Plot Soup – Sarah Dobbs

Plot Soup is probably a bit paint-by-numbers and not recommended for advanced students but it’s an engaging exercise that I’ve used with first year creative writing students at Lancaster and it seemed quite effective.

The purpose of the exercise is to inject some liveliness into seminars and  enable students to go away with all the ingredients they need to write a story: a first line, a character’s name, a location, the time of day, year and a hint of where the plot might go. It’s very basic, but provides a lot of concrete elements that help give students a starting point. It has produced some quite vivid pieces that the students have a strong engagement with due to their engagement in the process. It also tends to encourage them to write about different places/people/themes than they normally would.


Get students to divide a piece of paper into columns with the following headings:

Name                                Location                      Time                         Year  

The whole class writes something under each heading – as below:

Name                                Location                      Time                         Year 

Homer                                swings                            2.02am                     Dec 1969

When they’ve all done that, go round the group and have students read the names they’ve written aloud. The tutor notes down interesting names. Repeat this process with each column then get students to choose the most interesting from this short list.  Here’s an abbreviated example of lists my students made and the names, locations and times that were picked:

Name                                 Location                      Time                    Month/Year

Homer                                 swings                          2.02am                    Dec 1969

Paddington Becker     sewage plant/Vegas            Summer                    Jun 1995

Olivier                  The Resistance HQ, France        midnight                 Apr 1935

Next, challenge the students to write a first line/opening that incorporates all of these elements: Paddington; swings; midnight; December 1969. For example:

The swings creaked under Paddington’s weight as he shifted back and forward, loafers scuffing the dirt. He peered at the glowing hands of his watch, 1969 ticking away, another year without her. Could he face it?

The important thing to emphasise is that they don’t have to cram everything in, or even to put everything into one line.

When students have finished their openings/first lines, they read them out. After that, they can choose to use their own opening to create a story, or one that someone else has read out. It’s a great way of generating ideas and having a bit of fun at the same time.

Sarah Dobbs works at the University Centre at Blackburn College and is doing her PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

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