Writing Exercise: Using Poetry to Seed a Scene

Darker Pages Later this week, I’m doing a presentation for 9th grade students at the Dayton Regional STEM School. They’re about to embark on a new writing assignment, so I’m going to talk a bit about my writing process and share one of my favorite writing prompts.

Honestly, I don’t often use writing prompts in my fiction writing, but they can be a lot of fun. The premise for this charming little exercise is simple. You take a song or poem and write down its words in order—one word per line. Each word then becomes the first word of a new sentence.

So, for example, let’s take this excerpt from “Slow” by Leonard Cohen, a devilishly poignant tune:

I like to take my time
I like to linger as it flies
A weekend on your lips
A lifetime in your eyes

He’s just brilliant, isn’t he? Let’s hear the whole thing:

Okay, back to the exercise. So, we’ll use each of Cohen’s words as the the start of a new sentence, and try to make a coherent scene out of it. It’ll look something like the example below. I’ve bolded the words taken from “Slow” so you can see what I mean:

I sat in my room all last night listening to a ghost.
Like most everyone else, it only wanted to hear its own words.
To be honest, I didn’t care.
Take your time,” I told it.
My schedule’s all clear.”
Time?” it answered.
I don’t do time anymore.”
Like an itch, its voice lingered between my ears.
To my chest, I drew my knees.
Linger with me,” I urged the ghost.
As if I have a choice,” it answered.
It giggled.
Flies buzzed out of the room.
A ghost’s giggle is better seen than heard.
Weekend nights are meant for better than this.”
On most occasions, I would agree,” I said.
Your apartment bores me,” it said.
Lips bit, I nodded my head.
A pause later, it said, “Though it looks familiar.
Lifetime movies never made sense to me.”
In a moment, the new tenant walked in the door.
Your new home,” the landlord said to the tenant.
Eyes passed through my companion and me, seeing all of the future and none of what had passed.

Shazam! Just like that, we have a 176-word flash fiction piece. Nifty, huh? You can approach this exercise in many ways:

  1. Simply use it to make one poem out of another poem.
  2. Challenge yourself to see if you can start and end a coherent story with these rather severe constraints.
  3. Flesh out one of your characters a bit. Say you have a character who you’re trying to fully develop in a separate story. Figure out what her favorite song might be, and use the exercise above to craft a scene from her point of view. Odds are, you’ll discover something you didn’t know about her.

The point here is that words are magical things. They can act like seeds to grow still more words. And so from a song can a story grow.

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