Someone asked online the other day if I knew of a good exercise for beginning writers. He had already received plenty of helpful answers, some of them a little more narrow in scope than he desired ("Here's how to coax your 'writing muscle' into working!"). This is what I added to the fray.
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"A" good writing exercise? There are tons of them. No one exercise works to fill the needs of all beginning writers. Some newbies need motivation. Some require work on ideas. Some need help with plotting, story development, characterization, or dialogue. Some bog down with descriptive narrative. See what I mean?
Still, of all the exercises I've come across, one of the best, most fruitful, all-inclusive drills for accomplishing a lot of the above sounds ridiculously simple but is, in fact, deviously delicious. Take a news story headline. Only the headline and nothing more. Don't read the story behind it but, rather, write the story behind it. In short, you become the reporter, and the headline is your assignment.
Begin your story with the five "W"s of journalism—Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Work all of them into the first paragraph or two of your story. This means, of course, that you're going to have to invent some characters and happenings as well as all the other salient details that go into the making of what has suddenly become your "baby." See the deviousness at work here?
Next, start filling in the blanks. Give your Who a first and last name, an approximate physical address or location, and whatever description you think you need to convey to the reader. Tell the What behind the story and provide enough details to help the reader visualize what happened without having to guess.
Then, expose the When of what happened, followed by the Where (the place or places at which it happened). Finally dig into the Why behind the story. What motivated the subject to do whatever he or she did?
Once all that is done, give your story a believable ending. If it's a crime, tell how the police apprehended the suspect and where he or she is now. Or explain how the suspect got away, and the cops are asking the public for tips on locating him and bringing him to justice. If it's a non-crime story, devise a believable and satisfying ending.
Here's an example of what I mean:
After more than four weeks in COVID-19 quarantine, one of the passengers disembarking from the cruise ship was overheard telling the taxi driver he had just hailed, "Take me to the nearest bar. I need a drink!"
The bottom line is that this story-writing exercise, although apparently quite simple, satisfies nearly all the needs of first-time writers struggling for help. It gives them a jump start (the headline) to get their creative juices flowing. It forces them to think creatively about the evolving story. It makes them consider plotting and story development. It forces them to envision the main and supporting characters involved, and it requires the writer to devise a satisfying and acceptable conclusion. Who could ask for anything more?
This is an actual exercise, by the way, presented by a working editor and former beat reporter for the Chicago Tribune who strolled into a Journalism 101 class he taught at Columbia College one morning, held up a copy of that day's newspaper, and told his empty-headed, dazed, and trembling students to get started. Oh, yeah, and he gave them a deadline of thirty minutes to complete their stories before handing them in to be graded.
That was more than fifty years ago. And I still remember sweating bullets to meet that deadline!
As for you ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.com.