build Rules of Torture

by Richard Weems

Published in Issue No. 42 ~ November, 2000

When I teach fiction workshops, I prefer distributing writing exercises to the usual workshop technique of having students submit “stories” everyone reads and critiques. I teach writing as a process, something about which we must always be forward-thinking and immediate. Allowing students to turn in work they may have written weeks or months (or years) ago for commentary does not seem to best foster that attitude. I prefer to see my students writing, so I give them regular exercises and assignments – do-nows and take-homes – throughout the class. I want to make them writers in the present-tense – working and thinking about writing.

I get flak for this. I have been told that I’m too tough, that I don’t allow for an individual’s creative process. Why don’t I just let people create as they have taught themselves to create?

Because I see little point in it. If someone wants to create at her own pace and applaud herself for her own efforts, he or she has no reason to be taking a my course. I challenge, I bend, I teach, I spur. I offer a wider world of possibilities. When talking with students, I am awed by the extent of possibilities in writing that I have never thought of on my own.

The exercises and assignments, which my students and I have come to call “tortures,” are just one aspect of this, but certainly a good one. Students tend to relax more when writing these pieces, making way for more brilliant moments and expanded possibilities in their writing. Maybe this relaxation comes because I rarely tell them that they have to write a “story” when they are writing an assignment. I tell them instead that they are writing “scenes” or “exercises,” things that do not have to be complete and whole. This often helps them to just write, without feeling pressured to fully realize their ideas or find their governing purposes or any of that textbook nonsense. Often, the resulting pieces have more of a sense of completion than their 20-page attempts at “story.”

Thus, the torture finds purpose.

The biggest contentions between my students and me are my requirements. I love putting requirements and restrictions in my tortures. I constantly challenge myself even in the smallest moments as I write: write a sentence in iambic pentameter; use the word “fletcherism” in proper context, etc. I find these challenges exciting and mind-sharpening. Writing a micro-work once, I challenged myself to insert a Rottweiller into the story, as well as the name of a famous philosopher and a bagel. The dog and philosopher came easy, but the bagel refused to fit in, even as I neared the end. I could have waited until my second go-through of the manuscript, but I wanted to get it out there, and by the end it fell on me with inspiration. (The piece eventually made it into The Mississippi Review with these elements still intact.)

I like to reassure my students that I submit myself to these tortures as well. It seems to foster a feeling of all being in the same boat, or at least a sense of being in the same monastery, all of us expected to flagellate ourselves on a regular basis.

So here’s an example of a torture – usually one of the first ones I give – a good one because it demands brevity. It might seem to contradict my statement about these being only scene exercises and not story-writing exercises, but when you look at it closely, you’ll see how this can’t be anything like our usual idea of story.

Fiction-Writing Assignment #1

Write a story that is precisely one hundred (100) words long – no more, no less. Your title will NOT count toward the one hundred words. Please make sure that your story has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. (In other words, do not simply stop your assignment once you have reached the one hundred-word mark – end your assignment properly.)

Also, please have the following words appear amongst your hundred:

  1. Refrigerator
  2. Redwood
  3. Fleur-de-lis
  4. Hurst Tool (also known as the Jaws of Life)

Here are examples of micro works that define themselves in a near hundred words:

Example #1

Example #2

Example #3

Now that we’ve established brevity to tell a story, let’s move onto authority, or creating the world of a story. This is an exercise that does it through absurdity (thus we will have a couple of quoted lines by Russel Edson, the king of absurdity), but does it nonetheless:

Fiction-Writing Assignment #2

Write a short piece, preferably with a minimum of 250 words, where your beginning will be one of the following (word for word – you may NOT change any of the wording or even punctuation):

  1. The baby does not keep its brain. We keep finding it on the floor by the baby’s crib.
  2. My wife has run away with an overweight Elvis impersonator. This itself would be enough of an embarrassment, but you see, they’ve taken a doublewide in the trailer park next to mine.
  3. I can’t call my brother anymore because recently I discovered he transformed into broccoli.
  4. We bought an electric monkey, experimenting rather recklessly with funds carefully gathered since grandfather’s time for the purchase of a steam monkey.

Use the opening sentence(s) as your beginning and move on. Most importantly, you are not to retract the reality of your beginning! In other words, you may not follow-up any of these beginnings with something like, “…and then he woke up.” Explore the new reality or world your chosen beginning initiates. What are the rules of the world your beginning creates? In addition, within this writing assignment, I want the following elements present:

  1. the name of a Tibetan city
  2. an ingredient found in Twinkies
  3. the word ‘isanemone’

A couple examples from the king of absurdity, Russel Edson. Note how Edson always follows through with his premises and never retracts them but explores them further:

Example #1

Check out “Dinner Time” or “The Damaged Ape” on this page.

Since authority has now been exercised, on to character – the driving force of all literature. Let’s stay a bit in the realm of absurdity and recreate famous characters we already know – familiar characters real or fictional:

Fiction-Writing Assignment #3

Write a scene in third-person narrative where your principle character is someone famous, either alive or dead, in a present-day setting, but you will not be restricted to this famous person’s personality. In other words, I want you to re-invent this famous person’s character. Past favorites for this assignment have been Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Jesus Christ, Hamlet, Batman. The list goes on and on. You are not restricted to the actions that this person may or may have not done – reinvent. Especially if your chosen protagonist is now dead, do not spend time in your narrative explaining how this person came to be in whatever situation you have put him or her in. Put this person in a specific scene or event and see what happens from there. (Of course, this scene may be somewhere your chosen character has never been – Humphrey Bogart in a VD clinic, Jesus Christ at a Bob’s Big Boy, etc.) This is an exercise in establishing the world and the rules of your writing, so have fun and see what happens. The purpose of this exercise is to create authority and character and move on. To backtrack and explain the events that have gotten your famous person to your present action will defeat the purpose of this assignment. Tell us who your chosen person is in the beginning and then go on with your story. The following elements are to appear in your scene:

  1. a venereal disease, mentioned specifically
  2. the word ‘metatarsus’
  3. a breakfast cereal
  4. the name of a composer of classical music

Donald Barthelme is a great example of this, so here.

Note the requirement that the famous person be obvious from the start. This is an exercise in establishing character, not goofy surprise, so make sure it is immediately clear who is being dealt with here.

Characters always need to have attitude, moments where we know how they think and operate. Here is an assignment good for that:

Fiction-Writing Exercise #4

Write a letter, addressed to someone whom the letter’s writer hates, regarding the time (or one of the times) when this hatred began. Make this a specific scene and relate it through this one person’s perspective, but as this person relates this hatred of the other person, let the readers know of another reason for this hatred. Try to relate this without explicitly telling us this deeper reason. This letter is addressed to someone specifically, and you must not break that fiction. The letter may be true or fictional, and include the following elements:

  1. the word “gluteus”
  2. two clichés, used in a new way
  3. a list of ingredients to some kind of food

Let’s not think that only the 20th century gave us great examples of writing modes. In fact, epistolary fiction is a mainstay in literary history. Just look at this one by Jane Austen.

A very important aspect of this exercise is that the letter must sound like it is from one person to another and not meant for our ears at all. This is a direct line towards character – knowing specifically how that character addresses someone else in this kind of situation.

So let’s let two characters speak to another:

Fiction-Writing Exercise #5

Write a piece where you present to us the dialogue between two characters, and only their dialogue. There is to be no narrative surrounding your dialogue, no descriptions of meaning from you, nor any qualifiers (such as “he said” and “she said”). It will be through your placement of dialogue, your punctuation, and maybe through some imaginative tricks of distinguishing dialogue, that we will know who is speaking when. Through this dialogue alone, try to suggest to us the situation, all without breaking the convincing guise of dialogue. The object of this assignment is to learn how to suggest without explicitly detailing your intentions. Avoid violating the pretext that these are two people talking to each other with no one overhearing them (i.e., “Oh, it is you, Frank, my friend whom I thought was lost at sea in a terrible boating accident three years ago that did indeed kill your wife and child, for their bodies washed up upon the shore. What are you doing here in a sleazy hamburger joint just off Route 203 in the ruddiest, hottest part of Arizona?”). Again, the idea here is to suggest to us the situation between these two people.

Please have the following elements in your scene:

  1. a brand of toothpaste
  2. the word “flabellum”
  3. a brief synopsis of a fairy tale
  4. the title of an opera by Giacomo Puccini
  5. at least one instance of dialogue quoted within dialogue

An odd example, but nonetheless here’s one.

My students learn a lot from these exercises. These five alone provide much of the atoms of good writing – authority, character and basic story form. I advise my students strongly that these exercises are lead-ins to new work, not cues to go back over old, dusty things. A fresh mindset is always a great place to move forward from. And it also encourages play, the aspect of writing we all too often forget because we think play has nothing to do with seriousness. Writing is serious play, but it is most certainly play. Dare yourself to do something in your work that you’ve never done before.

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Richard K. Weems ( is the author of Anything He Wants, winner of the Spire Fiction Award and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and The Need for Character. His short story publications include North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Mississippi Review, Other Voices, Crescent Review, The Florida Review and The Beloit Fiction Journal. He will be teaching once again this MLK weekend at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway in Cape May, New Jersey.