Newspapers are filled with compelling headlines that often include one or two people and describe the final outcome of an event: Man Jumps Off Bridge After Wedding, Woman Kidnapped as Baby Reunites With Family, Flight Attendant Receives Proposal Mid-flight. Read your local newspaper or peruse local newspapers online, and choose a headline. Use it to write a story about what led up to the final outcome the headline describes.
The Time Is Now
Choose a poem that you’ve written and rewrite it in its reverse, making the last line the first, etc. Revise this version, creating a new poem.
Read the first paragraph of five of your favorite short stories, analyzing how they begin. Do they start with the description or voice of a character? With the description of a place or incident? With dialogue? Choose one of the beginnings and use it as a model for the entryway into a story of your own. See how far it takes you.
Set a timer for five minutes and freewrite—writing anything that comes to mind without stopping until the timer goes off. Then circle every third word or phrase of what you’ve written. Use these circled words as the starting point for a poem.
Write a scene in which two very different characters—an old man and a young woman, for example—are having an argument. Then rewrite the scene so that each character makes the argument the other character was making in the previous draft. Pay close attention to what is revealed about the characters in each draft.
Make a list of objects. One thing should be from your desk, one from your closet, one a body part, one a thing you covet that belongs to someone else, one enormous, one slippery, and at least one that makes an odd or evocative sound. Now, describe each using a simile. Do this twice for each one. Using as many of the similes as you can, write a poem with a title such as “Checklist to Survive a Nuclear Winter” or “Things That Have Nothing To Do With Grief.”
Write a story about the worst moment of your life (such as a loss or a betrayal) as though it happened to someone else. Instead of focusing on the moment itself, set the story the day before it happened and create a character very different from you to stand in for yourself. Write the story using a third-person omniscient narrator to exploit the tension between the reader’s knowledge of what’s to come and the protagonist’s complete lack of awareness of what’s to come. Consider ending the story before the impending doom arrives.
What is something you are afraid to write about in your own poems, either because it is too personal, or because you feel it is cliché? Create a character—a swarthy bum, a baker, a dog—and write a narrative poem in which your character addresses this topic. Let the fact that the poem isn’t really about you be freeing.
Choose three people who you know well and write a detailed character description of each one. Now change the gender, name, and a few physical traits of each one. Begin a story with all three characters standing in the rain outside of a house on fire.
Write an erasure poem: Rip out one or two pages from a magazine or newspaper. Read through them, underlining words and phrases that appeal to you and that relate to each other. Using a marker or Wite-Out, begin to delete the words around those you underlined, leaving words and phrases that you might want to use. Keep deleting the extra language, working to construct poetic lines with the words you’ve chosen to keep.