Here’s an exercise I prodded myself to do on Tuesday night. It’s the usual evening that I’ve met with my friend Mike, who’s also working on a novel. Together we have trod the path of the writing exercise, many months before I took my Amherst Writers & Artists training to lead next week’s workshop.

Borders on Great Hills has been the meeting place on these Tuesdays for Mike and I. The bookshop stands in the shadow of a much larger Barnes and Noble across the intersection, but Borders has got a much better cafe — quieter, with more seats and decent sized tables. We’ve met there for more than a year of Tuesdays, sitting in the hard-backed chairs, chatting and then writing longhand, then reading aloud to each other.

Enough of the color. Here’s the exercise:

Write a simple scene, a straightforward event. A character looks for a table in a crowded cafe, trips and manages to keep her food from spilling, gets embarrassed as she looks around, sees a smiling person at an otherwise empty table.

The work is to write it five completely different ways — consider changes of style, tone, sentence structure, voice, psychic distance. Make the styles radically different, with the same story. That’s the point: to make them very different. Keep each version short, up to eight sentences. Pick a single kind of narration and stick to it. Don’t fiddle with perspective. Fiddle with style.

Keep the total number of words to 350 or so.

Fiction is thought stylized, according to Brian Kitely, who included the above exercise in his fine book The 3 AM Epiphany. If he’s right, then style is essential to good writing. Rewriting through five different styles, one right in a row, sure gives you alternative ideas on how to express that thought.

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