I am a list person. I think best with a pen in my hand, and I buy my legal pads by the case. I use calendars with spaces for five or six goals per day, and I usually fill them all up. I feel such a thrill when I cross off an accomplishment that I confess I sometimes list things I’ve already finished just to be able to cross them off. (That’s not cheating, by the way—it’s Being Accurate.)
Right now, I’m swamped with preparations for the fall semester. I’m teaching three classes; each one has its own list already, as well as its own stack of books and its own book bag. Heaven help me if I ever grab the wrong bag!
Yes, I am definitely a list person. So, naturally, my Back-to-School Writing Workout begins with a list—two lists, actually. This exercise is appropriate for any age level.
List + List = Story Start
1. Think about characters. Make a list of a few you’d like to get to know better, and describe them briefly by their most obvious personality traits. Each one should have his, her, or its own identity, which can be inspired by someone you know. Name the ones that seem most real to you. Examples: Jarrett, a boy who wishes he could play trombone; Rosie, a girl who loves soccer; Randall, a talking firefly; Sprink, a fairy who plays tricks on people; Xon, a lavender life form from Pluto
2. Think about settings. Describe a few places you know (or can imagine) in ten words or less. Examples: the basement of a busy department store, a quiet street in a small town, the playground of your elementary school, a path through deep woods at night, a big city subway station
3. Choose a character from your first list. Place him, her, or it in one of the settings in your second list. Give your character a chance to look around a bit. Describe the setting from your character's point of view.
4. Think about conflict. What is the worst thing that could happen to that character in that setting? Don’t be afraid to make the problem seem insurmountable or at least really difficult. Give your character a serious challenge—that’s what makes a story interesting!
5. Think about your character again. How would he, she, or it behave in the situation you’ve described? How could he, she, or it solve the problem? Many stories follow the Rule of Three: a character makes three attempts to solve a problem, which can get much worse before it gets better. Give your character three chances to solve the problem, and let the last one be successful from the character’s point of view.
Use this exercise as a jumping-off point. Write in first or third person, present or past tense. If one of your elements is not exciting to you, try another one from your list. If a really good idea grabs you, keep going with it, even if it's not what you intended. Try to write a whole rough draft before you think about revising. Have fun!