Exercise: Pick and Mix

photo by Shawn McCullough

by Rin Simpson

Creative writing prompts are a great way to get the juices flowing when faced with that most terrifying of sights: the blank page. The problem is that, because there are so many out there, it’s easy to scan through them until you find one that suits you, and so you miss the creative expansion process that comes with working outside of your comfort zone.

This one is different. This one is a challenge involving other people and a deadline – two things I’ve found to be incredibly motivating. It is an exercise I discovered at university and have since used countless times to generate ideas, expand my horizons and generally get me out of a creative rut.


You will need:

* Paper, torn into small strips, say 5cm by 3cm (you’ll need 30 strips per participant)

* Pens (one for each participant)

* Three jars



* Each person should take 10 strips of paper, and write one character on each. Your characters could be anything from “an alien” to “a pensioner”, “someone called Alice” to “a husband and wife tandem racing team”. Fold these up and put them all together in the first jar.

* Next, do the same with 10 place settings – “a bakery”, “South Korea”, “an office block in the future” etc. Fold these and add them to jar number two.

* Fill the third jar with any other story requirements you think will mix things up a bit. For example, you might specify that the story is told from two perspectives, or using both the present and past tense. You could limit the action to a single day, or specify that one character must die. It’s up to you.

* Once your jars are filled, each writer should choose a strip of paper from each jar.

* Now set a deadline for the story that you’ll create using your three prompts, and get writing!


It isn’t a very complicated exercise, is it? But I guarantee it’ll take your writing off into all sorts of weird and wonderful places.

The first time I tried it was while I was living in Japan, next door to a Texan girl who also aspired to writing glory. Her thing was fan fiction and anime, while I was more into romance and crime.

Naturally, we both contributed very different characters, settings and “others”, and the result was that I came away from the experience with, among other things, a 10,000-word novella – a futuristic retelling of the prodigal son story, set on Mars!

Whoever you partner with, you’re bound to find the challenge… well, challenging. And that’s the point. Don’t be tempted to chuck your strips of paper back and choose something else. The harder it is to get started, the more interesting the result will be. Good luck!


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