Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Dipping the Quill Deeper: Creative Exercises for Writers

by Eva Marie Everson 

As far back as I can recall, I have looked at old paintings and photographs and tried to find the story within them. As a literary artist, the creation of them sparks the creativity within me. A few years ago, I found myself not looking so much at the obvious, but at the not-so-obvious. In other words, looking around the edges and into the distance, then pulling forward so as to see the work from a different perspective. 

Take this painting for example. The work is titled “Summer Evening” and is by American artist Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839-1924). Look at it carefully. What is the first thing you see? The river? The man and woman? The glimpse of what could be a thatched roof? What about the leaves? The bench? The way the woman’s hand rests on the railing while his arm dangles from the same? The sun and its shimmer of light along the surface of the water? Where do you imagine this scene takes place? 

Ask yourself: what can be seen? Heard? Smelled? Tasted? Touched? Now, pulling forward, study the man and woman more closely. Who are they? Husband and wife? Brother and sister? Mother and son? Friends? Notice the way the man’s head is cocked slightly as if he is trying to understand. The pensive expression along the woman’s features. 

Then, write the scene in less than 300 words, as if you are drawing a reader into the moment. Example:

Summer gasped its last breath that late August evening. I had arrived early, where he’d asked, at the bench where our story began. Waiting, I stood and looked out over the bend in the river where the evidence of a sinking sun quivered along the water’s surface. Below me, our little village grew quiet, the aromas of a hundred dinners rising to meet me. To taunt me. I’d not eaten yet. I’d been unable to. Because I knew. The news he would bring could not possibly be good. 

And then, as the cicadas began to hum, he sauntered up, greeting me with his usual kiss on the cheek. “Do you want to sit?” he asked. He smelled of woodsmoke and work.

“No,” I answered. “I’d rather stand.”

But he sat, rested his arm on the railing of the old fence built to keep children and distraught lovers from falling over the hilltop’s edge. With the hand of the other, he gripped the edge of the bench like a lifeline. “We won’t have many nights left like this,” he commented, and I imagined his eyes scanning the vista below. Not that I looked at him. I no longer had that kind of energy.

“No,” I said, keeping my voice barely above a whisper on the mundane. “The leaves are changing already.”

“They’ll be gold soon. They’ve lost the richness of green a little early this year.”

The richness of green. . .

“So what have you come to tell me?” I asked the man who had been my friend since childhood. Since the day he found me crying here at this bench. The day my father died, leaving me with a mother who neither wanted nor loved me.

“Diana doesn’t understand,” he said. “But what I need to know is—Marnie, listen to me—I need to know if you do.” He paused. Waiting. “Marnie,” he spoke my name again. “Please.”


Ah! So who is Diana? And what doesn’t she understand? Just this little exercise opens a world of possibilities for me, the writer, in only a little more than 300 words. Where I take it from here could be anyone’s guess. 

What about you, writer? Want to try? Study the painting . . . and . . . imagine!


Eva Marie Everson is the president of Word Weavers International, the director of Florida Christian Writers Conference, and a frequent speaker at writers retreats across the United States. Her 40th title, DUST, a novel, will release in early March 2021.


  1. Now you've piqued my interest. Excellent writing! It makes me eager to know what comes next.

  2. I hope this becomes a book so I can read it! Thank you for such a beautiful example of inspiration for our writing.

  3. What a great exercise and excellent example. Thanks for stirring the imagination and reminding us about all our senses.

  4. Great use of fine art to exercise the mind! Thanks for the pro-tip. :)

    1. Let me see what you can do with it! Come on! Try! :)

  5. Is there a specific reason for it to be 300 words?
    This is probably a very novice question, but is there benefit in writi ng short little pieces like this even if they won't be part of a story?

    I was listening to an old podcast & they suggested an exercise of thinking up 3 alternative endings to your story. Then writing them, I've been all confused over how long they should be? And if its any benefit to write each ending as one or two full scenes?

  6. What a great exercise for us, Eva. I'm blessed to have benefitted from your skill in workshops--so glad to find this "jewel" of a a lesson to expand our creative abilities. Thank you!

  7. Felicity, thank you for asking! These are great questions.
    I keep it to about 300 words (and sometimes I only allow myself to write 150 ...) because it helps me learn to "write tight."
    There is always a benefit in writing, whether the work will be used in a piece or not. Sometimes, it sparks an idea that becomes more. Sometimes, it's simply an exercise. I believe it was Anne Lamott who told (in Bird by Bird) of a young man she saw sitting along a chain-link fence with a trumpet case. One leg bent, one leg straight. She was intrigued by this moment and she wrote about it. For a long time that little exercise was all there was but, if I remember correctly, he eventually became a part of a novel.

    As for the endings, they should be as long or as short as they need to be, but I would guess about 1500 to 3000 words (with the 3000 being the absolute top). Whether or not you make them one or two scenes depends on your characters, your plotline, genre, etc. So, that is more difficult to answer.