The Written, Rising, Art: On Writing Writing Prompts

A great joy of teaching is when your students surprise you with something unexpected.  One good way to find out what students are thinking is to ask them to respond to a writing prompt.  My favorite writing prompt for Playwriting students is to ask them to write a dramatic scene that begins with this line: “I’m going to kill you!”  30% of students will immediately write, as a second line, “Just kidding!” — but for those students who believe in the threat first line, the rest of the story tears off.

I make it clear that “I’m going to kill you!” must be considered a genuine threat — and that the students should not try to temper the murdering impulse.  When a scene starts off at 100% in full fury, the only way to top the spoken danger is to actually attempt to complete the act — and you would not believe the dramatic tension that roils as one character tries to end the life of another.  Life and death and the power and the promise of losing everything is the core all of all human drama.

One summer, I was teaching a speech class, and I asked the students to relive the worst day of their lives. A few students needed some help getting started because finding the true drama in their lives — that can also hold the interest of others — is a daunting task because what they find interesting does not mean the rest of the world will hold attention.

When I read the first draft of one student, I was stopped.  Her first line stole my attention and held me rapt with trembling —

“I woke up covered in blood.”

— now that’s a great opening line!

She went on to tell us, in slow motion on the page, how she woke up on a strange road covered in her own blood.  She didn’t know her name.  She did not know where she was.  A slow and cold terror crept over her as she tried to see through the blood streaming into her eyes.

She had been run over by a car on a dirt path in Jamaica while on Spring Break, and the shards of glass from the windshield were embedded in her arms and face — still scarring her with keloids five years later.

That was an amazing moment as the entire class was mesmerized by her rising Art.  That student set the example of excellence for the entire class.  You never forget students like that, and you hope the other students in the class don’t forget, either.