Writing

Ten Quick Style 101 Exercises

Different stories call for different language. You might write a romance with long flourishing sentences and a gritty noir with abrupt phrasing. Genre settings need language that blends in, or the phrasing will call attention to itself and away from the story. If you always use the style that comes naturally, you’re limiting your ability to write a wide range of stories.

Before you can create perfect prose, you must be able to alter the prose you write. These exercises are here to help. We’ll start with two sample pieces of prose and modify them in different ways. The goal isn’t to make masterpieces but to stretch and flex our writing muscles a bit. Don’t get paralyzed by perfectionism.

Sample 1

I will be modifying this sample to provide an example for each exercise:

Example

When Min returned, the door was unlocked and the lights were on. Why was Jordan still home? He’d be late for work. She peeked into the office to chide him, but it was empty. Instead a note rested on the cushions of his chair; the lettering was too flashy to be his.

There’s a large clearing near the bottom of the grove at Edwards Park. You know the place. For Jordan’s sake, come now.

Sample 2

This one is yours to work on. I’ll complete the exercises for this one too, but my answers will be hidden in a bar that expands once tapped or clicked. Once you’ve tried the exercise yourself, you can reveal them to compare your work with mine. But keep in mind: while some answers might be better than others, there is no right answer.

Example

Jordan’s path was blocked by a blank wall. He searched his pockets for the directions Min gave him before he left but couldn’t find them. What would he do now? Well, the magic shop had to be somewhere in the vicinity. He took out his phone and pulled up a map.

Then he got a message from an unknown sender. It’s the door on your left. DO NOT look around for me. Just go there, now.

You have some leeway regarding whether to stay close to the starting paragraph or deviate farther from it. Think of it as if you were writing your own scene in a story – you can add or remove whatever details you want, but you should keep the gist the same.

Rhythm Exercises

We’ll start by adjusting the rhythm of the language we’re using. Good rhythm is varied, but our exercise results won’t be. That’s okay; we’re just exploring what we can do.

For these exercises we’ll adjust the number of pauses and the length of the phrases between them. Some people think of rhythm as the length of sentences, but commas create pauses just like periods do. But don’t change the rhythm just by inserting or removing commas. Change the form of your sentences to makes commas and periods more or less appropriate.

Real quick, let’s review a couple comma rules you can use to your advantage.

  • Use a comma with two complete sentences joined with a conjunction:
    He went to the market, and he bought lots of fish.
  • Don’t use a comma if one of those sections isn’t a complete sentence:
    He went to the market and bought lots of fish.
  • Use a comma after time and places that begin a sentence:
    After she stopped doing the work herself, she frequently forgot her hammer.
  • Don’t use a comma if they end the sentence:
    She frequently forgot her hammer after she stopped doing the work herself.
  • Use commas if you add an aside with “which”:
    The cats, which were white, crowded around the bed.
  • Don’t use a comma if you specify what you’re referring to with “that”:
    The cats that were white crowded around the bed.

1. Choppy

We’ll start with short phrasing. Short phrases punctuate prose; they are excellent for emphasizing important details. With a lot of them, prose feels clipped and abrupt.

Break the paragraph into short phrases separated by commas or periods. Streamline the sentences as you need to. When you’re done, they may sound more direct.

Example

When Min returned, the door was unlocked. The lights were on. Why? Was Jordan home? He’d be late. She peeked into the office; it was empty. Except for a note on his chair. The lettering was flashy, not his.

There’s a clearing at Edwards Park. You know it. For Jordan’s sake, come now.

Now it’s your turn, using sample 2.

Exercise 1: My Answer

It was a blank wall; Jordan’s path was blocked. Min’s directions weren’t in his pockets, in his wallet, anywhere. What now? The magic shop was nearby, somewhere. He had his phone; he pulled up a map.

He got a message, unknown sender: Door on your left. Don’t look around; go now.

2. Breathless

Now we’ll do the opposite. In prose, long phrases without pausing gives sentences a panicked or overwhelmed edge. This works well with some kinds of humor.

Modify the sample to create long breathless phrases. Embellish details as you need to.

Example

When Min returned the door was unlocked and the overhead lights and lamps were all switched on. How could Jordan still be working after he’d been told they’d let him go if he arrived late just one more time? She peeked into the office to chide him about his tardiness but found only an empty chair bearing a fresh note that couldn’t be his because the lettering was far too flashy.

There’s a large clearing at Edwards Park that I’m sure you know about, just as I’m sure you’ll come for Jordan’s sake.

Now you do it with sample 2.

Exercise 2: My Answer

Jordan had almost arrived at the place he needed be when his path was blocked by a blank wall. He searched for the directions Min gave him before he left but couldn’t find them in his pockets or anywhere he’d been in the last ten minutes. So what would he do now that he had come all the way out here and still couldn’t find what he wanted? If he were to guess where he needed to go from here, he’d say the magic shop was the kind of shop that could only make ends meet in the low cost parts of town that didn’t charge them for all the side effects of spells. He took out his phone and pulled up a map in the off chance the magic shop might actually be on a map.

Then he received a message from a sender he didn’t think he’d ever seen before:You don’t need to go any further than the door tucked into the alley on your left. DO NOT look around for where I am watching you, just get in before they have a chance to catch up with us.

3. Rambling

Next let’s build sentences with a meandering feel. They pause frequently to go on about extra information, in no hurry to get wherever they’re going. You can use the occasional meandering sentence to vary the rhythm or slow the pace of your narrative.

Aim for long sentences with two or more commas breaking them into moderately long phrases.

Example

Min returned home, only to find that the door was unlocked yet again. Inside, all the overheads lights, even the ones upstairs and in the basement, were on. The only conclusion she could come to was that Jordan was still home; otherwise it was too much willful negligence, even for him. He’d be late, and to think his boss told him he’d let him go, as though it wasn’t his father’s own factory. Min peeked in the office, ready to chide him for getting distracted and losing track of himself, but his chair was empty. That is, except for the note that was resting on his seat cushion, waiting for her to find it. It was in a flashy, overdone handwriting she’d never seen in her life.

Down near the bottom of the grove, at Edwards park, there is a clearing I’m sure you know about. For Jordan’s sake, as well as your own, you should come right away.

Now you do it with sample 2.

Exercise 3: My Answer

Fresh out of the barbershop, Jordan went to his next errand, which only ended in disappointment. He was blocked by a blank wall, its stone painted in twenty shades of brown, a desperate attempt against an onslaught of graffiti. He searched his pockets for the directions Min gave him, written on paper from one of the little yellow pads, but only came up with some old receipts. He didn’t know quite what to do next, but the magic shop had to be nearby, seeing as the neighborhood had that little fizz in the air, a sign of spells cast over the years. He took out his phone and pulled up a map hoping, perhaps futilely, that a shop like that would be on a map.

His phone dinged with a message, a token of luck, though the sender was unknown: It’s the door on your left, the second over with the wooden sign, the one that says Mr. Wells. DO NOT look around for me, you’ll call attention and won’t get a glimpse anyhow. Just go on over there, casually, now.

Setting Exercises

Now it’s time to adjust our language by genre. Of course, the best language to fit a setting depends on the particulars, so we’ll just take some generic settings and guess what they’d need.

4. Fantasy

Let’s pretend this is a piece in a high fantasy novel. Replace any modern technology with suitable substitutes. Then remove contemporary language and replace it with more stately language.

Don’t overdo this! Words like “thee,” “thou,” “thine,” “shalt,” “wilst,” and “ye” are all banned. Instead, look for modern idioms and shorthand, and replace it with fuller, more graceful phrasing.

Example

When Min returned, the door was unbolted and the lamps were lit. Why had Jordan not left? He’d arrive late for his duties at the mill. She peeked into his study to chide him but found it empty. Instead a short length of parchment rested on his chair cushion, the ink scrawled in intricate patterns that were unlike his neat lettering.

Near the bottom of the grove in his majesty’s gardens, there’s a large clearing. You’ve been there more than once. For the sake of dear Jordan, come now.

Now you do it with sample 2.

Exercise 4: My Answer

Jordan’s path was blocked by an imposing wall. He searched his satchel for the directions Min gave him before his departure but only came up empty handed. What could he do next? He wouldn’t give up; the shop of enchantments had to be close. He took out the neat roll of leather that bore his map.

No sooner had he untied it than he heard a whisper behind him, in a voice he didn’t recognize: It’s the door to your left. Do not look at me; just enter, now.

5. Contemporary

Now we want it to sound even more contemporary, like we’re writing an urban fantasy. Replace anything on the stuffy side with casual and modern phrasing. You can use idioms, but make sure they fit in naturally.

Example

When Min got home, the front door wasn’t locked like it was supposed to be, and the lights were on. Why was Jordan still around? He’d be late and probably get fired on top of that. She poked her head into the office to nag him, but he wasn’t there. Instead a note rested on his chair. The handwriting was definitely not his; it was way too girly.

There’s a large clearing somewhere around the bottom of the grove at Edwards Park; you’ve been before. If you want to see Jordan again, you’d better come right now.

Now you do it with sample 2.

Exercise 5: My Answer

Jordan screeched to a halt. A blank wall sat where the alley was supposed to be. He scrounged in his pockets for the paper Min gave him with the address and phone number but found only crumpled receipts. What now? Well, the magic shop had to be somewhere in the neighborhood. He flipped out his phone and pulled up a map.

Then he got a text from an unknown sender: It’s the door on your left. DO NOT look around for me, just head over there, now.

6. Science Fiction

We’ll replace contemporary language with language that sounds neutral. Then we’ll add “tech” inspired wording, some of it abbreviated to mimic the natural progression of language. The technology level should also be higher; assume paper isn’t around anymore.

Example

When Min returned, the door slid open without her keycard or even her voice. Why was Jordan still home? He’d be late for his assignment at the station. She went to the office to remind him, but the lights weren’t active until she stepped in. Jordan was gone but his comm wasn’t; it flashed with a new message.

There’s a large clearing near the crevice at Edward Park. You’ve been there. If you love Jordan, you’ll come now.

Now you do it with sample 2.

Exercise 6: My Answer

Jordan found a wall blocking the terminal entrance. He activated his emitter to overlay Min’s directions and realized they weren’t loaded on it. What should he do next? Well, the psy vendor had to be somewhere in the vicinity. He ran a scan of the area, looking for traces of energy.

Then he received an incoming message: It’s the gateway on your left. DO NOT waste time scanning for me; just go there, now.

Distance Exercises

Next we’ll play with narrative distance. We’ll stay in third person limited, but do one exercise to make it feel very distant and another that’s zoomed in. For these exercises, we won’t modify the phrases in italics. They wouldn’t change with perspective.

7. Distant

Distant narration makes readers feel like they are viewing a character from the outside. We aren’t experiencing what they’re experiencing; instead we’re watching them experience it. We’ll narrate that the character is thinking, seeing, or hearing something rather than writing those things straight into the narrative.

Narrative distance generally makes the narration less powerful, but it also makes it easier to transition between viewpoints. It can be useful for characters you don’t want your readers to understand well, perhaps because they are evil or insane.

Example

When Min returned, she found the door was unlocked and the lights were on. She wondered if Jordan was still home. If he was, he’d be late for work. She paused, planning the clever words she’d use to chide him, then peeked into the office. It was empty. She sighed, then spotted the note resting on the cushions of his chair. She thought the lettering was too flashy to be his.

There’s a large clearing near the bottom of the grove at Edwards Park. You know the place. For Jordan’s sake, come now.

Now you do it with sample 2.

Exercise 7: My Answer

Jordan found his path blocked by a blank wall. He searched in his pockets for the directions Min gave him before he left but couldn’t find them. He paused, considering what to do next. Finally he concluded the magic shop was probably in his vicinity. He took out his phone and pulled up a map.

Then he got a message from a number he didn’t recognize: It’s the door on your left. DO NOT look around for me, just go there, now.

8. Close

Close distance means the reader is directly experiencing the thoughts and perspective of the character. The narration shouldn’t sound neutral; it should have emotion and bias. There shouldn’t be any labels on thoughts or sensations.

Close distance makes prose more interesting and helps readers understand the viewpoint character and their emotions. For those reasons, I generally recommend close distance. But as long as you transition slowly, you can use both close and distant perspectives in the same scene, choosing the one that works best for the moment.

Example

Min finally got back to her pad to find the door wasn’t even locked. And the lights were on, of course they were. Jordan had damn well better be home. Wait, no, he’d better not be or he’d be late and get fired. Crap. Either way, she’d have his hide. She burst into the office, but it was empty. She sighed, then paused. A note rested on his chair. The writing wasn’t his; it had crazy loop-de-loops she would have remembered.

There’s a large clearing near the bottom of the grove at Edwards Park. You know the place. For Jordan’s sake, come now.

Now you do it with sample 2.

Exercise 8: My Answer

Jordan’s path was blocked by a blank wall that had no business being there. Where were those cryptic directions Min gave him? He went through all his pockets but only found the crumpled receipts he still had for some reason. Just great, now what? Well, the magic shop had to be somewhere nearby, and he wasn’t leaving until he found it. He took out his phone and pulled up a map.

He got a message from some number he didn’t know: It’s the door on your left. DO NOT look around for me, just go there, now.

Showing & Telling Exercises

Finally, let’s practice summarizing and illustrating.

9. Telling

Not everything in your stories will be worth describing in depth. Pieces of your narrative that are dull but necessary can be cut down to size with a little telling.

Summarize the sample in several sentences. I’m sure that sounds easy, but I want you to think carefully about which pieces of the sample are the most important. Don’t summarize everything evenly; give the most important parts more space. Your goal is to retain the character of the content, while communicating it more briefly.

Example

When Min got home she found the door was unlocked, but Jordan was missing. A note rested on his empty chair, written in a hand she didn’t recognize. It gave her a meeting place and time: at the park, right now.

Now you do it with sample 2.

Exercise 9: My Answer

Jordan found a blank wall where the magic shop should have been. He opened a map on his phone and received an anonymous text. It told him to enter the door on his left, immediately.

10. Showing

For the pieces of your narrative that are both exciting and important, showing will help you bring them to life. For this exercise, take anything that sounds like a brief summary and demonstrate at more length. Focus on thoughts in particular, expand them with information that will make readers think the same thing the character is thinking.

Example

Min paused on the front step and pulled out her keys, but the door swung open without them. The overhead light in the living room and kitchen illuminated the interior. Jordan’s shift started a whole hour ago, and his boss had already given him three warnings about tardiness. She put her bags down and marched into the office where she’d left him, but her smart remarks died in her throat. His chair was empty. That was, except for a folded piece of paper with her name on it. The flashy letterforms were nothing like Jordon’s neat and tidy handwriting.

There’s a large clearing near the bottom of the grove at Edwards Park. You know the place. For Jordan’s sake, come now.

Now you do it with sample 2.

Exercise 10: My Answer

Jordan walked around the corner and came face to face with a solid stone wall. He dug in his pockets, and ended up with a handful of old receipts. His wallet had nothing but a few credit cards, certainly no little yellow note with a number and address. He couldn’t go back empty-handed, but he no idea where this place was. Well, this was the only part of town that was zoned for magic use. He took out his phone and pulled up a map.

His phone dinged. He had a new message from an unknown number: It’s the door on your left. DO NOT look around for me, just go there, now.

Taking the Next Steps

If you’re comfortable with all of these styles, it’s time to put them to use in your own work. Go through your own writing and find a paragraph to modify, or do some free writing in each style.

You won’t want to use these techniques all the time. But when you do want them, they should be at the tips of your fingers, ready for you to summon.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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