where it’s taking you. I’m glad it’s worked for you.
Jeanette: Granted, this exercise is a bit extreme, but I like them since it can trick the mind into saying something in a way it wouldn’t normally try otherwise.
I do not write fiction but I will still try the exercises to keep my mind alert to convey new ideas. I really only write one blog but I need to work on organizing information for my readers enjoyment. Thank you for the post.
Edward: Exercises like this really are great workouts. I need to do more of them since the results are a great way to break from routines.
I like the exercise. I am not quite ready to give it a try right now but I am going to bookmark this page and come back when I get some free time. It looks so very interesting and I am really interested in seeing how it works out.
Thanks for such a great article,
Brainstorming and then triggering into the particular topics… It is like sharpening our minds in order to put it all down in words …. An excellent idea for this prompt and I truly like the writing filters you have suggested above, dear Jeri.
Thanks for sharing!. All my best wishes!. Aquileana 😀
Aqui, this one is definitely a workout, but the results are always surprising and well-worth the effort.
I have a two week period of crazy work and then, blissfully it will be holiday time. This exercise looks like just the right thing to warm up my writing chops. 🙂
Debra, it would be wonderful to see what writing transpires if you give this exercise a go. I really should try to do it at least once a year 😉
dont rememeber this one Jeri, so thanks. In fact Ive been playing with prompts recently for something different. Hope you’re having a great break:-)
A.K., yeah this one first appeared many moons ago so I figured it was worth re-posting though perhaps a bit much for a summertime exercise. It’s fun though to hear from people who do end up giving it a try.
what a superb way to wake up the muse!
I only write non-fiction, but this is quite relevant for that, too!
Kim, it would be amazing if you tried this for non-fiction and even more amazing if it resulted in a post you could share on your blog or one someone else’s. Heck, since you tend to write posts on the brief side, but yet still sooooo gripping, I would love to post this exercise on my blog if you would be willing.
I’m dying to hear what you wrote from this!
Now, I just need to get disciplined and do some exercise–the physical kind as well as the writing kind. Maybe if they didn’t call it ‘exercise’ it would be easier.
Lorel, I might cringe if I went back into my graduate school files and read what I wrote from this. Haha, I’m only half-joking. All the more reason to kick myself in the pants and try it again.
What do you mean, you’d rather be outside?! Writers can’t get tans. Stay pale, my friend. Stay pale. 😛
Seriously, though, I’m looking forward to those newsletters you mentioned (in your newsletter) about book clubs.
Laura, we are members of the pale-people club aren’t we? Though my coating of freckles is coming in nicely… I’m pretty excited about the recent newsletter direction about book clubs. My end goal is to turn it into a free download for new subscribers.
Hi Jeri – I am going to print off this list and everyday I will try and do one. I think this will work just as well for a blog as for a story so we’ll see how it works out.
Lenie, good luck. One a day is indeed manageable and just think how it will all tie together in the end.
The metaphor not using the words like or as would be a killer for me. Do you have an example? Thanks! Jan
Jan, a metaphor would be a direct comparison such as, “She was a swan,” or “She danced with swan’s wings.” The simile form would be, “She looked like a swan,” or “She danced like she had swan wings.”
How can we be outside and still write our posts? Maybe use the dictation app. Wonder what I would produce if I was lying on the beach in the sun with my eyes closed spewing out something or other than my phone was capturing and turning into sentences?
Ken, good question 😉 I’ve only tinkered with the dictation app on my phone, but am quickly coming to see how it might come in hand on longer drives to capture ideas, etc.
This is an interesting exercise. I will try it. I imagine it takes some time, but it will be interesting to see what thoughts and ideas it triggers.
Donna, all of the exercises in Haake’s book are gigantic, but I enjoyed each and everyone because they really get me outside of the usual tropes I fall back on as a writer.
Wow! What a great way to blow the stink off a tired brain:) Nothing like an EXCELLENT writing prompt to get those juices going!
Jacquie, this truly is up there in the realm of excellent prompts. I know some people in the class I took really despised this book, but it definitely opens the writing flood gates and that is always a good thing in my book.
This is very interesting. I tried on a fiction blog I write. It is a bit like wearing uncomfortable underwear that is distraction but having to finish the task at hand. The story was something I would never have thought was possible. Thank you.
Barbara, I would love to read it. What is the name of your fiction blog? The link for your comment here leads to your Retire in Style blog.
I didn’t try this last time. Maybe I should add it to the massive post-trip to-do list? OR…. um… what an assignment for the long plane ride. It would keep my brain occupied and, who knows, I might get a story out of it?
Candy, I think this would make for a great exercise to do on a plane ride. Much more fruitful than watching three movies in a row which is what I did on my last overseas flight 😉
Jeri, you always have great writing exercises and prompts. And I would like to try this one. Actually, I would like to try all the ones you recommend 😉 Although I have some draft novels gathering dust, I’m thinking of writing short pieces (fiction and nonfiction) to submit to journals etc. I need some “fresh” ideas, or at least some methods for unleashing the ideas already in my head. I’ll let you know if I try this, but in the meantime, I’ve tweeted about it 🙂 And if I were in Montana, I’d want to be outside too. Here in Florida, the humidity and heat make it very unpleasant. Frustrating because I love to walk, especially in the middle of the day when I need a break from work.
Marie, prompts like this really are great for generating ideas for short pieces. One thing I don’t miss about the South is the humidity.
I like writing exercises. I have read alot of writing books like Stephen king’s on writing. They are super helpful. This is good because i always get confused if i am staying consistent in first or third person when writing a story. Good points!
Crystal, committing to completing various prompts on a regular basis really will result in great growth as a writer. I hope you can give Sentence Sounds or one of my shorter prompt posts a try. This one definitely requires a commitment 🙂
I am buried beneath a pile of lists of blog posts to write along with two applications for funding, a competition entry and one, no two client briefs. Sigh but this is tempting if only to procrastinate on the huge writing list I have to do. I will be strong and leave it for a holiday day! Fun post.
Rosaline, thanks for stopping by and I can really relate to your comment about being tempted by this type of exercise as a way to procrastinate on the writing that really needs to get done. I do that all the time.
Your posts are always so spot on!
Thank you for these amazing tips and writing exercises. I do not write fiction but some of these will still apply to me.
Phoenicia, you should check out the post on creating an inventory of blog topics if you missed that one.
Hi Jeri, I have never used this type of writing prompt before, but this thing is so cool. You get hooked. I tried the first 5-6 and then you just want to keep going and going. Fun! I can see where it would really help if you were having trouble getting started.
Susan, exactly! These types of prompts get the writer to go into uncharted territory and that’s when plenty of writing magic had been known to happen.
Love this! I just bookmarked this post. It might help me get over writer’s block more quickly. Thanks so much!
Adele, you’ll surely end up with a unique story if you give this a try.
You come up with some interesting writing exercises. I have to admit that aside from your shared writing exercises, I haven’t done any others, apart from school. Thanks for sharing.
Denise, I think I’ll always be a big fan of writing exercises since I tend to get stuck so often.
And THIS is the reason I write nonfiction! Seriously Jeri, I got half way through the list and my mind went blank. Every year I say this will be the year I test myself by writing something for NANOWRIMO and every year I let it pass. I think it’s time to finally admit that as much as I love reading fiction, it just holds no interest for me as a writer. But I do appreciate learning a bit more about the process!
Marquita, creative nonfiction makes use of the many of the same literary elements that fiction does. You could always pick a significant event from your life and write about that. You include such great anecdotes on your blog.
What a great idea for an exercise, Jeri. Will have to try it.
Catarina, I hope you do.
Jeri I know this is slanted for fiction. Still, I think with a little adaptation, for those of us non-fiction writers, it could work out well for a little weaving here and there of some story telling – interesting story telling. Thanks – I’ve book marked it.
Patricia, it really would lend itself to nonfiction as well.
Oh, wow, your post makes me want to start the exercises immediately. I just love to write. Thanks for the inspiration.
Cecilia, thanks for stopping by and do let me know if you brave this one.
I’ve done some writing exercises, but this one is very specific. Usually it’s just a one-liner to start a story “The screen door slammed.” or something like that, or building a story around a juicy word. Would be interesting to see what happens if I try yours – often, these just take on a life of their own!
Krystyna, your comment just made me realize how I tend to be drawn to strict format writing exercises just as I am drawn to strict poetic formats for writing poetry. I will have to think about all that implies 😉
Jeri,your post offers insight into a writers passion. OMG I couldn’t even wrap my mind around the first step. However, I’m not a total loss. I see the benefits of the exercise. I think in any creative endeavor there’s a tendency to get stuck on an idea. It’s like being trapped inside a box holding this idea and not knowing how to express it. It seems this exercise allows the writer to get out of their own way and free up the creativity. Getting stuck in an idea happens with character work in Voiceover, You read a script, see the animators drawing and get an idea for the character, but sometime it just sounds like a voice with no dimension. What we do when that happens is switch up the characters motivations and situations. It’s similar to your exercises with the senses. I think these exercises are a detox for the mind,
Pamela, what an eloquent and spot-on response to this exercise. You’ve totally made the case for what writing exercises like these matter so much 🙂
This is a real brain teaser 🙂 I’ve learned some new words and phrases here, I’m not ashamed to admit. Very interesting. I’ll see if I can get my brain in gear for this one, Jeri. Very cool. Thanks for the prompt.
Lisa, brain teasers like this are great and the rewards huge when brave enough to give the exercise a try. I love to get immersed in these types of things, but then again, I’m a total nerd 😉
I can see that exercise helping a lot of people out when they are at the brainstorming steps. You are creating many ideas with the sentences.
Jason, the more ideas the better!
Jeri, what a lovely gift! These ideas definitely will be inspirational in taking an idea and running with it. Such a good exercise or maybe the kernal for a new article or story. Fun!
Beth, the best thing about trying exercises is never quite knowing where the next kernel of inspiration will come from.
What an interesting exercise. I’ve never done anything like that, but I did similar type exercises while in acting school. I think it is really neat to see what you can create when you take a different approach. I, for one, can get really in my brain, and it seems an exercise like this can shake things up, and bring you to a different type of creation.
Erica, you went to acting school? How cool to learn a new bit of info about you. I used to do a few drama exercises with my English students when it came time read Shakespeare.
I learn so much every time I come here. What a wonderful and informative post. These tips will help me awake my muse when I am in a rut, thanks.
William, glad you find these posts informative. I’ve a predilection for collection writing prompts and aim to share more as time allows.
I really like the idea of two interruptive clauses. That really adds to the feeling of ADD in the storyteller. Wait, I have done stuff like that in the past…
I had to bookmark this post for future reference. I have been trying to write a book for 12 years. It’s in my head, but I can’t seem to get it to paper.
This is something new I have seen. I will try it out sometime. Any more exercises?
Lata, if you scroll through the Writing Tips category, you can find a few more of the writing exercises that I’ve posted. This is by far the most demanding one 😉 Please let me know if you give it a try.