I recently attended a workshop featuring New York agent and author, Donald Maass, who presented material that will be included in his book slated for release in 2009 called, The Fire in Fiction.
His premise is that not only can every book you write be powerful, but so can every chapter and every scene. He said the key is passion -- not just what happens between the hero and heroine of romance novels, but what a writer feels about their work.
He led workshop participants through a number of exercises to go beyond the usual and find the unexpected to engage the reader deeply in a story. One of those exercises was to develop the world of the story. He had us pick a scene of our WIP where something significant happens and write down the five most obvious things we would observe about this scene. Then cross out all those things and write down five more things we would notice if we had the time.
Next he asked us to feel the emotions of the point-of-view character about the place where this scene was happening. Is she happy? Sad? Does the setting of this scene evoke painful memories or joyful ones? Does the character want to stay in this place or get out? What does the POV character like most about this place? What does she like least? Will she cry or curse about being in this place? Will she want to run or never leave? Try to find the strongest emotion of the POV character, then take all these responses and weave the emotions of the POV character into the scene. This won't just describe a setting, but will set a memorable scene.
Another suggestion Maass made was to pull the emotion out of yourself to make characters more real. For instance, what do you feel when you are afraid? Does your mouth get dry? Your palms get sweaty? Do you feel like a six-year-old child knowing there are monsters under your bed? Give the protagonist as many of your own emotions as you can. This will give your characters a realism that pulls a reader deeply into your story.
Now do this for every scene of your story. :)
Like Alice's exercise of getting into the skin of a character, Maass' exercises made me itch to get rolling on another story again. What about you? Are there exercises you use to dig deeper into your characters or bring your settings to life? Or is this something you do without thinking about it?