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.


  1. That’s an amazing way to open a story. I should certainly hope nobody would forget it. I am sad to hear that so many people would choose a cop out like “Just kidding” when that leads to absolutely no real drama!

    1. Students tend to not like confrontation in their real lives — and there’s no greater confrontation than saying, “I’m going to kill you!” to someone — so they try to negotiate their way out of it on paper as they would in real life.

      Some students can’t not make it a joke because they refuse to imagine what those words actually mean and what must happen next.

      I use that example — “I woke up covered in blood.” — in many teaching contexts. It’s so good on so many levels.

  2. She must have been quite the student to share something such as that with the class. As for the just kidding, I would probably have used it to distract the reader or victim, make it seem like everything is cool and relaxed. Then, at the last second, turn it all around and kill the person in the end. Play it off as a joke then wrap up with a total turn of events, quite dramatic.

  3. Very interesting article- as an English major, I could relate to a lot of it! My best memories from my past Creative Writing classes are the times that my jaw actually dropped at something a student read out loud.

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