SONG TITLE SUBTEXT, VERSION ONE: STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Genres: Prose, Playwriting
Writing Process: Plot, Conflict, Character Development
If you are a facilitator who is working with a class of writers, set up a gallery of 15 to 20 old records with evocative title songs to give writers a good amount of albums to choose from. HINT: many Goodwill stores have crates full of cheap albums. If you’re unable to find actual records, you can do an image search and print out the album covers that way. The photos below were in the top row of results in my old record covers and vintage album cover searches, so you know there are a ton of gems out there! If you are a writer who is working solo, hop right into the first step of this activity by visiting your local Goodwill or doing an image search until you find an album cover that resonates with you.
1. Choose wisely. Pick an album cover with a title that provokes your imagination. You can take the image on the album cover into account, but the title will be the focus of the rest of the activity.
2. Create Your Character. Your album title is now the subtext for a character you are about to create. Answer the following questions to create your character and the reasons behind this subtext:
- What character springs to mind as you consider this album title? List the character’s name, age, occupation, and any other background information that comes to mind.
- How does the album title relate to this character’s current circumstances?
- Why must this character withhold part or all of these current circumstances? Think about what this character stands to gain or lose if the full truth of this subtext comes to light.
3. Complicate Things. To explore how you can use your character’s subtext to add conflict and complicate their story, answer the following:
- Is there anything that the character must say/not say, do/not do, acquire/get rid of in order to withhold this information or solve their problem?
- Who stands in the way? Who must the character withhold this information from at all costs? Who has opposing goals or desires that would further complicate things?
- What locations will either complicate things or help the character? Do any other locations have particular significance to the character’s current circumstance?
- Are there any items, events, or actions that could stand in the way, force the character to reveal information, or help them improve their circumstances?
4. The Witholding Game. Pick an idea(s) from your complications list above. Note the setting, characters and conflict of the scene before you begin writing. Remember, as you write the goal is to withhold the character’s subtext for as long as possible! What tactics can the character use to make sure their inner truth stays that way?
5. Want a Twist? Halfway through your writing, play the title song of the album. Listen its tone, rhythm, and lyrics as you reflect on your character and add one detail or make one revision to your writing that’s inspired by the song. The great part of this twist is that you may have to flex your metaphoric mind and not think so literally!
SONG TITLE SUBTEXT, VERSION TWO: SHAKING UP A SCENE
Genres: Prose, Playwriting
Writing Process: Plot, Conflict, Character Development, Revision
If you have a chapter or scene that feels flat, try this slightly adjusted version of Song Title Subtext to add some layers and tinker with the stakes. To start, select an excerpt that’s a reasonable length to play around with – anywhere from one to three pages should do the trick. Give it a read so it’s fresh in your memory, and then hop into the game!
1. Shop for a Song. Do an image search for old album covers or vintage album covers and scroll until you find one that resonates with your character; or, scroll through your personal playlists or through band discographies to choose a theme song for your character. Regardless of which method you pick, make sure to pick an album/song title that fits either your character’s current state or relevant backstory.
2. Mine Your Choice. Answer the following questions about your choice to look at your character in a new light:
- How does the album and/or song title relate to your character’s current circumstances? If you need additional inspiration, play the song that you selected and listen to its tone, rhythm, and lyrics.
- Based on the answer above, what does your character stand to gain or lose? What aspects of these circumstances might change your character internally or externally if they are not withheld? What might change how others look at or relate to your character?
- Based on the answer above, is there anything that the character must say/not say, do/not do, acquire/get rid of in order to withhold this information, solve their problem, or make things better?
3. Make a Change. Looking over your answers, make at least one significant change to your excerpt. In addition to what characters say, consider also what the characters do, where they are, and what is around them. Anything in their internal or external environment is an opportunity that can be leveraged or changed to make the current circumstances multifaceted or more difficult for your character!
4. Fork in the Road. If you like your answers to #2, but you are having trouble applying them to your excerpt, perhaps you’ve discovered that there’s a more important scene that needs to be written than the one you have down on the page. Don’t fret – follow that fork in the road, and see where this new scene takes you!
A TILE AND PLACE FOR EVERYTHING: Inspired by Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
Genres: Prose, Playwriting, Poetry, Memoir/Creative Non-Fiction
Writing Process: Idea Generating, Character, Setting, Writer’s Block
As it takes a day for the clay to dry, please note that this activity happens during the span of two workshops. If you only have one day, you can use foam sheets and an ink pad as you can see in my photo below. While this activity could be done by simply writing words on index cards, I encourage using either clay or foam because the more tactile nature of the making encourages more reflective word selection and creates deeper investment in the activity.
DAY I. Making the Word Tiles
To make a tile, participants should first roll the clay into a ball. Then, throw the clay down against a flat surface to flatten it. Flip it over and throw it down again to do the same to the other side. Repeat this step as many times as needed to get the clay flattened and then shape by pressing down and along the edges with fingers.
Have each participant make three clay tiles. Then, instruct participants to engrave one word per tile using letter stamps, one prompt at a time. Here are two examples of the endless prompts you can give students as they create their word tiles:
PROMPT SET #1 – For Fiction, Playwriting, or Poetry
- First tile: A word of action. (Verb)
- Second tile: A word of description. (Adjective)
- Third tile: A word that’s a person, place or thing. (Noun)
PROMPT SET #2 – For Memoir or Writing from the Self
- First tile: A word that represents something you worry about.
- Second tile: A word that represents something which brings you peace or joy.
- Third tile: A word that represents something you wish for.
Once the word tiles are complete, have participants place them on a flat surface to dry overnight.
DAY II. Using the Word Tiles
“Whatever tile you pick, that’s the perfect tile. Wherever you put the tile, that’s the perfect place.” – Mural Mosaic Artist Isaiah Zagar
One the tiles are dry, place them into a large cloth bag, gently mixing them up. If you like, make the number of tiles higher by adding some extra pre-made tiles of your own. Have participants stand in a circle. Pass the bag around the circle three times, instructing the participants to take one tile from the bag at random (without looking) each time the bag comes to them.
Have participants take their three tiles to their seats. You can lead participants through placing meaning to each tile through one of two ways:
Have participants mindfully place each word in one of the following categories.
For Prose and Playwriting:
- Category #1 – Select one tile to be a prompt for creating a character.
- Category #2 – Select one tile to be a prompt for creating a setting.
- Category #3 – Select one tile to be a prompt for creating a line of dialogue.
- Category #1 – Select one tile to incorporate into the subject or poetic question.
- Category #2 – Select one tile to incorporate into the first line of the poem.
- Category #3 – Select one tile to be repeated at least three times throughout the poem.
For Journaling, Memoir or Writing from the Self
- Category #1 – Select one tile to be a prompt to write about a person from the past.
- Category #2 – Select one tile to be a prompt to write about a triumph or loss.
- Category #3 – Select one tile to be a prompt to write about a dream (literal or metaphoric).
Or, to really activate artistic serendipity, have participants blindly assign each tile a number, one through three. Then, reveal the meanings behind each number by introducing the categories above.
For each category, give participants two minutes to brainstorm a list of as many ideas as possible inspired by the word tile. After participants have brainstormed ideas for all three categories, ask them to circle the ideas they like. Give participants anywhere from 10 – 20 minutes to begin writing their scene, story, poem, etc., based on the ideas they have selected.
You can allow participants to keep the tiles, or you can collect them and keep the bag in an easily accessible place to serve as a Writer’s Block Bag. Whenever a student has writer’s block, challenge them to reach into the bag and select up to three tiles to use as inspiration for a new direction or layer to add to their writing in progress. You can keep the tiles to use as a Do Now Bag to use at the start of each workshop, allowing one student to pull out a tile for the class to use as inspiration for a two minute freewriting activity.
MEME-INSPIRED IDEA GENERATION
Genres: Prose, Playwriting
Writing Process: Character Development, Idea Generation, Conflict
When it comes to both writing and brainstorming, structure is the pipe that helps a writer get the creative juices flowing. The formula of a meme can easily provide that structure, by focusing a writer to think specifically about one key aspect of a character or story. Below I offer two versions of my first meme-inspired activity: one tailored to a group or classroom setting, and the other to individual writers.
Version #1 – For Groups
To do this activity with a group…
- Select a meme with a formula that beneficial for exploring character. For example, the Morpheus meme, “What if I told you…” is a great meme to use if you’d like participants to explore character through the lens of ‘mind-blowing’ secrets, fears, or desires. Or, the Futurama Fry formula of “Not sure if…/ Or…” is fantastic for having participants explore a character in conflict, torn between two choices.
- Find one or several photographs that feature a single person in a setting. (Searching a phrase like “casual portrait photography” is a great way to start.)
- Choose which method of “meme” you’d like your participants to interact with. You can…
Do a ‘Meme Sticky Note’ Method.
- Take small print outs of the original meme, placing a blank box wherever you’d like participants to fill in text. You can see my example using the Morpheus meme in the photo to the left. To find meme sticky note templates for the Morpheus meme and the Futurama meme, visit my Flickr here.
- Make a “gallery” on the walls by taping up the photos you’ve selected.
- Have participants use the meme notes to post imaginary information about the person in the picture. For example, if participants are using the Morpheus meme, instruct them to write a “mind-blowing” fear, secret, or desire for each individual. (Two great questions to ask as prompts are, “What are fears, secrets, or desires you would expect this individual to have just by looking at him or her?” and “What are fears, secrets, or desires you wouldn’t expect this individual to have just by looking at him or her?”) Have the participants post their notes next to each corresponding photograph.
- Ask participants to stand by the photograph that resonates with them the most. Then, instruct them to choose a meme note that is not their own that interests them as a writing prompt.
- Let the writing begin! If you think it would help your participants, you can give them a required first sentence or a required first line of dialogue.
- Take the framework of a meme, and impose that framework on the photo(s) you have selected. Place a blank white box wherever you’d like participants to fill in text. You can see my examples to the right. The first uses the “What if I told you…” Morpheus framework, and the second uses the “Not sure if…/Or…” framework of the Futurama Fry meme.
- Spread out photographs you’ve selected, and let each of the students choose the photo that resonates with them. Or, have all participants focus on the same photograph, and pass out a copy of that photograph to each participant.
- Have participants use the meme blanks to write imaginary information about the person in the picture. For example, if participants are using the Futurama Fry meme, instruct them to imagine two choices that this person could be torn between. (Two great questions to ask as prompts are, “What are two choices you would expect this individual to be torn between just by looking at him or her?” and “What are two choices you wouldn’t expect this individual to be torn between just by looking at him or her?)
- Once all the participants have filled in the blanks, have them make a “gallery” on the walls in by taping up their photos.
- Have participants stand by a meme portrait that is not their own that interests them as a writing prompt. More than one student can choose the same portrait meme.
- Let the writing begin! If you think it would help your participants, you can give them a required first sentence or a required first line of dialogue.
Version #2 – For Individuals
To do this activity on your own…
- Select a meme with a formula that interests you as a possible way to explore character, such as the Morpheus meme or, the Futurama Fry meme.
- Do a google search or turn to your favorite photography books to find a photograph that features a person in a setting in a way that resonates with you. (Remember, searching a phrase like “urban portrait photography” will help you find amazing things.)
- When you’ve selected your photograph, set your timer for 1 – 3 minutes and make a list of all the possible ways you can think of to fill in the blank(s) of the meme for this character. To keep the ideas flowing, think about ways to finish the meme that focus on what the character says, does, feels, or desires. Then, think about the ways to finish the meme that focus on the character’s social, economic, political, or cultural style. Most of all, be sure to think of answers that you would expect of this character just by looking at him or her, as well as answers you would not expect.
- When time is up, read over your list and circle any of your responses that interest you as a writing prompt. Narrow your choice down to one.
- Let the writing begin.
WHO DWELLS HERE
Writing Process: Idea Generator, Character Development, Setting
Genre: Fiction, Playwriting, Memoir, Journaling
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Doll’s House, Buried Child, these are just three of the many plays that spring to mind which have a strong connection between characters and their homes. Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, even Harry Potter, that same connection can be made in fiction, too. This is because we define our dwellings and our dwellings define us. The two versions of this activity explore this connection and the many ideas and reflections it can generate.
VERSION #1 – For Prose or Playwriting
1. Select a dwelling to focus on for this exercise. If you are doing this as an individual, you can a) do an image search (when I searched “unexpected houses” this amazing article was in the top row), b) ask a friend(s) to randomly select a picture of a dwelling for you, or c) go out adventuring and snap a few photos of a dwelling that interests you. If you are facilitating this exercise for a class, ask the students to each bring in a picture of a dwelling (be sure to bring in some extras) and then a) make a gallery out of them so each student can choose the dwelling that interests them the most, or b) turn all the photos face down and have the students select at random.
2. Set a timer for anywhere from 1 – 3 minutes, and list everything that you notice about this dwelling and where it’s located. There is no detail too obvious.
3. Looking over the list you just created, write a one sentence description of the character you imagine lives in this dwelling. You can also name this character, if you like.
4. Now that you know who lives in this dwelling, answer the following questions about the character:
- How long has this character lived here?
- How did this character come to live here?
- What does this dwelling, and the possessions you imagine inside of it, say about this character’s personality or status? (Status can be social, economic, political, spiritual, etc.)
- Where are this character’s favorite/least favorite places in this dwelling, and why?
- What is the most joyful thing that has happened to this character in this dwelling?
- What is the most tragic thing that has happened to this character in this dwelling?
- What is a secret that this character keeps hidden in this dwelling?
5. Now that you’ve explored this character in connection to his or her home, it’s time to write. If you need a place to begin, choose one of the two writing prompts below:
Prose: <Character name> was in the <specific location>, when ______________.
Playwriting: (<Character name> enters the <specific location>, and sees _____________.)
VERSION #2 – For Memoir or Journaling
1. Select an individual you wish to explore. If you have a picture of where this individual lived, or better yet a picture of this individual taken inside or outside the dwelling, pull out that photograph now. If you like, write a 1 – 3 sentence reflection on that photograph as a warm up.
2, Set a timer for anywhere from 1 – 3 minutes, and list everything that you remember about this dwelling and where it’s located. There is no detail too obvious.
3. Look over your list. Remembering this individual inside his or her home, try to answer the following questions:
- How does this dwelling, and the possessions inside of it, reflect this individual’s personality, interests, and status?
- What are this person’s favorite/least favorite places in this dwelling, and why?
- To your knowledge, what is the most joyful thing that has happened to this individual in this dwelling?
- To your knowledge, what is the most tragic thing that has happened to this individual in this dwelling?
- To your knowledge, are there any secrets that this individual keeps hidden in this dwelling? Are there any secrets about this person that you wish you could find the answers to inside this dwelling?
4. Set the timer for 1 – 3 minutes and explore this dwelling through your other senses. What sounds do you remember in this dwelling? What smells? What textures? How did you feel when you were inside this dwelling?
5. Reset the timer one last time and list any other memories that you have about this individual that took place inside this dwelling. Write no more than a sentence for each memory, for now.
6. Finally, look at the lists you’ve generated and choose one item to explore further. Set a timer for 5 – 10 minutes and write. Do not edit or censor yourself!
I hope you enjoy this activity! Remember, whenever I post an activity, prompt, or guiding writing exercise in the Support For Writers section of my site, I will always write a blog post about the activity as well. That way, if you follow my blog you’ll always know when new exercises become available. Feel free to comment or ask questions, or to let me know this prompt went for you!
THE CENTO VARIATIONS
Writing Process: Idea Generator/Form Poetry
The cento falls into the category of “borrowed poetry.” In fact, a cento in its truest form is ALL borrowed; it’s a cohesive poem which is made up entirely of lines of poetry written by other poets. A poetry version of Frankenstein’s monster, so to speak. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, however, a strong cento doesn’t show its stitches and flows from one line to the next as if all of the words were written by one hand in one sitting instead of many hands over centuries. This is the biggest challenge in creating a cento, because truly honoring the poets that you borrow lines from means that you can’t add, remove, or change anything from each line you’re borrowing. Other than this cardinal rule, a cento can be as long or short as you like and it certainly doesn’t have to rhyme if you don’t want it to.
If you need a place to start digging through poetry, I recommend here. If you are feeling a little intimidated by the poetry aspect of this activity, here are two other ways you can dive into this patchwork form:
The Song Lyric Cento. Instead of diving into the ocean of poems that came before you, borrow your lines from lyrics of songs from different time periods and/or genres instead. Added bonus? It makes for an awesome soundtrack as you work.
The Headline Cento. Cut out headlines from newspapers or magazines, or cut and paste headlines from online articles. These headlines become your borrowed lines, and just like with the traditional cento, you can use as few or as many of the headlines as you want. This version is also a great go-to beginner’s poetry activity for teachers and teaching artists to have in their toolkit. In fact, I learned this Headline Poetry activity from Jan Michener, a veteran teaching artist and current Executive Director of Arts Holding Hands and Hearts.
A Suggested Approach
Since the ocean of poetry is vast, here are some tips on process to help you navigate the uncharted cento waters:
1. Start with what you know and who you love. This form of poetry began as a way for writers to honor each other’s work. Who do you want to honor?
2. As you start to read, look for the “MUST HAVE” of your cento. The “must have” might be one line you’ve fallen in love with that you have to make fit no matter what. Or, it could be a topic or subject in a poem that peaks your interest. Or, it could be a rhyme scheme you see that you like. Whatever your “must have” is, it’ll be your lens to look through as you read, and this in turn will help you know what you’re looking for.
3. Whenever you find a line for your cento, write the poet and/or title in parenthesis next to the line so you can remember where it’s from. That way you can be sure that each line of your cento is coming from a different poet.
4. Keep a bank of “almost but not quite” lines underneath your cento, or in another document. As you continue to find new lines for your cento, or change the order of the ones you already have, a line that didn’t quite fit before might fit perfectly a few minutes down the road.
5. Let your cento evolve, and evolve with it. Does your “must have” suddenly not fit anymore? That’s okay. Thank it for being your initial inspiration and let it go.
6. Segue to what you don’t know and who you don’t love. The closer you come to completing your cento, the more challenging it might be. Sometimes jumping into a genre or time period you know nothing about can help you find what you’re looking for. Even better, sometimes that poet you didn’t like before will come through with a line that’s a perfect fit.
7. Do you know what you want to say, but no matter how much you search you can’t find the line that says it just right? You won’t, because you’ve just found an idea for an original poem. Don’t be afraid – this is one of the awesome gifts the cento can give you. So put your cento on hold, and start writing. Don’t worry, your cento will still be there when you’re ready to come back to it.
Enjoy The Cento Variations!
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