Thursday, August 4, 2011


I published this on my website in December 2010 ( but thought it would be fun to repost it on my blogger blog. So here goes:

Over the years I’ve had periods where I’d stall during a project or between projects. There were times when it was difficult for me to push through and just write. I don’t really have as much difficulty pushing through now but for a long time I did and during those periods I still wanted to be writing. I have always believed the surest way to become a better writer is to keep writing. But if you’re stalled in your project, what do you write? I dug up tons of writing exercises but none of them really helped me. Then I found one that was perfect for me because I write novels which involve characters in various situations—which can be broken down into scenes. I honestly can’t remember where I first found this prompt so I am NOT taking credit for it. (In fact if anyone knows where this came from, email me and I will gladly give that person credit on this blog.) I’ve found variations of it over the years in various places. As I’m going to give it to you here, it’s not exactly as I found it. Below are my own lists but the structure is basically the same.

We’ll do three lists, numbered from one to five.

List #1 is WHO.

1. A doctor

2. A prostitute

3. A priest

4. A murderer

5. A celebrity

List #2 is WHERE

1. A playground

2. An emergency room

3. A police station

4. At the scene of an accident

5. A funeral

List #3 is WHAT

1. Has just been mistaken for someone else

2. Has just been fired

3. Just got into a fight

4. Just received very bad news

5. Just made a major purchase

Okay so now you do NOT look at the lists and you pick a number from 1 to 5 three times. So I’ll pick: 4, 2 and 3. Note I did not say pick three numbers from 1 to 5 because you CAN repeat numbers. You could pick all ones or all threes, etc. Basically you want to pick one number from each list but you don’t want to know what the number represents. Let that be a surprise. You can pick the numbers from a hat if you want. But once you have your numbers—4, 2 and 3 in this example—go back to your lists.

The first number corresponds to the first list (WHO). Number 4 on my list is a murderer. (Oh good, right up my alley. There are one or two of them in my books already). The next number corresponds to the second list (WHERE). Number 2 on my list is an emergency room. The third number corresponds to the third list (WHAT). Number 3 on my list is: just got into a fight.

So there you have it: a murderer just got into a fight in an emergency room. From there you write the scene. It doesn’t have to be long. But you’re writing scenes just like you would in the novel you’re supposed to be writing!

Off the top of my head (unedited) here is the scene:

Hands pulled Jim back, away from the man writhing beneath him. The police officer who had been stationed outside the emergency room slammed Jim to the ground and cuffed his hands tightly behind his back. The man Jim had attacked lay among the overturned chairs in the waiting room. The other patients had scattered to the corners of the room, giving Jim and the other man a wide berth as their argument reached a crescendo. The man had been upset because he had waited three hours to be seen. He was berating the nurses when Jim intervened and told him to sit down and shut up—only maybe Jim didn’t say it that nicely. The man had turned his tirade on Jim, screaming at Jim, coffee-scented spittle flying at Jim’s face until Jim could take it no longer. Anger erupted from somewhere deep in Jim’s bowels. Howling and shrieking, it knocked the man to the ground. Jim punched and punched until blood trickled from the man’s mouth. The man continued to scream at Jim, his rage turning to fear. For a split second, Jim had a vision of his mother’s face the day he had strangled her. It was that flash that froze Jim long enough for security to pull him away from the crazy man.

Okay so there it is. I could have gone on with this—I had more in my head as I went along but I’ll stop there since I’m only doing this to demonstrate the exercise. As you can see, in this short passage I’ve established that Jim—the first name that came to mind—is in an emergency room, he’s just gotten into a fight and by the end you find out that he’s a murderer. There you have it.

Let’s try again. I’ll pick 3, 1 and 1. A priest (3) at a playground (1) has just been mistaken for someone else (1). And again. I’ll pick 2, 5, 4. A prostitute (2) at a funeral (5) just received very bad news (4). You get the idea. You can make your own lists. I used to number mine from 1 through 15.

It gets the juices flowing, it’s just for fun and who knows, there might be a good story idea in there somewhere.

I invite you to do your own and post it in the comments section!


  1. Cool idea! I'll have to play with this when it's not so late (it's after midnight here), but I love this prompt. I randomly picked: A celebrity at the scene of an accident just received very bad news.

    I can see the flashing lights and the dented Cadillac Escalade now... :)

  2. I'm a big fan of writing short scenes to get the juices flowing. Long projects can wear you down.

  3. That's a wonderful exercise. I'm going to keep it and play with it. :) They do make wait an awfully long time in emergency rooms. I can see how someone could get violent. That was a pretty nifty first draft you conjured up. Have a great day and don't forget you're panty about half hour.

  4. Fun idea to get your creativity revved up.

  5. That might work for the novel too when I'm stuck. Hmm.....

    Have a great weekend!!

  6. This is such a great exercise, especially when you're looking for a way to get those creative juices flowing again. Thanks for posting and have a great weekend! :)

  7. Hmm, a priest on a playground gets into a fight. Now THAT could be really interesting! I like this post just as much the second time around.

  8. I love yours and I am just too lazy to attempt my own… thx for sharing!