Craft Challenge #5 – Give Me Twenty

to-do listI love lists. 

There, I said it.  Yes, I have the usual errand list, grocery list, to-do list for the house, to-do list for my writing projects, to-do lists for my critique service.  I love lists.  They get all that nuisance detail out of my head and onto paper where, mostly, they can’t be lost, freeing my brain up for more interesting work.

But there’s another way I use lists that applies to the topic at hand.

I’m not sure where I first got the idea for using lists to help me craft a story but I know Donald Maass advocates the use of lists in his book Writing the Breakout Novel and in his workshops of the same name.  I also know my long time critique partner Pamela Palmer reminds me on a regular basis to use a list of twenty when I get stuck with a character or a plot point or even when trying to get a handle on the big picture of a new project.

So what exactly do I mean when I say I use lists?  

First I frame the question that’s bugging me and I write it down at the top of a clean sheet of paper (or type it at the top of a new document).  That question might be:  Why does Nancy fear marshmallows?   Why is the world about to end?  What does Nick need to learn from his relationship with his sister?  Or any other thing that is keeping you from moving forward in writing your story.

Next, come up with twenty possible answers to your question.  DO NOT EDIT YOUR IDEAS!!!  Write fast.  Allow absurdity.  Allow cliche.  Do not stop to think about your answers.  Just write twenty possible answers to your question as fast as possible.

Usually when I get about ten items on my list I’m tempted to stop.  Don’t.  Keep going until you have twenty.  Why, you ask?  Because it takes at least seven or eight items to clear out the obvious answers.  It takes another two or more to get through the nonsense that comes when the easy stuff is exhausted.  And then you start to get to the new, the unique, the unexpected possibilities. 

So, this week’s exercise, if you choose to accept the assignment:

Frame your own question from your current work in progress or use this one: 

Why is a woman leaving a room? 

I know, I know, it’s incredibly generic, but imagine you’ve got a character that needs to make a hasty exit and you can’t figure out how to extricate her in a way that will further your plot and/or develop your character.  You want something surprising, something unexpected, something that not everyone would or could think of.

Okay.  Give me twenty.  Go!

Post your list in the comments and tell me which item is the most interesting/surprising to you and why.


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