1 "If Duh!"
This is a simple exercise in writing comedy. In an interview
in Esquire (I think it was) a couple of years ago, actor
Benicio del Toro said, "if my aunt had balls, she'd be my
uncle." The other week on TV, I heard actor Jimmy Fallon
say (more or less), "If George Washington were alive today,
he'd be, like, oh my god, I'm 274 years old, what's wrong with
me? Why can't I die?" The exercise is this: take some phrase
that begins with "if" and then, as did del Toro and
Fallon, tack on the "duh" the absurdly obvious
conclusion. Do as many as you can in 5 minutes.
Traffic Cone, etc"
Write a brief scene that incorporates the following: an orange
traffic cone; a miniature cat; fried fish; velcro; Teddy Roosevelt;
Describe the piano tuner. What did he do to the piano bench?
This is an exercise to explore and help round out one of your
characters. Take one you have already written about, or that
you have in mind to write about, and answer the following questions
in a single sentence. The first thing that pops into your mind
is usually the most revealing. (And by the way, this can be a
helpful exercise even if your character lives in a different
~What would he/ she think of Princess Di?
~If he or she were to have met Princess Di in person, how would
he or she have behaved? (Be as specific as possible.)
~If he/ she were to come across a book about Princess Di, what
would he/she do with it?
~What would he/ she think of Princess Di's marriage?
~Of Princess Di's affair with Dodi?
~What would he/she believe about Princess Di's death?
~What would he/ she do or say (and to whom?) upon learning the
news of Princess Di's death?
If you have time, make up and answer more questions along these
The aunt loves to play the piano but she has arthritis. Her neice
comes to visit. The neice offers to play the piano. Write the
Suppose you are, or your character is 60 years old. In your (or
his/her) opinion, in what ways does a 16 year old lack wisdom
In a movie, montage creates the story / context by juxtposing
images. For example, (1) we see a field of mud; then, (2) we
see a plow cutting into the earth; then, (3), a farmer wiping
his brow as he looks off into the distance. Thus, we assume we
are being shown a farmer plowing his field. There is a direct
anaology in writing we can take out what
I call the "filters" (e.g., "he looked";
"she noticed"; "they saw") as well as much
needless explanation by using montage. Here is an example:
The door banged shut.
The cat leapt down from the top shelf.
The room smelled of burnt tuna fish.
She set her bag on the table.
Geese cried in the distance.
"Where is the bag?" he cried.
She spoke to him from the opposite side of the refrigerator.
"We're not going."
Try taking these same lines and rearranging them to create a
completely different scene. Then, create your own montage.
In an art show in Mexico City as an installation piece, an artist
had strung together thousands of paperclips and hung them in
several rows, like a series of curtains over open doorways. Walking
through these curtains of shimmering silver paperclips was quite
an experience. The writing exercise is this: take three ordinary,
everyday objects (such as paperclips or, say, bottlecaps, or
milk cartons) and briefly describe three "installation pieces"
you might make from them.
From the point of the view of the person riding in the front
row of the car, describe a rollercoaster ride. Then go back and
see how you can revise to make the sound and rhythm of the writing
reenforce the meaning.
Dentist's Waiting Room"
This is an exercise in really probing your memory for specific
detail. Describe your dentist's waiting room.
Bob and Joe went out in their canoe. What they reeled in was
not a fish. What was it?
Describe five different pairs of hands. (Some things to consider
might be color; teture; shape; symmetry; condition; scars; tattoos;
jewlery; etc.) For each pair of hands assign a name and a profession.
C.M. Mayo's podcast "How
to Break a Block" includes this 5 minutetimed exercise.
Make a list of all the different kinds of fruit you can think
of: bananas, apples, pomegranites, etc. Once you've completely
run out, go back and circle the three you like best. Circle the
three that you like least. Circle the three that you have thought
about the least in the past year. Finally, circle the one you
find most ugly; and the one you find most beautiful.
Make a list of all the different kinds of vegetables you can
think of: potatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, etc. Once you've
completely run out, go back and circle the three you like best.
Double circle the three that you like least. Triple circle the
three that you have thought about the least in the past year.
Underline the one(s) you have no idea how to cook. Double underline
the ones you have eaten this week. Finally, cross out the one
you find most ugly; and draw a star over the one you find most
One way to bring energy into your writing is to bring in other
voices. Try this: write somethin anything
that includes at least two of the following quotations by Napoleon
"There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous"
"[The Channel] is a mere ditch"
"Not tonight Josephine"
"An army marches on its stomach"
Briefly describe the following dogs:
~The one you own now (if you own one)
~The one that lives closest to your current residence
~The last one you happened to have seen (other than your own
dog, if you own a dog)
~Your favorite dog
~Your least favorite dog
~Lassie (from TV)
~The Taco Bell Chihuahua
~The first dog you ever owned (if you ever owned one)
~A neighbor's dog in your childhood
Love Her, But"
"I love her, but--- " fill in the blank. (Feel free
to change the gender.) Do three different versions, then circle
the one you like best. Use this as your first line, and start
Most adults see things at a very few different levels. They lie
down, they sit up, they walk around. But what about a cat? It
can slink under the bed or leap up into a tree. Imagine you are
a cat. Make a list of all the things you might see in and around
your residence that the human you normally would not. Be as specific
as you can.
This is a wierdly effective exercise for getting insight into
First, take 6 post-its or 6 small and identical scraps of paper.
On each write a number and a question about your character, leaving
one side blank.The questions might be, for example, why did he
quit school? Or, what does she really think of her best friend?
Or, what is going to happen to her in chapter 3? Close your eyes
and shuffle them number-side down. Now you have 6 unknown "cards"
to draw from. Without peeking, set them aside. Now, take another
sheet of paper. What you want to do is hold in your mind the
clear intention crazy as it may seem
to you, by the way, it's not crazy at all to your "artist's
mind"to answer the questions
in the order in which you will draw them from the pile. In other
words, you are quieting your conscious, everyday mind, and letting
your artist mind take a flying leap.
So, for the first question without knowing what
the question is!as an answer, what pops
into your head? Whatever it is, write it down. It will probably
be some kind of symbol. Maybe you will see a giant ostrich. Or
a car crash. Or a thunderstorm! You might "hear" some
words, or suddenly remember the smell of rhubarb pie baking.
Whatever, it is, jot it down. (If you hesitate, the exercise
does not work nearly as well so KEEP YOUR PEN ON
THE PAGE.) (You may find that it helps to first close your eyes
and take three long, deep breaths before "receiving"
each answer.) Once you have six, then, draw the cards. If, say,
you draw #5 first, then that is the question that matches your
first answer. And so on. What do your answers tell you?
& Quotient, Etc."
Write a brief scene that includes the following:
~the word "quotient"
~a ball of rubber bands
~a morbidly obese hippopotamus
~the perfume of lillies
~the sound of popcorn underfoot
Me The Money"
How a character handles their money can be very telling. Does
he pay his phone bill on receipt; or, does he file it by due
date in a color-coded filing system; or, does he shove it into
a pile with the junk? When splitting the bill in a restaurant,
does she whip out a calculator and calculate everything to the
last penny with a tip of 12%? Or, 20% Or, does she wait, doe-eyed,
for someone else to handle it? Using highly specific detail,
list your character's actions, feelings, and gestures around
Million Dollar Lottery"
Your character finds a lottery ticket in the street. It turns
out to be the winning ticket $200 million dollars.
(If your character is from another century or country, just assume
the equivalent amount of resources.) What does he or she do with
the money? Be as specific as you can. (What does this reveal
about about your character's true desires?)
In a "permutation exercise," one takes a line or more
from another work and, keeping the phrasing, inserts one's own
nounds and/or verbs and/or adjectives, etc. Here are a few lines
from Mary Chestnut's Diary of March 21, 1861:
Dined yesterday at Judge's. Made himself eminently disagreeable.
Abusing everything & everybody. Came back & in Camden
had a tooth pulled home miserable with
pain found Mrs Reynolds who
told me Kitty Boykin is engaged to Mr Savage Heyward, a man twice
married & ten children. I do not believe it. Talked all nightexhausted. & nervous & miserable
todayraked up & dilated
& harrowed up the bitterness of twenty long years all to no purpose. This bitter world.
C. Vann Woodward and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, eds, The Private
Mary Chestnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries, Oxford
University Press, 1984)
The exercise is this: Take her lines and style, but insert your
own nouns, adjectives, and/or names, etc.
What things are yellow? Make a list. At the end of the
five minutes, circle the three you find most curious.
Scene Objective (Charlie's House)"
Power of the Actor,
Ivana Chubbuck shows actors how to use their emotions to empower
a goal. Actors identify their characters' overall objective,
as well as their scene objective. Applying this to writing, assume
your character is "Karl"; his overall objective is
to prove that he has high status; his scene objective is to impress
"Charlie," his snooty neighborand maybe even take Charlie
down a rung. The scene takes place in Charlie's livingroom.
the Dust Settles"
This exercise is about bringing your attention to highly specific
detail. In the room where you are right now, where does the dust
settle? (Make a note of the some areas / objects / parts of objects
you don't have a word for later, when you have
a chance, look them up in a Visual
~ garbage collector > "sanitation
~ tax collection > Internal Revenue
~ innocents killed / injured > "collateral
Usually euphemisms are made up of latinate words; they tend to
sound pompously obscure, as indeed, they are intended to obscure
something unpleasant, low-status, or offensive. Have fun with
this one! Try concocting euphemisms for the following:
~candy for breakfast
~a defective tricycle
~a gas guzzler
~a ridiculously big bouffant hairdo
~painted the wrong color
~a stolen election / ballot stuffing
~a cover-up of heinous corruption
~the dog peed on the carpet
~a failing grade
~a size too small
~this building could not withstand a minor tremor
~the living room is the size of a mop closet
When you've finished, circle your favorite one and then, sometime today
or tomorrow, use it in your writing (even it's just in an e-mail).
Patterning, Starting with Jell-O"
This is an exercise in working with imagery to create a sense
of connectedness within a narrative. Take this as your opening
The Jell-O was not his favorite dessert.
Write on but be sure to use the
following imagery (in addition to Jell-O): overdone steak; a
barking dog; too much perfume; a squishy blue velvet couch. Then,
tie it up with an ending that somehow in some way returns
to the Jell-O.
Language: Two People Talking"
Two people talking usually do a lot more than "smile"
and "nod" at each other. One might cross his legs,
or, scratch an ankle, or smooth her hair, etc. Then there's interaction
between the two: one might reach across the table and lay his
hand on top of her wrist. She might touch her own lip, to indicate
that he has a crumb of muffin hanging on his, etc. Make a list
of all the little (and big) gestures you can think of that two
people might make while talking to each other.
In his delightfully wacky Pronoia
Is the Antitode for Paranoia, Rob
"Bach's St Matthew Passion is a highly regarded musical
composition. Yet the score disappeared and the work wasn't played
for years after Bach's death in 1750. In 1829, composer Felix
Mendelssohn rediscovered the long-lost manuscript being used
as wrapping paper in the estate sale of a deceased cheese salesman.
He arranged for a public performance of the piece, and its revival
Please note the marvelous specificity: "being used as wrapping
paper in the estate sale of a deceased cheese salesman."
Recount or invent
another improbable cultural rescue in 5 sentences or less.
Upon a Time"
Write the beginning of a story that begins, "Once upon a
If you need some more of a nudge: include the following:
a girl named Florinetta; a dog with three legs; a swing; a porch:
boiled celery; the air smelling of autumn.