Skip to main content

The Writer's Pro Shop: Exercise Two

The Writer's Pro Shop:

Tips and Exercises for the Professional Writer

Top actors and athletes have a common routine – they stay in training throughout their careers to find that extra edge to keep them ahead of the competition. Pro means you never stop learning. Yet writers tend to work in isolation with only an editor to offer advice and suggestions. The exercises presented here will get you to the top, or keep you at the top.

Exercise No. 2:

Last week, you were asked to write 500 words of a story drawn from where your imagination took you after you selected a photo of a painting from the internet. The only criteria were that the painting had to have at least one person in it, and that your story did not have to have a beginning or end.
Dorothy Parker: Can you be as good as she was?

From the experience of giving this exercise to students of my Six Months to Better Writing course, I can tell you that there is a 70% chance that the story you wrote was told in the first person. A narrator, likely some version of You, shared a description of the person observed in the painting. Do not think that the 70% of people who did that were better than the 30% who didn't, or vice versa. It is what it is.

If you think about it, there are generally only four ways of developing a story from that painting. (There are deeper, meta levels too, but let's keep life simple as writing is hard enough even when simplified.) They are:
  • You write as a first person who is one of the people in the painting
  • You are either a person in the painting or an 'out of frame' person writing about a person in the painting
  • In either first or third person, you are invisible within the painting, yet write about its reality
  • Lastly, you may have described the act of observing that painting, as opposed to placing yourself within its boundaries

As with all the arts, writing is about making choices and choices can only be made by adding possibilities and discarding rejects. You're a sculptor and here's a slab of granite. Is it a column, a human, a dragon or a duck? Or, you're an architect and here's a plot of land, a budget and two truckloads of bricks, wood, glass and cement. What shape and structure will suit the landscape and the personality of the buyer?

Writers need to think like actors, the closest of artistic comparisons. There is a famous exercise where two actors play a scene where one actor enters, hands over a piece of paper and lights a cigarette (this is a very old, now very incorrect exercise). Those are the only actions required. The actors may do other actions as they desire. The only line is, “I didn't sign the cheque, you did.” Now how many variations of that scene do you think there are? I can tell you that I have seen a room of twenty actors, taking turns in pairs, keep entirely unique re-tellings of that 15 second scene running for well over an hour. Variety in art is as infinite as pi.

Now, sooner or later you actually do have to make a definite choice or you'll never get a damn word written. How you choose to tell your story should be based on your own trust in your inner self. It is however valuable to exercise that inner self into trying variations, so that it does not get locked in to only choosing what it already knows. Not trying something new means choices are being made from fear of being 'bad.' Trust me, not a lot of great writing happens that way. So! On to Exercise Two!

Choose one of the other general perspectives of telling the 500 word piece other than what you used initially and re-tell it using that fresh perspective. If you wrote about a person in the painting, with the narrator as observer, write about it from the perspective of the observed person. If you wrote in the third person, change to first person. In other words, shift whatever you did 180º and write 500 words from that point of view.

The finest single piece of writing advice I have ever come across was said by Graham Greene: “Take a scene from your own life and change one detail.” This second exercise accomplishes much the same. Compare your two 500 word exercises. Does one feel better than the other? Do you want to try a third or fourth?

Next week, let's introduce ourselves to our characters and listen to what they want to tell us about themselves. Now get to work, and have a beautiful week!

(Hubert O'Hearn is the author of two books, an independent editor, and a professional book and music reviewer. He also is the designer of the Six Months to Better Writing Course, working one-on-one with writers drawn from the entire range of experience. For comments or queries he can be reached at


Popular posts from this blog

The Blocks by Karl Parkinson

The Blocks

Karl Parkinson (New Binary Press 2016, Trade Paperback) 274 pages, cover price N/A

There's a tremendous irony in our lives you know, and it is one as large and predominant as the oxygen we breathe yet equally as invisible, equally ignored; an irony as imperceptible as the blood within our veins that itself only comes to our notice when the skin breaks and the blood trickles free before we hide the wound with a bandage and secure the blood back where it belongs. That irony is this: Our most basic desire, expressed in equal parts of hope and fear, is that we want to continue to live. And why? Because we want our individual lives to be different than what they are.
Karl Parkinson's first novel, The Blocks is a mad, tragic, stylish and daring exploration into that self-same need to survive and yet to change. The Blocks of the title themselves are neither those of the prison nor a child's alphabet; at least not literally although the reader may rightly infer those meta…

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan (Knopf Canada edition 2016, Hard Cover) 197 pages, $29.95 cover price
We have to talk about the concept first. Oh I had a long and lively internal debate about it, you can be sure of that. After all, all books have concepts that we accept without too much fuss – talking animals, sentient corpses, thought-filled trees, the whole Harrod's bought stuffed menagerie of Winnie the Pooh carrying on like a picnic gathering of the British Women's Institute with special invited guests from the Royal Society of St George – we accept all of those without too much fuss. I've even admitted to sniffing up a tear or two over The Brave Little Toaster, so if one can be moved by a bloody kitchen appliance then why not a sentient foetus as the central character of Ian McEwan's Nutshell?It probably won't surprise you that I have a theory to go with that, slightly more substantial than an amuse-bouche if not quite a meal in itself. My thinking is that we go with the ta…

White and Red Cherries by Tanja Tuma

White and Red Cherries: A Slovenian Civil War Novel

Tanja Tuma (Self-published 2016, Trade paperback) 301 pages with glossary and bibliography, cover price n/a
It dawned on me like a thunder strikes a tree: this petite young girl embodies a mission, her reason to exist. Every one of us embodies his mission by what he does. We are what we do. Not chemical elements, but our deeds define our being. We are neither the faith we trust in God, nor the love we give and take. The least of what we are is the genetic code we get from our parents, which in turn lives on in our descendants. No. We are what we do at this moment in this bloody world. Our deeds can defy eternity. They can mirror our will and freedom forever. Those words are thoughts by the elderly Martin, born during the Second World War and raised by the partisan heroine Valeria Batič as her son, when his natural mother Ada quite literally tossed her baby from a train window to Valeria as the train pulled out for Vienna. Ada you see w…