Writing Exercise: Mishmashed Storylines

Monty Python crosses Attila the Hun with a 1960's situation sitcom

My husband and I are now the proud owners of all of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (a steal at McKay’s Used Bookstore in Knoxville, TN because they’re on VHS). The Attila the Hun episode was particularly funny, and several of the sketches in that episode seemed to have been put together using some mishmash (or mismatched) technique. I thought that a similar technique might make for a fun writing exercise (and/or party game).

Using index cards or scraps of paper, write down a main character. Examples:

  • A king
  • An 8 year old boy
  • Betty White
  • A British bus driver
  • A snuffleupagus
  • A teen mother
  • A dead man
  • Yourself

Be somewhat specific (no generalities like  “woman” or “man”) and give yourself a variety of funny, serious, and neutral characters.

Next, compile some locations for your main character:

  • A rural bus stop on a Polynesian island
  • A shady lawyer’s office
  • The Oval Office
  • A kosher deli in Montana
  • A bush meat barbecue in Africa
  • A palm tree on the bank of the Nile
  • A ship rounding Cape Horn

You can stop there, or you add a third level of situations which your main character finds him or herself:

  • Pregnant
  • Someone is dead
  • Unemployed
  • Had a one-night stand
  • Working for a corrupt/dishonest business
  • Driving drunk
  • Newlywed
  • Going overseas for the first time
  • Kidnapped by Mexican drug lords

If you want, you can also do a fourth selection, which dictates the tone/style of your writing:

  • 1st person autobiography
  • 3rd person
  • Narrator view of your main character (think Ishmael in Moby Dick; even though he was the narrator of the story, and a character in it, Captain Ahab was the main character)
  • Humorous
  • Fantasy/science fiction
  • Dream/psychotic episode/alien abduction or some other situation where what happens is later revealed not to be real
  • Serious
  • Satire

Now, put all of your options in separate piles and pull one option from each pile. This sets your main character and location and, if you’ve chosen, the situation and story form. Write a short story (3 pages or more) based on these selections.

You can also do this exercise if you have a novel started, but are totally stuck on your plot. Just write all of your character’s names on pieces of papers and throw in a few new characters (name and a brief description of personality and/or life history). Then make a pile of situations, like above, and pull out a name and a situation. If the situation calls for it, pull out another character name to decide who is the accomplice or victim.

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