Exercise Tips for Building Fiction Muscle: Ideas, Characters, and Dialogue
Posted On: 2014-02-05
by: Teresa Miller

05, 2014
Writing fiction is a completely different type of writing, and it requires a unique set of skills. You can read books and study these skills (and I suggest you do) but eventually, you'll need to practice them to get good at them.

Think about it: when learning to lift weights, it's important to learn the basics before you start so that you don't hurt yourself. You do that by studying a guide or getting a trainer. But you can't build your muscles or increase your fitness simply by studying or by hiring a personal trainer. You have to put in the work.

The point of this article is not to teach you everything you need to know about writing fiction. It's about giving you some simple exercises you can use to practice developing some of the skills you need to create compelling stories.

Getting Ideas

Exercises for your idea muscle are more about stretching your creativity than actually coming up with usable story content, although sometimes you get both. These will get you to expand the boundaries of your imagination.

Free writing is a technique used by writers to get into the habit of getting your initial thoughts and ideas on paper. To free write, write non-stop for a set period of time. While writing, don't overthink it. Write whatever pops into your head and don't edit or correct anything.

Writing prompts can be any story starter or suggestion of an idea. You can just choose one and start writing to see where it takes you. You can Google for writing prompts or make up your own.

Random generators can be found that give you all sorts of different randomly created information. You can have random generators for names, for monsters, for elements of worlds. When doing research for a writing guide I was doing, I couldn't believe how many I found. I collected some of them into a list that you can download and use.

News headlines are a great source of fiction ideas. The phrases "fact is stranger than fiction" and "ripped from the headlines" haven't become commonplace without cause. Try Googling "weird news" for example, and see what pops up!

The world around you is also brimming with ideas just waiting to be taken advantage of; just learn to be very observant. Watch how people behave, listen to things they say to each other, and make note of sights, sounds, smells, gestures, clothing and more.

Developing Characters

Exercises for character development are all about getting to know your characters, inside and out. Sometimes your characters will surprise you as the story develops, but you should at least attempt to know them as well as you can before you start. After all, you're going to be telling their story.

Taking a personality test as your character will tell you things you may not have already understood about them. It can help you see the psychology behind their actions, which will allow you to write a more meaningful story.

Character worksheets or questionnaires can help you figure out the details. Physical traits, likes, dislike, fears, jobs, friends, childhood memories...and most importantly FLAWS. Your protagonist should have a flaw that they are working against and your antagonist should have some kind of redeeming factor, even if it's just a certain person whom they care about.

Good Guy/Bad Guy reversal means switching the protagonist/antagonist in the story so that their motives are the opposite of what you (or your reader) expect. This is a fun exercise that can open your eyes to character possibilities. The last thing you want to do in your writing is be predictable. Practice shaking things up and you'll be able to do it more effectively in your stories.

Take advantage of the people you know. We all use elements from our own life. There isn't a fiction writer in the world who hasn't written something to make those close to them wonder... is that about me?

Creating Dialogue

Dialogue can be one of the toughest things to get right. Between trying to make your dialogue authentic and using dialogue tags that don't distract the reader, this can be a real stumbling block.

Remember, when it comes to dialogue, if it sounds awkward to you, chances are good that it will sound awkward to your reader.

Listen to people and pay attention to not only what they say but how they say it. Learn to have an ear for natural speech. Take notes on things people say, and replay them in your mind.

Rehearse! Practice writing dialogue and then have a "reading" with family or friends. Have each person read for a different character, and see if it sounds natural. Alternatively, you can record yourself. Either way, it really helps to hear your dialogue spoken aloud.

Learn the dialect and slang for your story's setting, age group, or culture. Googling this can be very interesting and fun. Just for kicks, I Googled "Arkansas slang" (my state) and found a humorous - and mostly accurate - list of slang terms.

Character Swap - Read a book or watch a movie, and figure out how a different character might have said the same thing differently.

Read - A lot! - One of the best ways to get a feel for the way dialogue should be written is to read a lot of it. Figure out what works and what doesn't, and why. What distracts and pulls you out of the story? What draws you in?


The only way to build your fiction muscles is through exercise. Ideas, characters, and dialogue are all around you, but you'll only ever write them well if you practice, practice, and practice.

Write every day. Use some of the exercises in this article. Write in journals, on index cards, or a on computer. Use whatever exercises and tools that work best for you, but write!

Until next time,
Teresa Miller