Last month at Dream Keepers, I worked with nine-year-old boy who wanted to write his autobiography. He titled it, “The Challenges of My Life.” I immediately fell in love with his idea—what a brilliant structure for a memoir.
When my writing feels stale or I get stuck in the middle of a narrative, sometimes an intriguing structure or format will help me approach my story in a new way. I’ve used the following five formats with my Dream Keepers Writing Circles for years—and perhaps they’ll help you get inspired to write now!
1. Life list. For years, coaches and other life management professionals have encouraged people to write their life lists—50 or 100 things they want to do before they die. But that future focus might not be quite right for you. Use my student’s idea and write about the 50 challenges of your life. Or perhaps you’d rather write about strengths—list 50 of your biggest or least known accomplishments. If you’re writing a novel, create a life list for one or more of your characters.
2. Protest document. Maybe it’s because I grew up Lutheran, but I’ve always been intrigued by Martin Luther’s The 95 theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, his protest document against the church. Luther’s act of posting the 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany ignited the Protestant Reformation. No doubt you or one of your characters has something or someone to protest? Write it, post it—and see what happens next.
3. Policies and Procedures. Many of my colleagues earn their incomes writing technical documents, like policy and procedure manuals. I’ve often wondered if there are individuals who write policy and procedure manuals for their homes or families. (It sure would save a lot of time if I could answer the questions my children ask with, “Check the manual!”) If you’re not sure what to write next and are itching for some fun, write a policy or procedure document for an event or activity in your life.
4. Lab Report. I envy scientists, with their experiments and data and formats for reporting the information. It all seems so concrete. Sometimes I fantasize about creating a hypothesis and running an experiment about why my daughter leaves her dirty socks all over the house. What do you need to track in your life? Does one of your characters have a hypothesis they need to test out? Can you or they create an experiment and then write up a lab report? For a lab report template, check online.
5. Tall Tale. I love tall tales because you can throw in elements that are wildly improbable and exaggerate just about everything, and it all seems to fit. When I am struggling to write a scene, sometimes writing it in a different genre—like a tall tale—can help me discover the essential elements of the scene. Then, I can go back to the beginning and write the scene in the genre I am working in. When I’m thinking about my own life, a tall tale can help me laugh and gain perspective.
Your turn: What writing formats have helped you break through blocks and write more?
Note: A version of this tip appeared at the #amwriting blog a few years ago.