Prompts

THE DOOR PROMPT Writing Process: Inciting incident/Conflict, Idea Generator Genres: Playwriting, Prose, Poetry In screen writing, a popular piece of advice is “Enter Late, Leave Early,” which means that a scene should start in the midst of action already taking place and finish before every loose end is tied up.  “Enter late” is a great piece of advice to apply to all writing, because it’s essentially encouraging writers to think in terms of immediately engaging the audience.  This simple prompt, which starts off with a charged action, encourages writers to dive right into the inciting incident and the conflict of the piece.         

  • Playwriting –  The scene must start in the following way: (The stage is black. In the darkness, a door slams.)
  • Prose – The story must starting in the following way: I/He/She slammed the door.
  • Poetry – The poem must start in the following way:  A door slams.

If you’re not quite sure where to begin, here are some questions to help you generate ideas:

  1. What kind of door is it? (Or, where is this door?)
  2. Who slammed the door? What fueled the slam?
  3. Was the person who slammed the door entering, exiting, or neither?

Enjoy the Door Prompt!


THE WATER PROMPT Writing Process: Inciting incident/Conflict, Idea Generator Genres: Playwriting In his 36 Assumptions About Playwriting, Jose Rivera wrote, “Write from all of your senses. Be prepared to design on the page: tell yourself exactly what you see, feel, hear, touch and taste in this world. Never leave design to chance, that includes the design of the cast.” Incorporating water onstage has the potential to activate any of these senses – for the characters, for the audience, or both. The Prompt: Physically incorporate water into your scene. You can incorporate it in any quantity, but the water must be a key player within the scene for the setting, conflict, and/or characters. If you’re not quite sure where to begin, below are some questions to help you generate ideas. Try to come up with as many answers as you can for each question before moving on to the next.

  1. Where can water be found / in what ways is water contained?
  2. What are the different forms of water?
  3. What activities involve water / what actions can be done with water?
  4. What can water symbolize?
  5. Where wouldn’t you expect to find water / what wouldn’t you expect to contain water?
  6. What are some activities or actions you wouldn’t expect to involve water?

After you’ve answered all the questions, look over your list and circle any ideas that inspire you.  Pick one (or even two), and start a scene to incorporate it.  Enjoy The Water Prompt!


REVISION PROMPTS FOR ECONOMICAL STORYELLING Writing Process: Revision Genres: All Genres There are two major points of focus for any revision: strengthening the story, and strengthening how that story is told. The prompts below focus on the latter, providing four methods that a writer can use while reading a first draft to identify ways to tighten and trim a story. The Prompts:

  1. When writing a first draft, writers will write the same idea in two or three different ways as the mind figures out which way it truly wants to express that idea. So, Dr. Robert Mooney advised that a good way to trim down a first draft was to look for any times when an idea was repeated, and to make the (sometimes hard) choice of choosing which to keep, and which to cut.
  2. Maya Angelou once said that after finishing a draft of a poem, she would take out all the pronouns and make them try fight their way back in. Regardless of genre, when encountering any words or lines in a first draft that might be questionable, a good test is to remove them and then read the passage out loud. Did it sound like anything was missing? Only reinsert the words or lines that ‘fight their way back in.’
  3. While reading over a first draft, two good questions for a writer to ask are, “Does this line more the story forward?” and “Is this information new?” While writing a first draft, it’s natural for the mind to add minute details in order to process how to get a story from Point A to Point B. Since these details most often serve the writer during the writing process more than they serve the actual story, these two revision questions can help a writer step back and begin to look at the first draft from a reader’s point of view.

And, finally, a revision prompt that is so great in scope it forces a writer to think about all of the above:

  1. When your first draft is finished, cut it down by half – without losing any key plot points, characters, or information. This challenge, given to me by Dr. Howard Blanning, is great to help a writer cut the fat out of a first draft in terms of extraneous words or repeated information. If you really want to put yourself through the wringer, cut your draft in half a second time. This additional challenge forces a writer to question what is key point, and what is not – not a bad question to be ask while revising.

Good luck revising!


JUST TRY IT FOR TODAY REVISION PROMPTS: Genres: Prose, Playwriting, Poetry, Memoir/Creative Non-Fiction Writing Process: Revision, Conflict, Setting, Character Development, Plot, Story Arc To select a Just Try it For Today prompt, you can do one of three things:

  1. Random Generator. Write each option on a slip of paper and pick out of a hat, or assign each option a number(s) and roll some dice.
  2. The Choice is Yours. When I have this option, I usually pick one that makes me groan – the biggest challenge often yields the largest payoff!
  3. Choose Your Own Adventure. Create a prompt of your own (or have a writer friend create one for you).  It should be a prompt that requires drastic changes!

Version #1 – For Plays and Prose (Fiction) Considering a play or work of fiction can be upwards of one hundred pages or more, embracing large changes can be hard when we can’t know for sure how it will affect the whole. The Just Try It For Today revision prompts help us cultivate a playful spirit, while providing a vehicle for us to learn valuable things about our work that we may not have discovered otherwise. Select an entire scene or chapter to focus on, or an excerpt that is at least 2 – 3 pages. Pick pages that you know need work, or if you’re really brave pick the excerpt that’s your favorite. Then choose one of the Just Try It For Today prompts below:

  1. A male character is now female, or a female character is now male. OR, switch the gender of ALL the characters.
  2. Change the location. If the setting was public, make it private. If the setting was private, make it public.
  3. Subtract a character from this scene/chapter. OR, add one.
  4. The character who speaks the most now speaks the least, and the character who speaks the least now speaks the most.
  5. The protagonist is now the antagonist, or the antagonist is now the protagonist. OR, a featured character is now the main character.
  6. One character in this excerpt must: enter too early, enter too late, exit too soon, or exit too late.
  7. Something (or someone) must be one of the following: lost, broken, stolen, found, or recovered.

After completing the revision, reflect by generating the following lists:

  • List at least five creative choices or details that this version has in common with your original pages. These are details and choices you should focus on and make even stronger in your “official” revision.
  • List at least seven creative choices or details that are vastly different than your original pages.
  • List at least five new things you learned about this excerpt, or the story/play as a whole.

Finally, using the lists above, choose at least one to incorporate in your “official” revision. As for the rest, you can breathe a sigh of relief – it was just for today! Version #2 – Poetry Elasticity is a great tool to break poetic patterns, stretching a poet to express ideas and images in new styles and rhythms. Select an entire poem to focus on, or an excerpt that is 4 – 8 lines long. Pick a section that you know needs work, or if you’re really brave pick the section that’s your favorite. Then select one of the Just Try It For Today prompts below:

  1. Reinvent this section using a form of poetry that’s opposite your poem in shape and structure. (You can find a list of types of form poetry here.)
  2. If your poem doesn’t rhyme, make it rhyme. If your poem rhymes, break those rhymes.
  3. Change the narrative voice of the poem to: a speaker who participates, a speaker who is present but observes, or a speaker who is completely outside the actions of the poem.
  4. Change the address by shifting it to “I,” “We/Us,” “You,” or “It/They/Them.”
  5. Rely heavily on one of the following poetic devices: Onomatopoeia, alliteration, metaphor, or repetition.
  6. Cut the number of words used in half, without losing any key details.

After completing the revision, reflect by generating the following lists:

  • List at least five creative choices or details that this version has in common with your original poem. These are details and choices you should make even stronger in your “official” revision.
  • List at least seven creative choices or details that are vastly different than your original.
  • List at least five new things you learned about this excerpt, or the poem as a whole.

Finally, using the lists above, choose at least one to incorporate in your “official” revision. As for the rest, you can breathe a sigh of relief – it was just for today! Version #3 – Memoir and Creative Non-Fiction This genre can be the most challenging to revise, because the events are often true and have a deep link to the author. A Just Try It For Today revision prompt can help a creative non-fiction writer feel more elastic and playful when it comes to how they narrate and revise their story. Select an excerpt that focuses on an event, and make sure the excerpt is at least 1-3 pages long. Pick a section that you know isn’t working right, or if you’re really brave pick the section that’s your favorite. Then, choose one of the Just Try It For Today prompts below:

  1. Change the point of view to: another individual who was involved, an individual who observed, or from a third person omniscient point of view.
  2. Change the address by shifting the narrative to “I,” “We/Us,” “You,” or “It/They/Them.”
  3. Retell this story as if it was a dream or a myth, drawing heavily on symbolism, imagery, and the “magical realism” present in dreams and myth.
  4. Change the location. If the setting was public, make it private. If the setting was private, make it public.
  5. A male character is now female, or a female character is now male. OR, switch the gender of ALL the characters.
  6. The character who speaks the most now speaks the least, and the character who speaks the least now speaks the most.
  7. If there is dialogue, remove all dialogue and tell the same story (without losing any key points). If there is no dialogue, make at least half the text dialogue.

After completing the revision, reflect by generating the following lists:

  • List at least five creative choices or details that this version has in common with your original pages. These are details and choices you should make even stronger in your “official” revision.
  • List at least seven creative choices or details that are vastly different than your original pages.
  • List at least five new things you learned about this excerpt, or the story as a whole.

Finally, using the lists above, choose at least one to incorporate in your “official” revision. As for the rest, you can breathe a sigh of relief – it was just for today!


 

SACRIFICE!

Genres: Prose, Playwriting

Writing Process: Revision

If you are a writer of high school age or above currently revising a draft that is not your first attempt in particular genre, I encourage to play the hardest version of Sacrifice! as written below. While you may think I’m out to torture you, the simple fact is that every completed challenge will make your draft stronger. As you work through them, don’t forget to answer why you are choosing to sacrifice that particular part of your story or play – your reflections about why each of these cuts are necessary will keep you from making similar first draft choices in the future.

  1. Slim the Story: you must cut one chapter, or one scene if you are writing a play. Which will it be? Why are you choosing that one to sacrifice?
  2. Cut Down the Cast: you must cut one character. Who will it be? Why are you choosing this character to sacrifice?
  3. Lose a Location: you must cut one setting. Which setting will it be? Why are you choosing this setting to sacrifice?
  4. Nix Some Narrative: you must cut one lengthy narrative passage, or one set of stage directions if you are writing a play. Which will it be? Why are you choosing this section to sacrifice?
  5. Ditch Some Dialogue:   you must cut one dialogue heavy-passage. Which will it be? Why are you choosing this section to sacrifice?
  6. Remove a Monologue: you must cut one monologue (this can be a narrative passage, especially if it focuses on a single character’s thoughts or backstory). Which will it be? Why are you choosing this monologue to sacrifice?
  7. Wipe Out a Word: you must remove one frequently used word from your story or play and replace it with other word choices. Which word will it be? Why are you choosing this word to sacrifice?
  8. Dump a Decision: you must change a decision made by one of your main characters. Which decision will it be? Why are you choosing this decision to sacrifice?
  9. Ax an Answer: you must remove a key detail about a character, the plot, or the conflict and allow it to be a mystery. Which answer will it be? Why are you choosing this answer to sacrifice?
  10. FinaleFind Your Favorite Part: turn to your favorite part of your story or play and cut it, without question. Editors and dramaturgs everywhere will tell you that the only reason that part is still in your draft is because it’s precious to you rather than purposeful.
  11. Bonus – Reverse a Revision: You’ve completed all the steps. You’ve learned a lot about what had to go, and why. But what if I told you it didn’t all have to go, that you could reverse one of the changes above and save that passage from being sacrificed? What would you save? Now that you’ve saved it, how can you strengthen that part of your story or play so that it will never face the chopping block again?

SACRIFICE! Version 5-3-2

In this softer solo version, writers choose to sacrifice, save, or pass their way through the list of ten categories above using a 5-3-2 formula.

5 – Writers must sacrifice in 5 categories of their choosing, still listing their reasoning for the sacrifice after each choice they make as is the case in the original version.

3 – Writers can save themselves from making a sacrifice in 3 categories of their choosing; however, to do so they must commit to a specific revision idea that will make their draft stronger in that category. (For example, instead of sacrificing a character in Cutting Down the Cast, a writer can commit to making a specific revision choice that will make weakest character a more integral part of the story.)

2 – Writers can pass from making a sacrifice in 2 categories of their choosing, no questions asked.

SACRIFICE! Volcano Version

Playing sacrifice with a group of writers (ages 13 to infinity) begins the same way as the 5-3-2 version above; however, if you click here you can download a convenient handout to help your writers.

Sacrifice Teaser!The value of working with a group of writers is in Part II – celebrating the sacrifices. To do this, ask each writer to select a sacrifice to share with the rest of the class. Writers should select a sacrifice to share that they are a) proud of making, b) includes a reflection or lesson that may benefit their fellow writers. If you want to make their sacrifice special, instead of having them write it out on a regular slip of paper ask them to write it out on these cute typewriter notes.

Next, have the writers stand in a circle with their sacrifices and select something to serve as the volcano. (The volcano can be something as simple as a hat or a bowl, or you can get really creative and tape some cardboard flames around a trash can!) One by one, in no particular order, ask each writer to march ceremoniously to the volcano, read their sacrifice out loud, crumple it up and hold it over the mouth of the volcano. Each time a writer holds a sacrifice over the volcano, have the class cry “Sacrifice!” and applaud as the writer drops the paper into the volcano. As that writer exits the circle, the next writer should enter, and so on until all of the writers have made a sacrifice. If time permits, it’s always a great idea to ask writers to reflect on how making that sacrifice feels – even if it’s a one word reflection.

 

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