Thursday, September 15, 2011

Let's Pretend

Making up stories is one of the ways we had fun as children. We made up fantastic tales about superheroes, knights and princesses, monsters and ballerinas. We pretended to be cowboys and spacemen, doctors and fire fighters, police and criminals. As we played, our little imaginations grew.

Somewhere along the way, we lost our permission to pretend. Our education, our work, our "real" life pushed out our imaginary one. We became the teachers, nurses, mechanics, stock brokers, welders, clerks, doctors, lawyers and business executives that we were supposed to become. 
Today, I give you permission to play "Let's Pretend." Here are a few exercises to get you started.

Chance Encounters 

Our lives are filled with "chance" encounters. You decide to go to the gym on Monday instead of Tuesday, and you meet the person who will become your best friend. You go to church one Sunday morning, and you sit behind the person who eventually hires you for your dream job. This exercise is about chance encounters. It is challenging, but my students have a lot of fun with it. Just a side note for teachers, this also makes a great creative drama group exercise.
This exercise takes some preparation, though. Get a package of file cards. Pull out about 30-40. On each card, write down a different character. Keep them vague like little girl, sales representative, reporter, actor, starship captain, etc.
The more variety you have the better.
After this, take out about 20 cards and write down locations like the supermarket, a space station, street corner, the old west, etc. Again, aim for variety.
Now, comes the fun part. Pull two cards out of the character stack and one card out of the location. Take 15-20 minutes to write a short story or slice of life about these two people meeting in this location. Don’t worry if the story is silly (it probably will be) or the writing forced. You are not going to be publishing this. It’s just a way to brush away the cobwebs and get started writing.

The Computer went Crazy and….

We live surrounded by technology. Most of us don't understand any of it or how it works. Sometimes, it seems like it has a mind of its own.
What if it did have a mind of its own? What if one day it had the electronic version of a psychotic break? What would happen? Imagine your computer went crazy (I mean crazier than it already is). What would it do? Would it go on strike and refuse to do any work until you upgraded its memory or bought it a cool new DVD drive? Would it try to take over the world? How might it accomplish these things?
You can do a few variations on this theme. Instead of the computer imagine your toaster or vacuum cleaner or TV went crazy. What if your car went crazy? Okay, it's been done, but your car might go crazy in a nicer way. Maybe instead of killing people, she imagines herself to be a superhero.

From the Monster's Point of View 

Most of us are familiar with monster movies. They are almost universally told from the monster hunter's perspective. However, it can be fun to look at things differently. Write a story from the monster's perspective. Here are a few "monstrous" ideas:

Create a Monster.  If you had to be a monster, what kind of monster would you be? Would you be big and hairy with four eyes and long fangs? Would you be a scaly dragon breathing fire? Would you be a multi-tentacled sea creature?  When making your monster, also think about how the monster got that way. Genetic mutation caused by radiation? Witches curse? Biogenetic engineering? Arrival from another planet?

Misunderstood Monster.  One of the most poignant scenes in horror cinema is from the original Frankenstein movie. The creature comes upon a girl by a pond picking flowers. He is attracted by the flowers, and he wants to play with the girl. Someone sees him, and they start screaming, and the girl starts screaming, and he accidentally kills the girl not knowing his own strength. Write a scene where your monster is misunderstood in some way.

    The Monster Under the Bed . I'm not sure if, as children, we were scared of the monster under the bed or comforted by it. In a strange way, that monster was our own bedtime companion. It was, also, a good way to get Mom and Dad's attention.  Imagine there really is a monster under your bed. What's life like for it? Does it get bored? Why is it under the bed and not out terrorizing the village?

Creating a scary monster, that's easy. Creating a sympathetic monster is much harder and much more fun.

Magic Doors and Secret Passages

Here are a couple of simple exercises to get your creative juices flowing:
1. You wake up. You go into any room of your house and notice a door that wasn't there the night before. Open it and describe what lies behind it.

2. You are cleaning the bookcase in your new house, or you are visiting a friend, and you tug on a book. The bookcase moves out of the way to reveal a secret passage. Where does that passage lead? What happens when you get to the end of it?

The Trunk in the Attic

I don't have an attic, but I do have a cedar chest I inherited from my mother. After she passed away, I went through the memories stored there. I found some tiny booties, a wedding dress, clippings of stories I wrote for the school newspaper, letters from my Dad when he was stationed with the occupation forces in Japan after WWII, pictures of my grandparents, scrapbooks, baby clothes. Here lay 83 years of life stacked in a four-foot long wooden box. We pack away our memories and let years go by without even looking at them, but those bits and pieces of life trapped in the things we cannot throw away tell a story. They tell many stories.

Here's an exercise. Your mother (or grandmother, aunt, best friend or those of a character in your story) has passed away. You are cleaning out the attic. You come across a trunk. You open the trunk. What do you find? Write about it. What story does it tell? How might what you find in it change your life? What secrets does it reveal?

For variety, it can be a garage or a storage closet or a maybe a four-foot long cedar chest.

Only One Day 

 Back in the 1960's, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called "Last Night of the World." The premise was that everyone woke up one morning and "just knew" it was the last day of the world. Many creative works feature someone with a limited time to live. Two that come to mind are A Lesson before Dying and Tuesdays with Morrie. There was also that 60's TV show starring Ben Gazzara called Run for your Life about a man with only a year to live.

Why not give your character the bad news? The Doctor tells your main character that s/he will be dead by midnight. The person will be in good health until then. What does that character do with the time left? Describe their day.

 Here's a more disturbing variation, but, if you have the courage to do it, you will benefit. You have only 24 hours to live. What do you do with the time? Write a short story describing your day. Be honest. Don't write what you hope you would do. Write what you think you really would do. Since most of our characters, stories, articles, essays and books come from within, understanding what's inside there helps make us better writers.

Time Machine 

Here is a fun exercise. You sit down at the controls of a time machine. The dials spin randomly and land on a date. You open the door. What do you see? You can randomize this exercise by writing some dates on pieces of paper and drawing one out by random.  Write 1000 words describing what you see.
It's a good exercise for historical or science fiction writers.


The original title for this was "Christmas Ornament Stories." Then I realized that Christmas had passed when I wrote it. However, the idea works for any type of keepsake.

Many of us have keepsakes around the house. Christmas ornaments are a perfect example. When I look at my tree, I see the plain blue and green globes that I bought for my first Christmas after I moved out on my own. Fewer remain, and they aren't very fancy, but they have a story behind them.
Then there are the ornaments given to me by my students over the years. A few I bought because a niece or a nephew wanted me to buy them.  They were in charge of decorating the tree for several years.
I also collect Teddy Bears and Tea Pots. My Mom has her collection of Salt and Pepper shakers collected from the places we visited when I was young. I can point to each and tell you where and when and why we bought them.

So, if you are stuck for an idea to get started writing, try pointing your attention at one of your keepsakes and begin writing about where that came from. You'll find the creativity of remembrance flooding through your heart and onto the page.

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