An exercise for openings

Published on 2018-03-02

One of the things I love is the cross-pollination of arts. A couple of years ago, I took an eight-week improv workshop as part of the Jim Henson Diversity Initiative, which made me think about writing from a different angle. 

There are aspects of story-telling that seem to be consistent, even when we transition from one medium to another. In both improv and fiction, there's often some rambling that happens at the top of a scene as the writer/actor tries to orient themselves. 

It's why, frequently, the good stuff in short fiction, from newer writers, comes way, way late in the story because they are taking a ton of time to set the scene. The instinct to set the scene is good, because the audience can't relate to something they can't visualize. But...you can set a scene really quickly with just a couple of lines.

So -- Here's an improv exercise that I've tweaked to work for short fiction.

1. I want you to establish these things in the first three lines. Where, Who, What. 

Where: Not just "In a castle!" but where specifically in the castle. Ground us with the things that are within arm's reach.  

Who: This isn't just a name, but a relationship and their emotional state. No one exists in a vaccuum.         

What: An activity with a goal.  Sharpening a sword is an activity. But we don't do activities without purpose. Sharpening a sword to slay a dragon is more specific and goal oriented.    

2. Now: Use the Random Plot Generator to generate these things: Setting (Where), Main Character (Who), Situation (What)

3. Write three sentences, trying to use really grounded POV to relate those three things.

Example: 

Where: A very hot place     Who: A butcher     What: Buying bagels     

If Ezra hadn't needed bagels for brunch, he wouldn't have set foot in that oven of a place. He wiped the sweat off on his apron, and shifted from foot to foot on the linoleum floor as he waited in line.  By God, give him the cool of his meat locker any day.   

4. Now change the "Where" and rewrite the same opening. The idea is to pay attention to what differs with the change in location.

 Where: A yacht     Who: A butcher     What: Buying bagels     

The breeze from the bay snuck down the stairs into the cramped galley. Ezra kept an eye out the tiny window across the marina. The bagel truck should be pulling in anytime now and he needed bagels for the boss's lunch.   

5. Now change the "Who" and rewrite the same opening. The idea is to pay attention to what details in your description change with a different POV character.

 Where: A yacht     Who: An ambitious 21 year-old woman     What: Buying bagels     

Tilting her tablet's screen so it wasn't getting so much glare from the sun, Serena called up GrubHub and placed an order for bagels to be delivered to the marina. Setting the tablet back down on the deck of her yacht, she picked up her mimosa. As ways to start her 21st birthday, this didn't suck.   

6. Now change the "What" and rewrite the same opening. A different "what" changes her motivations, and hence her interaction with the "where."

 Where: A yacht     Who: An ambitious 21 year-old woman     What: A 30-year old murder case is resurrected

Serena walked up the gangplank to the yacht, praying that her glasses made her look older than twenty-one. The yacht had changed hands three times in the thirty years since Jonas Barlow had been murdered on it, but she was betting that it still held the secret to his death. Now she just had to sweet talk her way into the engine room.   

7. Start again with a new "where" and repeat until you get tired. This is a good exercise to do with pen and paper if you find yourself waiting somewhere. You can use this WritingPrompts generator on your phone to get you started.

(If you want to share your work, feel free to post a link or your practice rounds in the comments below. I'd ask that folks don't offer criticism unless invited specifically by the writer.)