Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The “Twenty Stupid Things” List



Carol Tanzman here.


You’ve heard of The Bucket List. That’s the movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in which two men go on a road trip with their wish list of things to do before they “kick the bucket.” I’m going to tell you about a different kind of list that I sometimes create.

My “Twenty Stupid Things” List.

In the last post I wrote, I told you I’d talk about a trick you could try if you get stuck writing your story. I heard about this technique only a few years ago and used it the next time I got really stuck, which happened to be when I was writing dancergirl. And then I used it the next time… and the next… well, you get the picture. It goes like this:

Let’s say you’ve written your character, Miranda, into a metaphorical, and literal, corner. The bad guy’s attack dog is well, about to attack, and you can’t figure out how to get her out of the situation. You take out a blank sheet of paper, or start a new document, (I like paper and pen for this one but you can use the computer). You literally title it:

20 STUPID THINGS MIRANDA CAN DO TO GET OUT OF THIS SITUATION

Then you put number one on the page and you write down the first idea you get. NO MATTER HOW STUPID! Because, see, the title says, “Stupid Things.” So you can write:

1. She spits her bubblegum at the dog.
Good. That’s nice and lame and couldn’t possibly work.

2. She reaches into her pocket and all she has is a paper clip and she throws it at the dog.
Also lame. Excellent.

3. She kicks the dog.
Maybe she’s wearing combat boots and she’s a martial artist. Could work but Miranda has on sneakers and likes to draw. She’ll probably end up getting her leg bit. Another stupid idea. Great!

4. She starts to sing the National Anthem and she has a terrible voice and the dog howls and runs away.
Ummm.. lame again. Very good. BUT

5. She starts to sing the National Anthem because she realizes this dog has been trained so that when he hears that particular song he will sit down and salute. Hmmm, that’s actually weird but sort of … interesting.

6. She starts to sing the National Anthem because she knows that the song is a signal for the dog to roll over. That’s not in the story but what if I go back into Chapter Three and add it to the scene when she first meets the bad guy and his dog, (when she didn’t know he was the bad guy,) and she saw the dog do that…

Now you might like this idea. Maybe number five is the one you think is more fun. You’re pretty sure you could make it work, and it would make the story more interesting. You can add that the bad guy was in the military. Or Uncle Fred was in the military and he once told Miranda that he and a bunch of guys trained a group of Dobermans to salute whenever they heard the National Anthem…

You can stop there, keep dreaming on the idea…. or, what I like to do, is KEEP GOING. Just in case…

7. She notices a bottle of perfume on the table next to her. She opens the bottle and tosses it at the dog’s eyes. Lame.

8. She conjures up a piece of meat and tosses it way across the room. Good, except Miranda isn’t Hermione, Harry Potter’s friend, and she doesn’t know magic.

Sometimes, I’ll hit upon an idea I like better at number 11, say, or sometimes, I just can’t stop thinking about number five so I give up at number 8 and excitedly start to figure out how to make number five work.

It doesn’t matter. The point is that by giving yourself permission to come up with as many stupid ideas as you can, an interesting, workable idea usually shows up!

Let me know what you think about this – or if you have any ways to get yourself out of the metaphorical corner of your story. Unlike an old dog who just has to salute at the sound of the National Anthem, I’m always eager to learn new tricks!

15 comments:

LovelyLici said...

HAhahaaa. Hmmm... Interesting. This could actually work. *rubs chin*

Jordan Dane said...

Fun idea, Carol. Add a dartboard selection process for a real writing challenge. HA!

Jennifer Archer said...

I'm going to try this. Love it!

Travis Erwin said...

Once again Jennifer has steered me in the right direction. I have been stuck on some things and I;m going to give this a whirl asap.

CS Perryess said...

Carol,
Fine suggestions. Wacky often provides a road to fascinating, or functional, or sometimes to inspired.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I love this technique. I first read about it in Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine. I don't know if she makes you go all the way to 20, but the concept is similar. It has helped me out more than one corner :)

Carol Tanzman said...

I got this tip from a student's professor at USC's film school. I think their list is supposed to be 50! I've never made it past 12, I think. It honestly works.

Kristin Feliz said...

Thats such a great trick!! I'm definitely using it next time I get stuck. Thanks for sharing, Carol :)

BalletLA said...

LOVE it, Carol! What a great idea. I may have to try it with my WIP...

Julie Williams said...

What a great idea, Carol! One thing I've NEVER been stuck on is having STUPID ideas. :-)

Wendy Corsi Staub said...

I've never heard this technique before, Carol, but I love it! And I'm going to pass it along to my husband, who is currently stuck at a crossroads in his own novel. Thanks for the fun post!

Laurisa White Reyes said...

Miranda should straighten the paperclip in her pocket and use it as a weapon - stab the dog's eyes, throat, heart. Make the dog run off yelping, or better yet, tear through the chest and bleed to death. I know it's gruesome but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

orangeseattle said...

I started salivating after thinking about someone who could conjure up meat just like that... where were we now?

Carol Tanzman said...

Ahh, orangeseattle--food is the way into your heart, methinks! And Laurisa--this is why it's such a good technique. You make one "stupid" thing work, I make another. And voila! Two different books.

Anita Grace Howard said...

Oh, this is spectacular! What a great idea: give yourself permission to screw up so your muse is free enough to come up w/a great idea.

I'll definitely try this next time I'm stuck! Thank you, Carol!