Writing exercise: Who, What, and Where in 3 sentences

What? You say something is behind me?I’ve been having a great time at the Henson workshop (yes, I will tell you about it at some point) but one of the things I’ve really loved is the way it makes me think about writing from a different angle. There are aspects of story-telling that seem to be consistent, even when we transition from one medium to another. In this case, we’ve been working on short form improv, which has so much in common with short stories that I kept having “D’oh!”  moments when I get my notes, because I talk about the same things when I teach fiction.

So — Here’s an improv exercise that I’ve tweaked to work for short fiction.
In both improv and fiction, there’s often some rambling that happens at the top of a scene as the writer/actor tries to orient themselves. It’s why, frequently, the good stuff in short fiction, from newer writers, frequently comes way, way late in the story because they are taking a ton of time to set the scene. The instinct to set the scene is good, because the audience can’t relate to something they can’t visualize. But…you can set a scene really quickly with just a couple of lines.

1. I want you to establish these things in the first three lines. Who, What, Where.

  • Who: This isn’t just a name, but a relationship and their emotional state. No one exists in a vaccuum.
  • Where: Not just “In a castle!” but where specifically in the castle. Ground us with the things that are within arms reach.
  • What: An activity with a goal.  Sharpening a sword is an activity. But we don’t do activities without purpose. Sharpening a sword to slay a dragon is more specific and goal oriented.

2. Now: Use the Random Plot Generator to generate these things: Main Character (Who), Setting (Where), Situation (What)

3. Write three sentences, trying to use really grounded POV to relate those three things.

Example: 

  • Where: A very hot place
  • Who: A butcher
  • What: Buying bagels

If Ezra hadn’t needed bagels for brunch, he wouldn’t have set foot in that oven of a place. He wiped the sweat off on his apron, and shifted from foot to foot on the linoleum floor as he waited in line.  By God, give him the cool of his meat locker any day.

4. Now change the “Where” and rewrite the same opening. The idea is to pay attention to what differs with the change in location.

  • Where: A yacht
  • Who: A butcher
  • What: Buying bagels

The breeze from the bay snuck down the stairs into the cramped galley. Ezra kept an eye out the tiny window across the marina. The bagel truck should be pulling in anytime now and he needed bagels for the boss’s lunch.

5. Now change the “Who” and rewrite the same opening. The idea is to pay attention to what details in your description change with a different POV character.

  • Where: A yacht
  • Who: An ambitious 21 year-old woman
  • What: Buying bagels

Tilting her tablet’s screen so it wasn’t getting so much glare from the sun, Serena called up GrubHub and placed an order for bagels to be delivered to the marina. Setting the tablet back down on the deck of her yacht, she picked up her mimosa. As ways to start her 21st birthday, this didn’t suck.

6. Now change the “What” and rewrite the same opening. A different “what” changes her motivations, and hence her interaction with the “where.”

  • Where: A yacht
  • Who: An ambitious 21 year-old woman
  • What: A 30-year old murder case is resurrected

Serena walked up the gangplank to the yacht, praying that her glasses made her look older than twenty-one. The yacht had changed hands three times in the thirty years since Jonas Barlow had been murdered on it, but she was betting that it still held the secret to his death. Now she just had to sweet talk her way into the engine room.

7. Start again with a new “where” and repeat until you get tired. This is a good exercise to do with pen and paper if you find yourself waiting somewhere. You can use this WritingPrompts generator on your phone to get you started.

(If you want to share your work, feel free to post a link or your practice rounds in the comments below. I’d ask that folks don’t offer criticism unless invited specifically by the writer.)

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5 Responses

  1. Cori

    I haven’t a blog, but I’d love for these to be critiqued. So, I hope you don’t mind if I put just two rounds in the comments.

    1. The view from the top of the ferris wheel was just as Donni had expected – flashy, gaudy and filled with ant people who were either drunk or in the process of dragging their friends in the Scare Tunnel. He gave his cigarette a good long drag, he was to fucking old for this, but he needed the damn money. Tailing a pack of clowns during their reunion shouldn’t be too complicated.

    2. Reinette had half a mind to smash the damn hall of mirrors, but instead she adjusted her grey hair in a bundle as best as she could considering her reflection was harrowing, narrow and generally ugly. She murmured a curse, dragged her finger across the mirror-Reinette’s drooping skin, and proceeded to shuffle her way to the exit. “Reunion,” even the word itself twisted her face in a scowl.

    [both are supposed to be set at a fairground, the situation is reunion, 1. is a mysterious 50 year old man, while 2. is a cruel 65 year old woman]
    I usually suck at prompts of any kind, but doing this was really fun.

      1. Cori

        Wow, thank you! 🙂

        Now, if only plotting came as easily as POVs, I’d be a…well, a less frustrated baby writer, that’s for sure.

        I do ask all the questions (consequences to action, opposing motivations, etc.), but for me it’s much harder coming up with a proper conflict than it is making up characters.

  2. Rose

    It was a bit of a brain tangler 🙂 Here are a few of my beginnings. Thank you for the exercise–theories can only teach so much.

    Where: Swimming pool
    Who: rebellious 29 year old man
    What: hitches a ride home during train strike

    When ladies asked what John did for a living, he would say a bouncer for an expensive gentleman’s club. Certainly not ‘pool boy.’ He first met Alice when she came up to him on a hot afternoon to ask how one would “hitch a ride across the country.” She looked so sweet standing across him, with her train luggage. He couldn’t say no.

    4. Now change the “Where” and rewrite the same opening. The idea is to pay attention to what differs with the change in location.

    Where: on a train
    Who: rebellious 29 year old man
    What: hitches a ride home during a train strike

    John asked the couple beside him when the train would pull into Santa Fe. The tall man scowled and turned away. His wife said, “There’s been a strike.” Without missing a beat, John jumped off the stalled train and onto the tracks. He would find a different way home.

    5. Now change the “Who” and rewrite the same opening. The idea is to pay attention to what details in your description change with a different POV character.
    Who: forceful 25 year old woman
    Where: On a train
    What: hitches a ride home during a train strike

    “What do you mean, ‘there’s been a strike?’ I demand a refund, now!” Angie whispered to her boyfriend. “Go get me one. I gotta find another way home.” He turned away as she scanned the room. A thin, frail man unboarded ahead of her. Grinning, she followed. No one said no to Angie.

    . Now change the “What” and rewrite the same opening. A different “what” changes her motivations, and hence her interaction with the “where.”
    Who: forceful 25 year old woman
    Where: on a train
    What: phone call devastates a family

    Traveling by train left Angie little privacy. In the washroom, no one could see her crying. Her mom had called to say her little sister had been kidnapped, feared dead. Angie felt like throwing up. Sudden report came from outside the door, a woman demanding entrance. Then the door was stripped from its hinges.

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