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So You Wanna Be a Writer, Pt. 6 (The Obstacle Course)

It’s Sunday again. My non-writing day. So here I am. Not writing.

I’ve already talked about working on description (sunset exercise) and stealing dialog (from strangers), but here’s a little exercise that helps with structure and pace. Actually, I think it might be better to say that the exercise helps focus the writer (a writer, any given writer) on pace and control.

Unlike the sunset exercise or the stealing dialog business, this exercise really is an almost exact picture of what it is like to write any given slice of a novel. But more on that later.

Here we go (explanations deferred): Set yourself an obstacle course for a given scene. Lay down various laws for yourself before beginning. Provide boundaries, put certain things off limits, make others required. I’ve seen some people try to write a scene without adjectives (the prose equivalent of noun/verb crunches–you feel the burn pretty fast). Others ditch adverbs (something many aspiring writers should do permanently). But I like to make my boundaries more concrete, and then apply them to my characters as well as to myself.

For example, begin the exercise by settling on some difficult character obstacle. Don’t over-glamorize, just pick a burden. This character is . . . fascinated with the anatomical splendor of beetles. (Remember, be concrete. No big abstract burdens like generic emotional pain/angst or blah attributes like “intelligence” or “ambition.”) Now resolve that (in whatever scene you end up writing) your character’s burden will be seamlessly discovered by the reader (not shoved down their throats by you the narrator), and will turn the action in a fundamental way. Then move on to the setting. This will happen in a . . . dentist’s office? an appliance store? Pick something that doesn’t naturally gel with your chosen character issue. It’s an obstacle course. You’re supposed to be making things difficult. And now, pick a closing scene. Don’t think in terms of a resolution, think of an image. Again, be very concrete. Come up with a striking still-frame image, and resolve to end your narration with that picture imprinted vividly into your readers’ minds. Don’t make it easy for yourself (if you’re in the dentist’s office, you shouldn’t choose bleeding gums), but don’t make it impossible either (a snap shot of the first lunar landing, say).

In this vein I once gave a group of high school sophomores the following assignment: Choose an adult character, choose a personal paranoia from your childhood. Write a scene in which that character deals with that fear becoming a reality. You must end the scene with a piano under water. (Thief that I am, I was mixing and matching exercises I’d seen given in other settings.)

I’ll end with a justification. All good fictional story-telling involves a narrator successfully running an obstacle course. The characters have established attributes (stray outside them and they become inconsistent and the story uncompelling–see Ayn Rand). The setting has given props, given time constraints, physical constraints, etc. Each scene has a role, a thing which must be accomplished, a useful contribution to the overall narrative (and the author needs to know what that micro-destination is beforehand). On top of this, the readers have expectations. If any kind of story-grip has been achieved, they will be racing ahead mentally, guessing at the ending, at the arrival, the resting point, projecting their own path through the obstacle course or the maze . . . and they will typically be disappointed in the book if they guess correctly. Outfox them.  The further an author gets into a novel, the crazier the obstacle course gets. He (or she) becomes a juggler with a strange flock of odd shapes circling overhead, hoping to land, and not necessarily well.

Lastly, give yourself a word limit. If you’re a wordy piece of business, make it shorter than you think possible. If you’re a typical male, lean the other way, add 200 extra words, pace yourself, and make use of them.

As always, there’s more to say. As always, I stole all the best bits.



  1. at
    Lindsey Doolan
    June 29, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Ditch adverbs. Permanently. Haha.

  2. at
    June 30, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks for the new “So You Wanna Be a Writer” part! It was really helpful. 😀 Adverbs are annoying….BE verbs are just un-useful. (I go to a school where if you use more than two BE verbs per paragraph, you lose points, and if you don’t have ANY BE verbs at all, you gain points, so I’m kinda biased against BE verbs. :P) Anyway….I love these kinds of posts. They’re really helpful.

  3. at
    joe and jen carlson
    June 30, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    this is super useful, nate – thanks a bunch! i have a piece due shortly for my children’s lit course. they want me to write a story on a character i carved out of a recent experience at the houston airport. they want conflict, they want pungency, and they want 500 words. 🙂

  4. at
    July 1, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Wow….ONLY 500? Or a minimum of 500? I wouldn’t be able to do that. 😛 And make it into a good story. 😉

  5. at
    Camilla Allison
    July 1, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    This is great. I’ve just been rereading “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, and this exercise looks like it’s along their same lines of practicality – I’ll be giving it a try soon. Thanks!

  6. at
    July 1, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    I’m definitely going to try this. Thank you!

  7. at
    September 30, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Here I am with a very timely comment.

    Actually, it’s a question.

    If someone, say my brilliant husband (or whoever, you know) had a strong desire to be a writer, but a non-fiction writer, would this series of exercises be helpful to him? I’m guessing yes, but still asking. Let’s say this someone had not really payed attention during school and had read very little growing up (very busy with a baseball), but now had an unitchable itch to further the gospel and strengthen sheep via the written word. And is very frustrated with the finished product thus far. Let me also throw in that his sermons (if we were talking about my husband, you know) are killer excellent and have a distinct voice…it’s just not translating to the writing yet.

    Okay, I’m sure that’s too much for one question, but there you go. I am not a writer nor do I have any desire to be one. I’m here to help my brilliant husband…and read everything you happen to produce as well.


  8. at
    March 31, 2010 at 10:38 am

    i like your book called leepike ridge by you

    thanks you

    nd willson

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  1. By N.D. Wilson on Writing « Ad Fontes on June 29, 2010 at 9:10 am

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