CONFESSION: IT TAKES me forever to sit down to write.

Whether you write articles, plays, screenplays, musicals, novels, or even emails and texts — facing the blank screen sends varying degrees of panic and self-doubt.

My last two articles were about the how and why of writing. This one is about the what.

As in: What the bleep am I going to write about? What’s new and different about what I’m writing? What do I do?

Here are some exercises to address those common writer problems. These quick jaunts, culled from my writing and improv training — and developed from tackling years of artistic challenges — are designed to spark creativity in mere minutes.

For each of these exercises, I like to set a timer and go: no breaks, no judgment. I was always taught that 10 minutes was the ideal. If you want to go to 11 or 12 (or even 15), all the better, just make sure it’s at least 10.

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

Build lists.

The pesky blank page is actually never really blank — it just needs to be populated with what you already know or feel.

The quickest way to fill a page is to make a list. They provide specific images, objects, and ideas to open a world of possibilities.

Choose any of these topics make a list. Fill it 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
  • Secrets about you
  • Skills everyone needs

See? You have way more 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 the 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 crucial — thing for society.
  • Combine an adverb and an adjective and make that the title of a story about one of your secrets. 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, its genius lies in setting the history of the white Founding Fathers with a multicultural cast and contemporary music. “A story about America then told by America now.”

So time to exercise some 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 a list of analogies, then justify them. For example, in Rope : HANGNAIL :: ADORABLE : CUTICLE, the first syllable of the second word in each is related but then goes in a different direction in the latter part of the word.
  • Create an unusual relationship between two people, places, or things that might not go together, like an apple and a bowling ball, or two people or animals who wouldn’t normally go together, such as a U.S. President and a monkey (that was a real thing: the 1950s film Bedtime for Bonzo, featuring a chimpanzee and pre-presidential Ronald Reagan). Send them on an adventure.
  • 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.

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.
  • A two-part exercise: First, pick two people and a location. One is already there, one is entering. Write the scene. Second, switch who’s there and who enters. Write that scene.
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 taking 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 assignments, plus other people provide surprising prompts. Here a few:

  • 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 SAT or 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.

Get more inspiration at Thespian Nation Live, January 29-31, featuring workshops on writing, acting, tech theatre, and more. Visit the website to learn more and register.

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