Writing with Variables

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:

  • The kind of sharpener.
  • The sharpener's condition, age, mechanical soundness, rustiness, sharpness, squeakiness, color, shape...
  • The location of the sharpener.  It's orientation.  The soundness of its mounting...
  • The state of mind of the person sharpening it.
  • The person's dexterity, eyesight, hand strength, height, olfactory acuity...
  • The pencil's age, color, length, composition, dryness, wetness...
  • The brand of pencil.
  • The brand of sharpener.
  • The person's reason for sharpening it... intentions for the pencil...
  • How easy it was to find the sharpener, or to travel to it.
  • The climate, weather, temperature, humidity, noise level around the person and the sharpener.
  • ... and so on ...

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

What kind of sharpener is it?

  • Electric.
  • Mechanical crank style.
  • A small, plastic, hand-held one with an angled razor blade edge.
  • A pocket knife.
  • ... What other kinds? ...

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

  • To write something.  (To write what?  A novel?  A Dear John letter?  A contract?  A manifesto?  This gives a new variable to play with, which may lead to yet further variables.)
  • To mark a board for cutting.  (To build what?)
  • Well, duh!  Pencils are supposed to be sharp!  (Where did this rule come from?  What other, related rules might the person have?)
  • To poke a hole in something (what?).
  • To stab someone (who?) or something (what?).  (Why?)
  • Because the aroma of freshly shaved wood and graphite reminds the person of a simpler time, when the world (and he) was more innocent.
  • ... What other reasons? ...

What is the condition of the person sharpening the pencil?

  • Too young to manipulate the pencil or the sharpener well.  Or too old.
  • Shaky hands.  (Why?)
  • Drunk.
  • Angry (about what?).  Jealous (of whom?).
  • Hemophiliac.
  • Wearing gloves (what kind of gloves?).
  • ... What other possibilities? ...

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.

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