Writing Fiction: 4 Exercises to Discover and Write Your Story | Gayle Forman | Skillshare

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Writing Fiction: 4 Exercises to Discover and Write Your Story

teacher avatar Gayle Forman, Author

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      What Makes a Story


    • 3.

      Exercise 1: Write a Letter


    • 4.

      Exercise 2: Create a Scenario List


    • 5.

      Exercise 3: Choose Your Character


    • 6.

      Exercise 4: Write Your First Line


    • 7.

      Final Thoughts


    • 8.

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About This Class

Everybody has a story to tell. All you need to do is learn how to find it.

Join best-selling author Gayle Forman to discover the story that only you can tell. Through the prisms of premise and character, Gayle guides you through a series of exercises that will help you determine the core elements of your story and bring them together into something unique and personal. As you work through the tried-and-true exercises, you’ll learn how to pull from your own lived experiences to create a compelling and intriguing story that will drive you throughout the writing process.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Write an open letter to get the creative juices flowing
  • Make a list of “What If?” scenarios to build your story's foundation
  • Combine characters with scenario to bring your story to life 
  • Create a compelling hook to draw readers into the story

Packed with exercises and actionable advice, this class will help you identify the story you’ve always wanted to write. Whether you’re just starting to hone your writing craft or you’ve been writing for as long as you can remember, Gayle will help you find your story, bring it to life, and keep your readers hungry for more.

Meet Your Teacher

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Gayle Forman



Gayle Forman is an award-winning author and journalist. She has written several bestselling novels for young adults, including the Just One Series, I Was Here, Where She Went and the #1 New York Times bestseller If I Stay, which has been translated into more than 40 languages and in 2014 was adapted into a major motion picture. Gayle published Leave Me, her first novel starring adults, in 2016 and her latest novel I Have Lost My Way was released in March of 2018. Gayle’s essays and nonfiction work has appeared in publications like The New York Times, Elle, The Nation and Time. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughters.


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Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: This is really persona, l don't know if you're doing this. My readers call my stories all the fields, and I think that's because when they read my stories, they identify pretty strongly with the character. It's not just they're passively reading, they're actively going on a journey. The key to that, for me, is minding my own emotional experience, importing that into my characters. Hi, my name is Gayle Forman. I'm an author, I'm a storyteller, and I'm here to teach you how to find your story and begin to tell it. The first thing we're going to do is going to be a free writing exercise, just get the juices flowing, have some fun, try not to think too much about what we're doing and why we're doing it. After the free writing, we're going to go into what I think are the two main components of the story, which is premise and character. We're going to do a series of exercises to come up with all kinds of premises. Then we're going to go and we're going to find a character. Ideally, by putting all of those elements together, you're going to start asking yourself a series of questions, and it's the asking and answering of all of that, that ultimately will give you a draft of your story. Here are my hopes for you for this class. First of all, I hope you have a really good time because it should be fun. Second of all, I hope that you finish this class with an understanding that of all the writers out there in the world, only you can tell your particular story, for your particular lens, with your particular experience. So I'm excited for you guys to go on your own journeys and just unlock what's in your own imagination. I think you're going to be surprised by what you find. 2. What Makes a Story: Before we dive into the exercises we're going to talk a little bit about what makes a story. I think you need two elements to get started on your story. You need a scenario or a premise, or what I like to think of as a what if. What if I win the lottery? What if an asteroid hits tomorrow? What if I wake up one morning and find that my entire family has been replaced with another family, what-ifs. Then you need a character; you're going to have more than one by the time you're done but you need one character to get you started. You need your premise and you need your character. I like to think of this as the Reese's peanut butter cup method of storytelling. The scenario the what-if is your peanut butter, it's sticky, it holds everything together it's your foundation. The character is that extra sweetness, that special sauce, it is the chocolate and the two together are your story. I think if you walk into a bookstore and you see there are hundreds of thousands of books it can be overwhelming but if you break it down there's really not that many stories. Here's a fun exercise go into your local Barnes & Noble or your local Indie bookstore and look around and start looking at the backs of books and I think you're going to find that there's some commonalities there. Though there are thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of books, the stories themselves fall into certain categories. Here are some popular general categories that you'll see over and over again. Very popular one is the Unlikely Hero Rising to the Occasion, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hate U Give. Misfits Find A Place, the person who doesn't fit finding their people. The perks of being a wallflower, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Obstacles to love something that's in the way of your love and those things keep changing. Romeo and Juliet, Giovanni's Room, The Time Traveler's Wife, an American Marriage. Confines of the conventional world and you'll note that the conventional world keeps changing as the world changes. Revolutionary Road, Little Fires Everywhere. Turns out you had the story all wrong which is a retelling of popular story maybe from a different perspective. Wicked or Circe or the many retellings of Pride and Prejudice like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Ibi Zoboi's Pride. Bildungsroman which is a fancy way of saying a coming of age story. Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, Every book I've written obviously, these are completely different books. What makes them unique is the world that the writer has created and the character they have populated the world with. Let's take Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Harry. Essentially you have these two characters who do not think they're anything special, who suddenly have this great responsibility thrown on their shoulders and they have to rise to the occasion. Completely different worlds, completely different stories but they start with these characters. It's these characters who you fall in love with and root for that make you want to go on this epic journey with them. Take obstacles in love. Let's take two of the books we mentioned, The Time Traveler's Wife and an American marriage; both of these stories have characters, lovers who are kept apart by circumstance. In the Time Traveler's Wife it's something fantastical or metaphysical, it's literally space and time and in American marriage it's something much more grounded in reality. It's institutionalized racism it's the prison industrial complex. Completely different stories, completely different characters but the core of both of those books are two lovers who are kept apart by circumstance. What distinguishes a novel is the characters and what distinguishes you is your experience, your way of looking at the world, your emotions, your thoughts, and those will be translated into your characters. Only you can tell your particular story through your particular lengths with your particular experience. It makes you uniquely qualified to write your story. Your lived experiences, they feed into your work, they provide the backbone or really the soul of your work. We're really going to try and to tap into those, even if the story you're telling is nothing like your true experience, it's the emotional experience that we're looking for. Because that is what is going to give your story a sense of authenticity. Even if you are writing about something or someone completely different than you, you're going to want to tap into what you know to be true and how you feel to create those characters. That is what is going to give them life and make them feel real and make readers want to follow them. Even if you don't think you have a "story" worth story in your life, you've had things that have impacted you that made you think and feel. That is what you're going to want to tap into no matter what story you're writing. Here's an interesting example. Tayari Jones in interviews has talked about the inspiration for an American marriage and it was overhearing a couple have a conversation and that inspired the book. But surely her own life experience and what she wanted to think about and talk about looking at race in America right now informed that wonderful book. I often get asked If I put myself into my characters, even if I didn't want to I couldn't help it. If you're writing story your personal background, your way of looking at the world, your lived experience is going to inform every single character you write, from your hero to villain. I'm going be guiding you on ways to take your own lived experience, your own emotional experience, and use that as the cornerstone for your story. It doesn't mean you're going to write memoir or barely veiled fiction. It just means you're going to take the things that have happened to you and the way they have made you feel and think and you are going to use those to make your story specific and unique and authentic and yours. Now that we've established what makes a story and more to the point, what makes you uniquely qualified to tell your story, we are going to launch into a free-writing exercise. This exercise is meant for you to tap in some things that maybe you don't even know are inside of you, to have some fun, to take some risks. It is not goal-oriented. I just want you to have fun and write. After the free-writing, we're going to launch into some more specific exercises to help you come up with a what-if scenario, your premise, and help you come up with a character or characters to put in that premise. These exercises aside from being fun have a purpose. They are meant to give you the seat of your story to help you find the thing that you want to write about. I'm going to be introducing an exercise and then I'm going to be doing it with you. We are going to go through this process together. Okay, are you feeling inspired or excited or nervous? Great, it's time to get started on the first exercise. 3. Exercise 1: Write a Letter: Okay. Are you ready to get going? Excellent. Our first lesson here isn't really a lesson so much, as it is a warm-up. It's a free writing exercise, and I know we all want to come out of this with a novel idea. But right now, I'm going to ask you to try and quiet that voice, so that you can just literally free write. I want you to write about anything. I want you to get your juices flowing. I know sometimes it can be difficult to just sit down and write. So what I want you to do is, I want you to write a letter to somebody. You can decide who that person is, it can be somebody you know, it can be somebody fictional. Just you're going to sit down, and you're going to write a letter to that person. What are you writing about? I want you to write about a significant experience. What is a significant experience? That is up to you. It can be a huge event, it can be something that happened to you years ago, it can be something that happened to you last week that you're still thinking about, it can be something that happened to somebody else but then you had a reaction to. It doesn't matter what you are writing about. You are mining for things here. You just want to take something that has your interest, you can't stop thinking about, and see where it takes you. I understand that when you're first starting out, these can make you feel really self-conscious and weird. So maybe writing a letter to somebody else feels uncomfortable and you don't know what to do. So here's one way to get unstuck. Maybe it's easier if you want to write the letter as someone else to you. What that does is it gives you a little bit of distance. Sometimes it's easier to write about personal experiences through the side door. One of my favorite saying is 'fiction is the lie that tells the truth.' Sometimes it's easier to write about yourself, if you're writing about somebody else. So I'm going to join you on this exercise, and I'm going to go ahead and write a letter to myself about something that's a little embarrassing. Which is that a couple of weeks ago, I was at my daughter's performing art schools talent showcase, and I kept crying. I seem to cry a lot when I'm at her school, or around that school, and I kind of want to figure out why. I don't know why. So I'm going to write a letter to the students at that school to figure out why I cried. Don't worry about typos or any of that you can fix that later, as you will see I'm a very messy typer. "Dear teenagers at Performing Arts High School. I'm trying to figure out why I cried. The first time when I dropped my kid off for her audition and again, repeatedly at the talent show. Art is transcendent, and the pieces you didn't move me. But again, that's only part of it because had I seen adults do those pieces, or even young adults, I'm not sure it would have hit me like it did. Part of it is seeing young people choose a life in the arts, which these days feels like an act of resistance. I'm sure I'm idealizing it. I'm sure plenty of young people crave the most superficial thing that comes with artistic success rarely, but when it does it does. But there's so much talent there, so much hard work. I have to believe that it's the process that attracts the majority of you. The means not the ends, the journey not the destination, it feels like quaint notion these days. This is the story I tell myself and others too. But there's more to it than that. There's something personal obviously, or I would not keep having this deeply personal reaction. I don't remember the first time I wanted to be an actress. I was a shy child, unhappy, the bullied girl in the mean clique. In sixth grade, I got the lead in my school play. It's not a major accomplishment. It was a Jewish day school, tiny, not a lot of competition, and found my place. I was 12 years old, I changed that year. I went from shy and even submissive to the person I was going to become. I loved the people, I loved the camaraderie, I loved performing, I loved inhabiting someone else. I got kissed on the cheek by the lead boy in the play and swooned for days. I cried at the end. The 330 days between summers seemed to drag on for years. I also can't remember when I decided against acting. Was it in high school when I realized maybe I wasn't good enough? When I realized I wasn't going to get lead roles? When I realized I wasn't pretty enough? Wasn't enough enough? Was it after the year abroad when travel outpaced drama as my true love. I didn't look back. Working as a waitress through the years, I've worked with a fair-share performers. I have no second thoughts. I often say that writing allows me to exercise some of the same muscles as acting. I inhabit other characters going deep, I create backstory. On page, I can make the words sound right in a way that on stage I could not, and I get to be on stage, which I love, so long as there's a crowd. So is that it? Is it pride that she's going for it when I didn't? Is it pride that she's choosing a life of art like I did? Kind of sort of. Is it just inspiring to see young people bring it with such talent? Is it optimism that a generation as woke and aware as this is going to save us? Side note, you shouldn't have to save us. Is it because I'm PMSing? Because I create catharsis, because I'm tender hearted, because I wanted to cry, because the world seems so ugly and then there's beauty. Isn't that the thing I always write about, the beauty in the ugly? I don't know. All I know is, you made me cry again, and I'm sure you will again. Yours Gayle". So that was my incredibly exposing, embarrassing letter. How did that go for you? Was it fun? Did it feel weird? Halfway through it did you start to let go and write? Good. That's what we're going for. That's why we're writing this letter. It's an exploration. It's a game. It's a way to see what comes undone and untapped. So maybe you wrote five pages in a total flow state. Great, wonderful, and maybe you wrote one agonizing paragraph that you felt got you nowhere. That's also fine. So if you had a great time with it, great, and if you didn't, don't be too hard on yourself. But I do want you to incorporate this kind of free writing into your writing life. It really can help to unlock things, or it can just be a lot of fun. Either way, I want you to put this away. We're going to come back to it later and see if it offers us any hints, or any clues, or any tools to move forward on our story. This writing exercise was also our first step in getting the personal going. Remember, the personal is what you uniquely bring to your story, and so we're trying to untap that. But it's time for us to move on to our next exercise which is the creating of our what-if scenario, or peanut butter. 4. Exercise 2: Create a Scenario List: Now we're going to launch into our next lesson which is an exercise in which we generate as many what-if scenarios as we can. If you're anything like me these what-if scenarios are always spinning around in your head. They are what you think about when you wake up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep. They are the things that are constantly on your mind. Sometimes its wish fulfillment. What if I win the lottery? Sometimes it's the things that scare us. Both of those are good fodder as you'll see. So in this exercise, we are going to brainstorm as many what-if scenarios as we can. Like with the free writing exercise, we don't want to edit ourselves too much. It doesn't matter how silly your ideas are, how weird they are. This is an exercise I often do in schools and the kids try and throw the craziest what-if scenarios it may and you're going to see how with a little tweak something that seems just bizarre or no way a foundation for story can actually be the foundation for a really, really compelling story. So what I want you to do here is I want you to come up with 100 different what-if scenarios and I want you to write them out as fast as you can. I want you to think of the things that you know you think about and the things that you don't know that you think about. If you do this quickly without overthinking it, you're going to be surprised what comes up. If you need a little more structure than that, try breaking it down in some categories, maybe 25 what-ifs are your fantasy what-ifs? The things that you wish would happen to you. Twenty-five of the what-ifs are the things you're terrified of happening to you. Twenty-five of the what-ifs, if you can't come up with them you're going to ask your friends and family for their what-ifs and the last 25 are going to be tweaks where you're going to take the things that you have and you're going to change an element or two and I'm going to show you how to do that and see what comes from there. So at the end of it you're going to have a list of a 100 at least what-ifs scenarios. Again, the goal of this is to put down things that you know are on your mind, the what-ifs scenarios you know you're thinking about, but also to reach into your unconscious mind and see what comes up. Try not to be too goal-oriented here. It's why we want to come up with a 100. We're going to play with them and we're going to tweak them, and by the end of that we're going to be able to narrow down specific idea that we want to run with. So I went online and I asked my readers for their what-ifs scenarios and they responded with hundreds of them. We've narrowed that list down here to 50. So we're going to go through their what-ifs scenarios, and we're going to pick out ones that are similar, we're going to show overlapping themes, and we're also going to tweak a few of them to show how you might actually turn that into a more conventional story. What if we are all really just a rock floating in space with no purpose? What if we woke up as a different person each day? What if the world we live in isn't the one we think we know? What if cancer wasn't a disease, but a source of power that we don't know how to control? What if you had to choose between love and freedom? What if people can foretell the future? What if I could project my mind out of my body? What if you had to choose to save yourself or someone you love? What if you had to choose between the love of your life and your best friend? So I want to thank my readers for their creativity and their generosity. But as you can see here, these what-ifs run the gamut. Some of them are kind of silly and some of them are deeply personal. So now, I'm going to take a look at some of them and look where there's overlapping themes, or commonalities, or where with a little tweak you can see where what if that maybe seems a little bit nutty is actually a compelling premise. All right, let's start with this one. What if there's no future so people can really appreciate the right now? This one's interesting for a couple of reasons because it actually gives the beginning of the story and the end of the story which is the journey you want your character to go on. But what does it mean, what if there's no future? There's a lot of ways to interpret that. It could be that the world is ending tomorrow and you'll have 12 more hours to live your life and what does that mean and how does that change you? But it also can be a very popular sort of Groundhog Day story where you keep reliving the same day over and over again. We see that story a lot and I think it's because there's a lot of ways to tell it. But the idea is that somehow you're missing something in your own life and you have to keep repeating it until you can figure out that lesson. It's why that's so popular and there are so many different ways to do it from say Groundhog Day, to Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall, to the TV show Russian Doll. So how might you play with that? That's a couple of different ways of looking at that one scenario. You already have embeddedness so people can really appreciate now. So this particular person asking this what if knew where they wanted to get. So you're looking at a hopeful story in that case. But again, it could be hopeful with the world ending tomorrow or it can be helpful with life repeating until the character figures out the puzzle. Number 18, what if my husband and children all died tomorrow? There's a lot of places you can take a story like that. Obviously, you can tell a very real contemporary story which is about what a mother and wife does after losing what's the most important thing to her. How you move on from loss. A meditation on grief. That's one way to do it. But here's another way to do it. A revenge novel where the mother is going to avenge her the death of her husband and children. This is kind of interesting because you've seen this story with a father as the avenging hero, but not so much with the mother so it would be an anti-hero story or an anti-heroin story. What if I have to save myself? That was kind of open-ended, but that's actually good because it gives us several different options off the top my head. What if I have to save myself because I'm an addict and I have to get myself clean? So there you have a gritty realistic story. What if I have to save myself because I've a rare incurable disease that I have to figure out or find the people who can help me figure out the cure to? Medical drama. What if I have to save myself because I'm lost in the jungle, desert, space and have to figure out how to survive? Then it becomes an adventure story. Three different stories, one premise. So I noticed a couple of commonalities in some of the what-ifs and so I've grouped them together. I'm going to read you these. What if in order to follow your dream you had to let go of all that you knew and walk away from all that you love and give yourself the best chance of succeeding? What if you had to choose between comfort and familiarity, or new unknown possibilities? What if I started a new in a foreign country and left everything I've ever known and loved? What if I settle with a boring life everyone tells me to follow or simply sell everything and move away to follow my dream? So you can see embedded in all of these are a couple of things. Number one, is the fantasy of just being able to go and start new and start fresh. The other thing is a fear of what happens if all the things you care about are taken away from. In all of them, there's a fork in the road. Stay on this road and I'm living my typical life or try something completely new and unexpected. I think in here is a really interesting and also very resonance seed of a story, a really good what if that we are going to follow. I'm going to choose this one. Question number nine, what if I started a new in a foreign country and left everything I've ever known and loved? I think that that raises a lot of interesting questions. We're going to see how these other what-ifs are gonna kinda play into that scenario as we start to build it out and add some characters. So now, I want you to go through your list. Is there's something there that really sings to you, a question that seems really compelling to you, a scenario that seems really terrifying to you, something that you've noticed that you came back to in different forms in different what-if questions? Pay attention to this, you've written yourself your own road map for a story you might want to tell, and you're going to want to pick something here that you're interested in because you're going to spend a lot of time thinking about this question. You do not need to have the answer to it. You only need the question. In fact, you shouldn't have the answer. You're going to find the answer in your writing. Go look at your letter again and I want you to look deeper at it because sometimes you're writing about one thing, but you're really writing about something else. So look at your letter, see what you wrote about, see if there's a what-if embedded in your letter. So I'm going to go back into my letter about me being a cry baby at my kid's school and see what the what-if scenario embedded in there is. See if there's something more there than just me being emotional and weepy, and see if the emotional truth of that can inform the what-if scenario we're going to run with. So basically, my letter was about why I was such a cry baby when I go to my kids school of the arts? So I'm not going to write a whole novel about somebody who cries all the time, but the more I think about this letter the more I see something in there about a road not taken which I think is something we all think about looking back over our shoulder. In fact, in number seven through ten, the one we're looking at about taking a different road. I think that there is something to that about I'm living this life, but what if I live this life? So I am going to think about my particular what-if scenario that I have found in that letter about me crying at my kid's school. So take a little time with this exercise. I want you to sit with these what-if scenarios. I want you to really let the one that's compelling to you verbal to the top. Maybe it'll happen right away, maybe it'll take some time, and maybe you'll spin off some more what-ifs to these what-ifs. After you've settled on your what-if scenario, after you've chosen your peanut butter it's going to be time to add the chocolate. We are going to start talking about characters, getting characters to inhabit your what-if scenario. 5. Exercise 3: Choose Your Character: Welcome back. I hope you've had a lot of fun with your what-if scenarios and I hope you have found one that you're excited about. So having established the peanut butter premise portion of our storytelling, we are now going to turn our attention to the chocolate, to creating your character. Finding your character is the most exciting part of your story, and also sometimes the most challenging. Bear in mind that you are going to get to know your character in the process of drafting. It's like any relationship, you know them superficially at first, and then as you go deeper into it, you'll get to know them more. But right now we want to introduce you to the character who you're going to be spending a lot of time with. I always have as I said, all of these what-if scenarios spinning around in my head. One of them that had been on my mind for years prompted by something that happened in my life, was this rather fantastical premise, what if something catastrophic happens to your family and you knew what was happening, and you had to choose whether to live or to die. So that is spinning around in my head and I think the mere act of contemplating that opens yourself up, opened me up for the arrival of a character. That character arrived one morning seemingly out of the blue. There was this girl, she was 17 years old, she had dark hair, dark eyes, she played the cello, even though I knew nothing about the cello or classical music. But it was the collision of that character and that premise that got me to my computer and I started writing a book that would become If I Stay. What you're doing is you're priming your storyteller's mind, you're opening yourself up so that when these characters come knocking, you hear the call. But of course like with all things, there are ways to manage the process along, and that is what this exercise is about, we are going to do a couple of different things here. Hopefully at this point, you have your what-if premise. Hopefully you've been thinking about it a lot. So to think about those questions, that world you are already starting to build before you've even started to write, think of that as your house. Now we need to populate that house and turn it into a home. First of all, we're going to do a couple different things to unlock characters, or to see who might already be at your door. Then we are going to do a couple of exercises to figure out if these are people you want to follow. Then finally, we're going to go back to our what-if scenario, and we're going to populate it with three distinct characters, and show you how that would create three very, very different stories. Maybe in thinking about your what-if scenario, you already have a character in mind. If so, that's fantastic. Maybe you have no idea of who you want to write about. So here's a couple of different ways to approach it. I've already told you that I think that no matter what character you write, you're writing about yourself. Even if you are writing about somebody who is different from you in every which way, you are going to be minding your own emotional and lived experience to create that character. So the natural place to start with a character is with yourself. That is a character you know well. Maybe you want to write about yourself or about somebody similar to you, or maybe you want to write about an experience in your past, which is great, maybe you want to try to mix it up. Try taking yourself, but maybe flipping your gender, flipping your age, flipping where you live, flipping your career, flipping where you are in life. Returning back to that theme of The Road Not Taken, is there a job you wish you had taken? Earlier we talked about this idea of fiction being alive it tells the truth, or a way to write about yourself without writing about yourself. When I finish my novels, I'm always looking back and I'm like, "Oh look, that was me all along." So now I want you to take out your letter and look into your letter. Is there something in the letter that is triggering an idea for a character? Who were you writing to in that letter? Who was writing to you? What were you writing about? I wrote my letter to students at a school, and I'm thinking about that. Do I want to write, is there a character in there for me? I write young adult novels, that would be pretty typical for me to take a teenage student in a theater arts school, and maybe the character is that obvious, is that direct. But maybe I want to go in through the side door, and maybe I want to explore the deeper thing that was in that letter, which the more I thought about it the more I realized was The Road Not Taken. That opens up so many different opportunities, any kind of character who was living one life and wishes they were living in another life, or fantasizes about it. What voice did you write that letter in? Did it sound like you, or did it sound like somebody else? There's a clue there. The voice of your character is a very important part of it. What intrigues you? What kind of person do you wish you were? What kind of character do you want to spend time with? That's an important question because you are going to be spending a lot of time with this character over the coming months. So choose somebody who you want to be with, it doesn't mean that they have to be a great person. Sometimes villains are the most fun to write. But somebody who intrigues you enough that every day you're going to want to wake up and think, "What makes this person tick?" A lot of authors once they have created a character, will try different exercises to deepen a character. But I also think some of these exercises can be helpful in figuring out a character. Take an online personality quiz, not as yourself, but as somebody else. The New York Times has this great feature called 36 Questions that Lead to Love. It's meant to help you fall in love with somebody, but it can also help you fall in love with your character. Ask your character those questions. See if somebody comes to mind. The trick is just to go and fishing in all these different waters, because you don't know what's going to come up. I guarantee your character is already within you, the key is to ask enough questions and open yourself up to let them out. Your character will transform as you write this book. No matter how much you think you know them now, they are going to change. You need somebody to start with. You are going to get to know them as you continue. You're going to write your way into your character, you're going to make changes, you're going to populate your story with other characters. But you need that one person, that one character to get you started. Like all things, I don't want you to overthink this. You're just looking for something to get you going. It may turn out that the character you start with winds up becoming a secondary character, or keeping cut altogether. They're going to introduce you to other characters. The thing is you need to start with somebody, unless you've been thinking about this a long time. In all likelihood, this character is an intriguing person you just met, and the more you get to know this character, the more that's going to change how you look and write this character. The only way you're going to get to know this character better is writing. So here is where you need to take a leap of faith. You need to find a character, you need to take their hand and jump off the cliff. Once you choose a character, and again, this is not a forever choice, you can change your character along the way. But once you decide upon a character, and you put your character in this scenario, what's going to happen is you're going to start to ask questions. Why is this character doing the things that they are doing? What do they want? What's happened to them? Why is that happened to them? It is the answering of those questions that is going to move your story forward, and it's going to lead to more questions and more questions. I think that writing a novel, or writing any story can seem so intimidating when you look at it as a whole. But when you look at it as a series of questions that you're going to ask and answer, you see that these are the building blocks that will propel you forward, and will create your story. So if you remember, from our what-if scenarios, we chose this one. What if you started a new life in a foreign country and left everything and everyone you loved behind? To show you how that one what-if scenario could spawned three radically different stories, I chose three seemingly very different characters. A kid, a heartbroken person, and an outlaw. This is almost like a choose your own adventure. We are going to populate that single what-if scenario with these three different characters. See what questions come up, see what kind of story comes up. Let's start with our kid. So now we have a kid moving to a foreign place, leaving everything they ever knew and loved behind. Where could this go? Well, first you have to ask yourself, who is this kid? Who are they moving with? Are they moving with their parents? Is this a sweet young coming of age story about a kid being pulled from his or her home and finding a new home somewhere else? That's one way to do it. But what if the kid was going to out of space with their family? You're still looking at that same idea of seeing a world in new, through new eyes. The dislocation of going somewhere new with your family, maybe you make friends with the martians there, I don't know. That's a different kind of story. But what if the kid is traveling alone without their family, or what if we combine those two ideas? They're going into space on their own, without a family, and then your question is why? Why is this kid on this transport ship traveling into space alone? It can sound really simple. It's one sentence, but that already is three or four different novels. So let's go with our second character, our heartbroken person. Our first question here. First question to me is why is this person heartbroken? What are they running away from to this foreign country? What are they hoping to find? Is this going to be a romance story where somebody who had a broken heart and then goes abroad and falls in love? Is this going to be a self-discovery story where something goes wrong in life back home and traveling allows them that opportunity to find themselves in new? Again, the same premise as with our poor kid off in space, but now it's somebody who's gone off traveling to mend a broken heart. So now we have our third character, our outlaw. Our outlaw has had to leave everything they know and love and move to a foreign born place. Already I have questions. Why is our outlaw an outlaw? What have they done? Are they guilty? Innocent? Somewhere between? Who's chasing them? Who's back home missing them? Where are they? Are they somewhere remote? Are they in a city? Are they jumping around from place to place? Are they in witness protection? You start pulling on the thread and as it starts to unravel, you start to find your story. Perhaps because it's the least like anything I've ever done before, I want to follow the outlaw story. I'm very curious about this outlaw. So when I think about an outlaw, the first thing that comes to my mind is sort of the archetype this sort of Harrison Ford in the fugitive. Somebody wrongly accused and having to escape the law. For that precise reason, I want to steer clear of that and actually want to chew somebody a little bit less likely and maybe somebody a little bit more like myself but not exactly like myself. I want to write about a woman, a mother, somebody maybe a little middle aged. Like a stay at home mom or a soccer mom in a mini van. Because as soon as I start to picture that woman, I want to know, what has she done that made her an outlaw and it's that kind of question which I don't have the answer to yet, but it has that kind of question that will propel you into your story. So now I'm going to go back to my letter and if you will recall I wrote that very sort of sappy letter about writing to the teenagers about why cried. But here I am and now I have an outlaw. I have a stay at home mom outlaw character. Then I have this emotional thing that has clearly been on my mind that I wrote about in the letter. As I said, when I dug deeper into that letter what I think it was really about, is the road not taken. Is there a way to use some of the DNA that's in that letter, some of the emotional truth I was exploring with his outlaw character who was nothing like me. I think about it and I think these, the Venn diagram intersection point is this idea of the road not taken. So now I'm thinking about an outlaw, who I still don't know why she's an outlaw, but I know she's a stay at home, soccer mom, minivan driving outlaw who is also exploring that road not taken question that's been on my mind. That leads me to a character who I'm now going to call Melody Daniels. Melody Daniels is a middle aged mother of two, stay at home mom that for some reason is now on the road as an outlaw, leaving everything she's ever loved and ever known behind. But there's emotional stakes for Melody being an outlaw aside from being separated from her family. The more conflict you can throw into your story, the better. For Melody, it's the growing realization that she likes being an outlaw. That there's part of this life that is liberating, that it speaks to the road not taken. So as soon as I started thinking about this middle aged soccer mom outlaw, I had so many questions about what happened and how she wound up an outlaw and how she's going to get back and why she enjoys it so much. I had so much fun thinking about Melody Daniels, and that to me, is a really good sign. Because you need that kind of inspiration and motivation. It will carry you along in the current of your story. So on her own, Melody Daniels, middle aged soccer mom with some undergrads about 'The Road Not Taken', that's not a novel. On its own the premise, what if you started a new life in a foreign country, is also not enough. But you can see now, when you take that premise, that peanut butter and you combine it with that chocolate, that character, suddenly you have an interesting story. You have the middle aged soccer mom who's suddenly a fugitive of law and you don't know why and you don't know how she's going to get back to her family. On top of that she's actually having the time of her life. The sum is greater than the parts. You know you're onto something when you can't stop thinking about it. You know you're on to something when you're intrigued by this. I want to know what is the deal with Melody Daniels, like what is it she wanted to do earlier in life and why is she an outlaw? I will tell you, as I'm sitting here thinking about I don't know the answers to those questions. But if I decided that this was the novel I was going to write, I would figure that out and probably on the way I would get it wrong, because that's part of writing a novel. So now you have your premise and you have at least one of your characters. And hopefully you have a lot of burning questions that you're dying to answer when you begin drafting. To help you get started drafting and to give you that sort of running start into your story, the next exercise is kind of a fun bonus. We're going to work on your first line. 6. Exercise 4: Write Your First Line: Once you have your character and your scenario, you have the beginnings of your story, you are ready to go. Perhaps, by the time you are listening to this or watching this, you have already gone off to the races and written pages upon pages, in which case keep going. For the rest of you who need a little bit of extra help, we are going to have some fun here and we are going to experiment with first lines. Now I got to tell you like all things we've been talking about. Your first line is not written in stone, it is not something you need to be too precious about or need to worry about because like all things you can go back and change it and many people do change it. So you have your character and you have your premise, and now it's time to start writing, and there is nothing more terrifying than the blank screen. So this particular exercise is going to catapult you from that blank screen into the beginning of your story. I love first lines, I love reading them, I love cracking open a book and seeing if that first line has grabbed me, and I love writing first lines too. Readers also love first lines, which is why I asked Mine to share with me their favorite first lines. We're going to look at them and we're going to deconstruct why they're so effective, and we're going to see if we can't write our own first-line. For Melody Daniels, our fictional fugitive outlaw stay-at-home mom, using that particular format. One of the favorite first lines is a classic, it's from George Orwell's 1984. It was a bright cold day in April when the clocks were striking 13. Immediately the clock is striking 13, the juxtaposition of the mundane with the extraordinary. It's a hook and in that it is something that just grabbed you and you can not let go of it. You read that line and you want to know what the hell is going on, why are the clocks striking 13. You are immediately yanked into the story, that is a hook. The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. An opening like this promises you a mystery. It's not the clocks striking 13, but something is amiss, somebody has been killed and somebody has killed her. When you read that line, it invites you to come into the story and answer all those questions. One of my favorite first lines recently it was from Sally Rooney's conversations with friends. It begins like this. Bobby and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together. There's no mystery here, nobody is dead, no clocks are striking 13, but your plumped immediately into the action. This very simple declarative statement and it makes you want to keep reading. You want to know who Bobby is, who Melissa is, who the I is, what the poetry night is, where this relationship is going and that is what the novel is about. So you don't have to have all the pyrotechnics and fireworks as a first-line. Again, it's an invitation. It's an invitation to the reader, and right now it's an invitation to you as the writer. Here's another famous first line from a classic. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The opening line is simply, I am an invisible man. Consider this a thesis statement. It is telling you straight up what the book is about. Of course not really, because when you first start you don't know what an Invisible Man is, you keep reading. Another fan favorite was the opening line of JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. The strength of this opening is the voice. You immediately can hear this character. You immediately know who they are just by hearing the voice. From one line you get a sense of this character, because his voice is so strong. Here's another classic first-line. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. That's from Gabriel Garcia Marquez is 100 years or so to. There is so much going on and this amazing first-line it has all kinds of things. Firing squad, that's very dramatic, discover ice that sets you to place in time, but another thing that this particular opening does is it tweaks the timeline. You don't always have to start your story at the beginning. Sometimes by leaping into the story, starting from the middle or from the end, you pull your readers in with a hook and a mystery all at once. So now we're going to have some fun and we are going to create our own first lines, and I'm going to be doing this on the CAF just to show you how unpretentious you can be about the first line. We're going to be coming up with them together. So to start, we're going to take a hook. Now remember our character is Melody Daniels, our stay-at-home mother outlaw. Our premise is that Melody has had to give up everything she's ever known and loved and move to a foreign country. So since I first started thinking about Melody Daniels, I started asking myself a bunch of questions about her, such as why is she an outlaw? One of the things I've realized is that she was falsely accused and that she is not the kind of person you would expect to be falsely accused and that's so something mundane in her life led to her being accused. That led me to thinking about the DNA Kits that everybody's doing, that I have a mild mistrust of. That led me to this possible hooky first-line. When Melody Daniels received the DNA Kit for Mother's Day, she had no idea it would lead to her undoing. There's something in that that's intriguing. How did something as mundane is getting a DNA Kit for a Mother's Day gift lead to her being accused of a murder? Potentially, that's a hook for the reader, but right now, that's a hook for me as a writer. I had no idea before I wrote that, that a DNA Kit was going to play into it and maybe at the end of the day it won't. But now, it's a little string I want to tug on. So now I'm going to try an opening that has a little bit of a mystery to it. It was after the captain turned off the seat belt light but before the flight attendants came through with hot towels that Melody noticed the bloodstain on her cuff. Again, when your story is ready to go to readers, this is all to draw them in. But for now, this is to draw you in. As I wrote this, I pictured Melody on a plane, I knew she was going overseas hence the hot towels, they don't give you those on domestic flights. Then she looked down and there was some blood. There is something linking Melody to the crime she's accused of, but I don't know why yet. But I'm curious now, and once again this opening line is an invitation for me to follow my own story. The next line is just jumping right into the story, using that Sally Rooney model. So I'm going to think about Melody as a stay-at-home mom. That morning, the alarm didn't go off, Jonah left her with no coffee, and Emmy spilled milk all over her car seat. So if I want to just jump right into the story and not embed any mystery, I could just leave it at that. That already gives you a sense that this is a story about a mother, a mother who hasn't had coffee that morning. There is also a way to tweak in. Tell a little bit of fun with it and embed a little bit of mystery, which is to do like this. That morning after the alarm didn't go off, Jonah left her with no coffee and Emmy spilled milk all over her car seat. Melody thought I'm going to kill someone today. On one hand, a busy mom with no coffee wanting to kill somebody makes a lot of sense. But because we're setting up Melody or stay-at-home mom outlaw who's accused of murder, this adds a bit of mystery to it. By the way, as I wrote that, I came up with Jonah the husband, and Emmy the little kid. We already know that Jonah is the kind of husband that will leave somebody with no coffee which is a sin, and Emmy is a little enough to spill all over her car seat. So even in writing that one sentence, I've already begun to populate Melody's world. It might turn out that I'd take these characters out later or that I change it around, but that just goes to show you how sometimes you just start writing and it's like boom there's a character. The next one is our thesis statement, where we state straight up what's going on. In this case, it's pretty simple. My name is Melody Daniels; I'm a 44-year-old stay-at-home mom and I'm an outlaw. The thesis statement is compelling enough that you want to follow it. The juxtaposition of Melody Daniels being a stay-at-home mom and an outlaw and how plain spoken and simply she tells you that, is it self an invitation? Why is she so blah say about this and why is she an outlaw? Our next opening line is to use voice, to really give a strong sense of your character's voice in your opening line. For Melody Daniels I came up with this. I have a system to packing, perfected over the years, but only if you follow it to the letter: t-shirts, color coded, jeans, three, blue, maybe black, never white, folded into thirds, yes, it must be thirds, don't ask, just do, bras, one black, one white, never beige, and panties, cotton, not lace, stuffed into black boots. So it's just a packing list, in a character's voice, but it gives me as a writer insight into this character who is so well organized, who has a system and who follows this system even when she's an outlaw fleeing law enforcement. So our last first-line exercise is tweaking the timeline. Instead of starting at the beginning or with a thesis statement, we are going to go well into the action, pick our own curiosity and then double-back so we can get back to this place later on. So for Melody, our stay-at-home mother outlaw. If I start in the middle it might go something like this. As she was riding the stolen Ducati down the Spanish Steps, dodging bullets from the Carabinieri, Melody had a thought: "This is the life." It's a lot of fun as a reader when you're thrown straight into the action and as a writer too, it's almost like getting to eat your dessert before dinner. Right away you have this wonderful action sequence. You get to see the character being pursued by the cops, having the time of her life and you wonder how did she get here as will your reader. At some point you're going to have to back up and show how she got here and show where she goes fro here. I also want to point out that this last line Melody thinking, "This is the life" suggests that she's enjoying herself. Where did this come from? Well, think back to that first exercise we did, that letter we wrote and the letter that I wrote to those teenagers wondering why I cried and how I came to the conclusion that it was about The Road not Taken. Well, for Melody, there was a Road Not Taken and becoming an outlaw though that has separated her from her children and she has to fight for her own innocence, it's also tapped into some of that, and she's having the time of her life. I will probably never steal a Ducati and drive it down the Spanish Steps, but I do understand the Road Not Taken and wondering what your life might have been like, and that informs this character who I now really curious to write about. It's that curiosity me wanting to know what Melody thought her life was going to be like when she was younger, how it is now and how she reconciles those two things and proves her innocence, but it's going to keep me going as I ask and answer those questions, I'm also going to be writing my story. So that was six different ways to start a story. We could have come up with 60 more. That's the point of this. There is no one way to do it and you will find the way that works for you, and when you do you'll know it, because you'll start to feel that compulsion to go back to your story to keep asking those questions, keep answering those questions. Remember, the only person who can write your story is you. I don't want you to be thinking about the reader or anybody else at this point, right now you're writing your story for you. You will know when you found your first line, your character, your premise, when it invites you in, when it pulls you deeper, when it keeps you asking those questions, when it keeps you writing because you want to find out what happens next. 7. Final Thoughts: You did it. You're heary. You created a Reese's peanut butter cup. By now you have come up with your premise, your scenario, and your character. Hopefully you are thinking about them all the time, asking yourself all kinds of questions, and having fun pondering the possibilities. These things take time. Sometimes it can seem like you're going nowhere, and sometimes you can write several pages, or in my case an entire book, and decide that it's not something you want to pursue. All of that is valuable. All of that is taking you toward your goal of telling your story. All of it is important practice. My greatest hope is that by the time you get to this part of the class, you want me to shut up, because already you are thinking about your story, and you just want to go and get on with it. I'm hoping that we started with obsession, and now you can't stop thinking about your story. That is the best sign of all. So if you've started your story, if you have your first line, share it with us, upload it to the project gallery. If you have your what if premise, or your character, share that as well. It's not easy to do this in a vacuum. So take advantage of your community, bounce ideas off each other, ask each other questions, that would push your story forward. Thank you for taking this class with me. I hope you've learned something. I hope you've discovered something. I hope you're onto something. Most of all, I hope you leave this class truly believing that only you can write your story. 8. Explore More Classes on Skillshare: