In medias res

Not every story needs to start at the beginning, and sometimes it's useful for a storyteller to begin their tale in the middle of things. By starting a story with action or complication the audience is (hopefully) hooked from the outset and interested to discover how this initial action or complication came about, something a storyteller can fill in with back-story. This narrative technique is often called in medias res, a term coined by the Roman poet Horace, and can be found in many novels, poems, short-stories, and films.

Perhaps the most famous example is The Iliad by Homer. The narrative begins in the middle of the Trojan War and complicates matters from the outset by telling of a division in the Greek camp -- a quarrel between King Agamemnon and Achilles. It is then through back-story the reader learns the history of the principal characters and how they came to be at war with Troy. You will probably recognize this same narrative technique in the Star Wars saga, which begins with episode IV as Darth Vader nears completion of the Death Star. The television program Lost can also be thought of as in medias res, with the plane crash in the first episode opening the action, and the story of the characters being explored as the series progresses. Each Lost episode also employs a kind of "in the middle of things" technique called a cold open.

If you are interested in trying out a narrative that opens in medias res, don't worry about having to write an epic like The Iliad or a whole TV series like Lost. This literary technique also works well in shorter works like poems, drama, and short stories.

The Limerick


There once was a fly on the wall.
I wonder why didn't it fall?
Because its feet stuck
Or was it just luck
Or does gravity miss things so small?

(Author Unknown)

In The Book of Forms, Lewis Turco tells us that the limerick is "a quantitative accentual-syllabic quintet turning on two rhymes: aabba." This playful little form is probably easier to write than it is to decipher Turco's rules. Here's another example:


There was a young lady named Kite
Whose speed was much faster than light.
She left home one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.

(Author Unknown)


If you read enough limericks you can intuit the rules of the form that Turco has dissected. The next one, borrowed from volweb, has a few of the words left out, but you'll probably be able to fill in the blanks.


There once was a pauper named Meg
Who accidentally broke her _______.
She slipped on the ______.
Not once, but thrice
Take no pity on her, I __________.

(Author Unknown)


You may also be interested to check out the online dictionary of limericks, OEDILF. But be careful -- it's a vortex that you may never find your way out of! If you want to give a limerick a try, leave me a note so I can check out your blog. It's amazing where the mind will go with this often salacious poetic form!

In the News

Do you ever notice when you look in the paper or turn on the five o'clock news it's always stories of things going badly? It's always violence and crime, scandals and corruption, wars and fear. And while I think it's a good idea to be informed about world events and to know what's going on in your own town, I always wish there was some humor in reporting, something to lighten the otherwise gloomy and dismal mood. This writing prompt asks you to help address this shortcoming.

For the last few years I've been reading the satirical news site The Onion (I'm sure some of you will be familliar with their high-quality, hard hitting investigative reporting). The writers on this website often take a story from the mainstream media and twist it into a joke, and sometimes they just flat out make up ridiculous stories and pass them off as news. So following this lead, I've come up with a few headlines for news stories that never made the front page.

If you're interested in taking up this prompt, try to write a story to go along with a headline. Alternatively, you may want to write up a spoof version of a real news story you find, or come up with your own make-believe headline.



























Poetic Inquiry

In this post I briefly discuss some elements of poetic inquiry that may be useful if you want to try for yourself, and then show an example. To do poetic inquiry is to notice, to listen, and to be present with the subject, but it is not only writing poetry. It can involve photography, drawing, music, dance, writing, etc., or a combination of different artistic mediums.

Poetic inquiry is about unsettling what is often taken as commonplace, allowing an artist to re-imagine a particular situation or subject and look at it in a different light. The particular situation or subject does not have to be profound, and often insights can be gained from unsettling and re-imagining mundane, everyday things. The example I offer below -- going to the laundromat -- would probably be considered quite mundane to most, but it is a perfectly good subject for poetic inquiry and made me reconsider this apparently ordinary event.

If you've interested in giving this a try, I would encourage you to work with your own experience, with the simple things you do and take for granted. It could be taking a bus ride or going to the grocery store; it could be going for a walk in the forest or making dinner, any subject or situation you want. Ask yourself, what about the subject calls out for notice, and how can you represent it artistically? What other ideas are brought up by being present with your subject? There doesn't have to be any conclusion or solution and you may be left with many more questions than answers.


A Trip to the Laundromat


they look to be waiting for someone (anyone) to put in a coin and turn them on

I don't mind being here but there's usually company

so it's strange to be alone with these machines

I wonder if they are watching me

I thought change comes only from within (who knew there was a machine for that too?). I put in a ten dollar bill and the coins clatter down, some spilling out and
to the floor... rolling around my feet.

The coins go into the slot and I hear them say clink-clink in a metallic accent.

(If at first your coin doesn't go down and you need to press the "return coin" button, scratch it on the metal panel beside the slot and give it another try. It may be a superstition, but I think it allows the machine to know the coin a little better... something like a first date.)

Set the dial to "bright colors" OR ELSE! (Made that mistake before). The water floods in and the machine comes to life, seeming somehow satisfied. Through the window I see the clothes go


Now wait. Wait more.
If you are thirsty, you can put some coins in the Coke machine.

While I wait, a man shows up. He has clothes in one of the washing machines and is going to put them in a dryer. He opens the door of the washer and notices that his clothes are soaking wet. The water and soap did not drain. Perhaps he overloaded the machine. The machines don't like when you do that. He swears under his breath as he puts them into another washing machine. He has to pay for a whole load, even though he only needs a rinse and a spin cycle. He also has to wait for another half hour.

Does this man run the machine
does this machine run the man?

"Buzzzzzzzzz!" says the washer
put clothes in dryer
more coins

press button

smell of fabric softener
perforated metal cylinder
more coins

press button
encased in steel(cosmos swirling)glass is a world

waiting to be discovered

What's in front of me

The idea for this writing prompt is fairly straightforward: write what's happening where you are now. It might be a description of your living room or your den, it might be a conversation you hear at the table next to you in a cafe.Wherever you are sitting, whatever is going on around you, whatever is close at hand or on the bookshelf, try to put it into words. You might write about the shoes you're wearing, or you might write about the color of the paint on your walls, but whatever you decide to write, try to let the activity of thinking and writing be unconstrained and you may be surprised where you're taken by the simplicity of seemingly mundane, everyday surroundings. I suggest taking no more than five minutes for this prompt... here's my go at it:

I'm sitting at a desk in my study. In front of me is a screen and a keyboard, a cold cup of coffee and a lamp. For some reason there's feathers, stones, and a pine cone on the desk (why do I pick up things like this when I'm out for walks?). There's papers and books strewn on the floor. There's a compass sitting next to the window and a flannel shirt thrown over a chair in the corner. On the wall is a picture of Newfoundland, a small corner of St. John's called the Battery. In the picture the houses cling to the cliff-face, boats are tied to wharves, an iceberg is in the background, and the sky looks like a fog is about to roll in. I remember the way the sea smells there, the way that salt water infuses the air. I remember the cry of the gulls and the way that in summer huge, lumbering cruise ships sail through the narrows to bring the tourists to the shore. And this space opens up to that... I am in both places at once, bringing me home, both here and there.

Drama -- Short Play

There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.
--Mark Twain

The conventions of drama will be familiar to most readers. If you've ever been to a school play, seen Cats, or read Shakespeare, you probably know what to expect, at least as far as the technical elements go. There's usually a setting, characters, costume, dialogue, lighting, and sound. There's usually an audience, and there's usually a stage.

However, it's been my experience that this is deceptively simple, and in trying to write plays I discovered that without the right combination of these elements there was no drama. The mark of a good play is when all the parts come together to create something spectacular, like a symphony made of many different instruments. But if even one of those instruments is out of harmony, the whole things sounds like rubbish!

And so for this blog post I've decided to show rather than tell. Below you'll find a short play I'm working on. It is, admittedly, quite rough, and I'm hoping that you'll let me know what instruments need tuning. If you decide to write a short play of your own, leave me a comment so I can check it out. Good luck, and remember, all the world is a stage.


Inside Job

A bank in the middle of the night.

Two desks and chairs are set up, one stage left, another stage right. On each desk is a lamp, computer screen, papers, pens. Waste bin on floor beside each desk.

A long counter along back of stage. Counter is positioned such that the side on which the teller would stand is facing audience -- ie. the audience views the scene as though looking through the back wall of the bank.

Soft yellow lighting.

Curtain rises.

Very long pause -- at least 30 seconds -- all quiet.

Two robbers, BIZZ and BUZZ, enter stage left. Both dressed in all black clothes -- both have black gloves, large black backpacks, black ski-masks. They creep on tips of toes across stage, but BUZZ accidentally knocks over a waste bin, which makes loud metallic clang.

BIZZ: Shhhhhhh! You nincompoop! Do you want us to end up in jail?

BUZZ: Sorry. My bad. The place seems so different in the night time, and I can hardly see a thing through this mask.

BIZZ: (pointing to ceiling) You see those cameras up there? If it wasn't for the mask they'd know it was you who let me in. Just try and be quiet, will ya?

A spotlight illuminates the backdrop and moves from left to right. BIZZ quickly lays down flat on the floor, while BUZZ turns and looks at the passing light. The sound of a car passing from speakers. BIZZ stands up and looks at BUZZ. Pause.

BUZZ: Only a car going by. Thought the worst for a minute there.

BIZZ: Let's just get this done and get out of here. Are you sure the alarm isn't going to go off?

BUZZ: Of course I'm sure. I set up the access code, and it said it was disarmed.

BIZZ: Fine so. Fine.

They walk slowly on tips of toes to center front. They stand side-by-side, facing the audience. BIZZ holds out his hands and mimes touching an imaginary wall. He puts his ear to the imaginary wall then steps back and looks at BUZZ.

BIZZ: How is it that you're the president of this place and you don't know the combination to the vault?

BUZZ: Well, I never needed to know. It's the managers who open and close this thing. And maybe it's because the share-holders don't exactly trust me. Who could blame them in light of recent events?

BIZZ: And you're sure about the money being in there?

BUZZ: At least eight million dollars. Cold hard cash.

BIZZ removes his backpack and takes out a stethescope. He puts the buds in his ears and extends the other end to the imaginary wall with his left hand. He reaches his right hand out and turns it, as though spinning a combination lock. Sound of clicks from speakers. BIZZ spins his hand the other direction. More clicks. Spins other direction. More clicks. Still listening through stethescope.

BIZZ: I think I've almost got it. That sounds right. Almost there. Got it!

Sound of latch releasing and hinge creaking over speakers. BIZZ and BUZZ shake hands earnestly. They step through the imaginary vault door to the very edge of stage, facing audience.

BIZZ: A room full of money. I've never seen such a beautiful thing in my entire life. Christmas has come early this year! Let's get the cash in the bags and get out of here.

They mime taking piles of money and putting it in their backpacks.

BUZZ: What are you going to do with your share?

BIZZ: I was thinking of getting a house in the Hamptons, and maybe a little sports car. That and pay back my debts to the loan sharks. There's going to be nothing but possibilities for me from now on. What about you?

BUZZ: I was thinking on retiring early. Maybe move to somewhere with a nice warm climate...

Sound of a hinge creeking. BIZZ and BUZZ turn back. Curtain falls and there is the sound of vault door slamming shut. BIZZ and BUZZ are on edge of stage, still visible to audience, facing curtain.

Pause -- 5 seconds. BIZZ and BUZZ turn and face one another.

BUZZ: Oh yeah. The door has an auto close mechanism.

BIZZ: And let me guess. It can only be opened from the other side.

BUZZ nods his head.

BIZZ: We're screwed.

Light fades out leaving BIZZ and BUZZ in darkness.


Greeting Cards

There are greeting cards for virtually every occasion, and also for occasions you wouldn't normally think of as card-worthy. I've seen "Congratulations On Your Vasectomy", and "Sorry You Got Gout", and even "I Never Liked You Anyways". At the site you can get cards for such important events as Umbrella Day, Tax Day, and Kiss and Make-Up Day. Not wishing to offend anyone who celebrates Umbrella Day, but I wonder if companies like Hallmark have created "special" days just to sell cards!

This suggestion for writing is fairly straight forward. Create a greeting card of your own for any occasion. It could be funny, silly, absurd, sad, serious or dark -- anything you think deserves a card. You may like to find an image for the front or the inside, and even a watermark for the back if you're keen. Below you'll see one that I've come up with to celebrate (?) an absurd event (and I don't think I'd ever send this card to anyone).





This greeting card was
designed just for you by
Unexpected Occasions

Images courtesy of
Sclera picto's