Writing with Variables

February 12, 2008 | Tags:

Here's a writing exercise I invented to help me jiggle my brain and find ideas for fiction.

  1. Write down any character, location, object, situation, action, theme, or other story element.  It may be fascinating or mundane.  It may be one you've thought about and written about extensively, or one that just popped into your head.
  2. Write down every variable you can think of for the story element.  By variable, I mean anything that you could vary.  Ask yourself:  What could I vary about this?  What else could I vary?  When you run out of ideas, ask yourself:  If I could think of one more thing, what would it be?
  3. For each variable, write down every value you can think of.
  4. Pick a few variables that seem interesting to you.  Try different combinations of values for those variables.  What story ideas does this give you?

Let's try a mundane action:  Sharpening a pencil.

What could you vary about sharpening a pencil?  Here are some of the variables I can think of:

Now let's pick a few variables and identify lots of values.

What kind of sharpener is it?

What is the person's reason for sharpening the pencil?

What is the condition of the person sharpening the pencil?

What combinations of values seem interesting?  Using the pencil as a weapon seems obvious, so I'll try something else.

An elderly, arthritic man twists a yellow, Berol Ben Franklin No. 2 pencil in a small, forest green razor-type sharpener.  He doesn't need the pencil to be sharp (he has nine sharp pencils in a Texaco cup on his roll-top writing desk).  And he can't see well enough to write, anyway.  But the smell of the wood and paint and resin and graphite takes him back to his childhood, transports him away from the terrible reality of the deed he had done -- not impulsively, not in haste, but after careful, prolonged consideration -- just two hours earlier...

Your Turn.  Try the exercise yourself.  Let me know what happens.