Confession: It takes me forever to sit down to write. A blank screen means I have to solve a writing problem: what to write! No matter what it is you write, facing the blank screen can may bring panic and self-doubt. But there is a solution to the problem!

In fact, here are five quick exercises (solutions!) to stir your creativity and help you solve writing problems. 

My last two articles were about the how and why of writing. This one is about the what. Writers know we need a strong hook to bring the reader in. So, sometimes the first problem to solve is: What’s new and different about what I’m writing? 

These quick exercises, culled from my writing and improv training — and developed from tackling years of artistic challenges — are designed to spark creativity in mere minutes. I like to set a timer and go for each exercises: no breaks, no judgment. I was always taught that 10 minutes was the ideal. If you want to go longer , all the better, just make sure you spend at least 10 minutes.

Thespians participate in Thespian Playworks rehearsal at 2018 ITF. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Build lists to solve writing problems

The pesky blank page just needs to be filled with what you already know or feel. The quickest way to fill a page is to make a list. Lists provide specific images, objects, and ideas to open a world of possibilities.

Choose any of these topics to make a list. Fill the list to your heart’s content for at least 10 minutes. Then choose another and another and another.

  • Nouns
  • Verbs
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Objects you dislike (I usually go for food examples — shredded coconut and fennel/anise/black licorice are always at the top of my list)
  • Objects in your room
  • Objects in nature
  • Household products
  • Skills everyone needs

See? You have way more ideas than you thought. Now let’s use the items on these lists to create characters and situations.

Note: When I say story in any of these exercises, it can mean short story, scene, monologue, poem, song or journal entry.

  • Mix and match the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs to create a sentence. Write the story that begins with that sentence.
  • For any of the objects or products you’ve listed, write a story about a world where that thing does not exist.
  • Make one of your objects a “MacGuffin” — the thing everyone in the story desperately seeks (Raiders of the Lost Fennel?). Maybe your main character uses one of the skills on your skills list.
  • Start a story with “I love [one of the objects you dislike] because…” Or, create a compelling argument for why one of the things that annoy you can be a useful — or even a crucial — thing for society.
  • Combine an adverb and an adjective and make that the title of a story about a skill that everyone needs. Then write that story.
  • Create a character by anthropomorphizing an inanimate object. If Pixar can do it, so can you. Now take something on the skills list and show how your character learns that skill.
A thespian participates in Thespian Playworks rehearsal at 2017 ITF. Photo by Corey Rourke.

Flex your juxtaposition muscles

It’s a challenge to create unique ideas for stories, character traits, and dramatic (or comedic) situations. One technique is to pair two disparate ideas.

Of the many, many reasons Hamilton is so successful, is because it juxtaposes the history of the white Founding Fathers with a multicultural cast and contemporary music. It’s a story about America “then” told by America “now.”

So now you get to exercise your juxtaposition muscles:

  • Make a list of combined titles, names, or objects. Examples: The Empire Strikes Back to the Future III, Ryan Reynolds Wrap, Hello Dolly Parton.
  • Create an unusual relationship between two people, places, or things that don’t normally go together. For example, The Odd Couple, a ’70s sitcom about two divorced men with polar-opposite personalities that created hilarity. 
  • Write a story about ordinary objects or activities in an extraordinary place, such as washing dishes at a funeral on Mars.
  • Write a story about extraordinary activities in an ordinary place — tap-dancing on your hands during a final exam.
Thespians participate in Thespian Playworks rehearsal at 2017 ITF. Photo by Corey Rourke.

Change one thing to Solve Writing Problems

In the 1980s, the success of the movie Die Hard boosted the action genre, so a lot of movies tried to riff on that formula. Die Hard’s skyscraper setting for high-octane thrills was substituted to become “Die Hard on a Bus” (Speed), “Die Hard on a Plane” (Air Force One) or “Die Hard at an Airport “(Die Hard 2).

When spinning new ideas out of the ether, sometimes it comes down to changing one element of something you already know. On a micro level, when you’re hundreds of drafts into a script or a song and simply stuck, all you need to do is change one word or one sentence.

Let’s hone that skill:

  • Choose an ending of a story you hated and rewrite it to your liking.
  • Choose an ending of a story you loved and flip the outcome.
  • Choose an ending of a story and create a different beginning.
  • Switch the genres of your favorite stories (i.e., turn Winnie the Pooh into an action hero a la Fast and the Furious).
  • Think about the one time you made a huge choice. Now write the road not taken.
Thespians participate in Musicalworks auditions at 2019 ITF. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Amplify a viewpoint

One of the most important tools in your arsenal as a writer is having a strong point of view. Your voice is important. Also, characters need strong points of view for us to understand and emotionally connect with them.

We certainly live in an era of strong opinions. Social media has amplified the ability to air points of view, so let’s create an imaginary social network post as a way to explore character voices.

This is a multipronged assignment, each part takes 10 minutes:

  1. Choose a character with big personal problem. Write an imaginary post asking for help.
    • Respond to the post as someone who offers to help and gives all the right advice, then as someone who thinks they are helping but gives the worst suggestions ever.
    • Have #a respond to #b calling them out, then have #b strengthen their resolve. See how far they can go back and forth.
  1. Create a fourth person who weighs in. Whose side do they take? Do they offer something new? How do all the other characters respond and interact? Remember that the character with the original post will react and weigh in.
Thespians participate in Thespian Playworks rehearsal at 2018 ITF. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Write with friends

We’re experts at procrastinating but thrive on a deadline. It’s super useful to pair up with a friend or meet with a group to do these exercises:

  • Participants provide each other a unique two-person relationship. Each writes a two-person scene with the characters they are given.
  • Participants provide each other an unusual word (think spelling bees). Each writes a story sparked by the word. It’s equally fun if you don’t know the meaning. I once lost a spelling bee with phlox (I thought it was “phlocks”). Though it’s a flower, it prompted me to write about magical deli lox (again, my default is food).
  • Each participant creates a character by answering the following questions (different person for each question). Then each of you writes a story in which your character is locked in a room with a rival with only 10 minutes to escape.
    • What is your first name?
    • What is your last name?
    • How old are you?
    • What do you do?
    • What do you do on weekends?
    • What do you say all the time?
    • What brings you the most pride?
    • What scares you?

These exercises can lead to full pieces. When I was a student, a classmate gave me the opening line of a monologue. After about 10 minutes of writing, I had created a new character, who became the protagonist of my first produced play.

At any point in your process, the more your brain can access objects, traits, experiences, and points of view, the richer your writing becomes. The more you juxtapose incongruous ideas or change your angle, the more you unlock your genius.

And the more you give yourself time to write, the more you write.

I didn’t think I would stay at my computer this long to write, but 10 minutes of commitment cascaded over me like a wave and led to more and more minutes, hours, and days of writing. I wish you the joy of navigating such rich waters of creativity.

Sammy Buck is an award-winning writer, story consultant and creator of Structure! The Musical: Everything You Need to Know About Musicals You Can Learn From Star Wars. Visit his website for more information. 

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