Thinking Outside the Box

by Lynda Nash

Too often writers (myself included) gravitate towards the ordinary. They fail to see the myriad of options open to the characters they create. They fail to ask ‘what if?’ – what if my character was to run out of the house naked? What if my character was to find safety in a nursery school instead of a friend’s house? What if my character suddenly found she could fly? Okay the last one is a bit absurd for general fiction but at least it’s imaginative!

To help my students ‘think outside the box’ I ask them to think what’s inside the box. Using a nondescript character with the not unusual name of Sarah, I ask them to imagine that she has just received a parcel: a box (of unspecified size). I then give them two minutes to make a list of things Sarah might find when she opens the box. This part of the exercise should be done quickly – spontaneous answers can often be the most interesting.

When time is up, I ask each student to read their list and the class decides whether the items are ordinary or interesting. Anything bordering on mundane is crossed out. Students then decide which item Sarah found in her box and write a short scene (no more than five or six lines) showing her reaction to it: is she horrified? Disappointed? Ecstatic? Again, I ask students to bypass the more normal or obvious reactions.

An example of the items that have appeared in Sarah’s box are: a diary (she was disgusted), a bag of bones (she was pleased), a tiny-but-perfectly-formed human embryo lying on a bed of diamonds (she was sick), and various animal related bits and pieces –

Sarah opened the box. Inside was a foot print cast in mud, a clump of coarse black fur and a lump of faeces. Sarah rubbed her hands together and said, ‘Now they’ll believe me.’

The more students do this exercise, the more they begin to think ‘outside the box’ and the easier it becomes to distinguish between ordinary, extraordinary and absurd ideas. After a while, though, even the outlandish begins to sound clichéd but this helps students to rein in their ideas and to find the balance they need.


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