Spitballing for Fun and Profit

June 7, 2011

A while back, I was invited to contribute an essay and exercise for a book on writing mysteries. I wrote the piece, but ultimately retrieved it from the book’s editor because of a disagreement over terms. So I thought it would be fun to put it here instead.

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In his books on screenwriting, William Goldman (author of the scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princes Bride, and Misery, among others) refers to spitballing as a way to improve a script. It’s a form of brainstorming where you throw out random ideas and see what sticks. Though I don’t write screenplays, I’ve found that spitballing works just as well for revising novels and short stories.

A couple of years ago, I was writing a mystery story where I already had the plot (a teenager accuses another kid of breaking a school tradition), a setting (a high school), a protagonist (a teacher fresh out of college), and the twist to provide the reveal (I’m not telling you that!). I liked the idea, but every time I sat down to write the story, I got bored. Now, if the writer is bored, it’s a pretty good sign that the reader is going to be even more bored–obviously something was wrong.

So I tried spitballing, which is to say I started changing elements at random. First I tried moving the setting to a college or a big city high school or a futuristic high school. None of those worked with the other elements. Now I really liked the plot, and I needed the twist to go with, so all that left to play with was protagonist. Sure enough, she was the boring part.

I tried making her older, but that destroyed a sub-plot of her feeling intimidated by the school’s principal. Then I made her male, but that didn’t do anything. Finally, I made her a student instead of a teacher, and the plot structure was stronger and the emotional payoff was higher. Moreover, I could hear the character’s voice, which is key for me. From that point on, “Kangaroo Court” was a pleasure to write, and it sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

That’s why I use spitballing.

It’s worked for me time and time again. It can be as simple as changing a gender. A teenaged werewolf was boring when she was a girl conflicted about turning furry every month, but great fun as a boy who loved being the biggest monster on the block (“Keeping Watch Over His Flock” in Wolfsbane and Mistletoe). An earnest young zombie raiser didn’t work for one story, and neither did the old crotchety one, but when I made her less earnest and more snarky, the pieces came together (“In Brightest Day” in Home Improvement: Undead Edition).

Now the examples I’ve given are all dealing with characters, because that tends to be the place where spitballing really works for me, but the technique works just as well with changing other aspects.

The thing to remember about spitballing is to let yourself go wild. Pick the craziest settings you can think of, the quirkiest characters, the most outrageous voices. Not only will you come up with ideas that had never occurred to you before, but in rejecting some of those ideas, you’ll discover which parts of a story are the most important to you.

Exercise

  1. Pick a story or novel that just isn’t working.
  2. Write down the key elements of the piece: setting, protagonist, time frame, reveal, and so on.
  3. Decide which ones can be changed. (Obviously if you’re writing something in a series or to specific requirements, you won’t have quite as much freedom to play around.)
  4. Pick one of those spitball targets, and go crazy. For a character, try switching the gender, age, race, personality, hobbies, even the name. For a setting, change from historical to present, present to futuristic, city to country, small town to Navy base, college to nursery school, office to fast food restaurant.
  5. Now imagine the ripple of changes that would result from that change.  Would the resulting story be better?  Would it have more pizzazz, stronger suspense, or a more powerful emotional punch?
  6. If the answer is an enthusiastic YES!, go ahead and revise your story.  If not, pick another aspect and start spitballing again.
  7. Repeat until you’ve got a story you’re going to enjoy writing, and that the rest of us are going to enjoy reading.
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