Contestants, the four ingredients you must use to create a dessert for our judges tonight are wild ginger, dandelions, miniature marshmallows, and dehydrated seaweed. You have 30 minutes to complete your task.
We’ve all succumbed to watching the occasional reality TV competition—but with a little innovative thinking, the pleasure doesn’t have to be a guilty one. I’ve discovered that shows such as “Top Chef,” “Project Runway” and “America’s Next Top Model” are not only entertaining, but they can actually teach us writers a thing or two. In fact, they’re bubbling over with unique ideas that can easily be refashioned into exercises that challenge and inspire our writing.
So set aside 30 minutes, choose one of the following exercises and, as Tim Gunn from “Project Runway” would say, “Make it work!”
Challenges for Individual Writers
Incorporate unusual elements. Contestants on competitive cooking, fashion, and design shows often have to put together a meal, outfit, or room using items from outside their usual repertoire—for example, making a ball gown from the spare parts of a car. Similarly, you can stretch yourself beyond the familiar with these three quick exercises:
- Have someone randomly choose four incongruous elements for you to combine in a single piece. Or, use mine: lighthouse, rabbits, rosebush, and ice skates. Go!
- Write a short piece blending two drastically different genres, such as fantasy and self-help, or science fiction and haiku.
- Most of us describe the world in the way that we see and hear it. Write from the perspective of taste, smell, and feel instead, skipping all the usual visual and auditory imagery.
Redesign an existing product. TV competitors are frequently asked to take longtime staples (classic furniture, traditional uniforms, antiquated recipes, etc.) and make them modern. In the same spirit, choose a chapter, short story, article, or poem written before 1970 and revise it for audiences today. Get caught up in the delight of updating a few pages of Fun With Dick and Jane, How to Win Friends and Influence People, or The Raven for the texting, tweeting, Lady Gaga generation. It’s a great reminder of how important it is to have your readers in mind as you write.
Write for an unusual client. On one episode of “Project Runway,” contestants had to fashion red-carpet-worthy gowns for Miss Piggy. On “Hell’s Kitchen,” competing gourmet chefs had to please a restaurant full of children. Exercises like these force you to push your creative boundaries. With that in mind: Pick a reader who does not reflect your usual demographic—for example, a teenager who loves zombies, a rock ’n’ roll groupie, a drag queen—and brainstorm ideas for material that your new client would enjoy reading. Then set a timer and write. What have you learned about your own work? Are you underestimating who your potential readers might be?
Get inspired on a field trip. Museums, gardens, movies and city skylines have all provided inspiration for reality TV challenges. Your assignment: Go on an outing to any artistic venue. Then, when you return home, write not about the inspiration you found on the field trip, but from the inspiration. If you want to go one step further, write while you’re actually out and about. A change of scenery may be just the thing you need to get you thinking in new directions.
Challenges for Writing Groups
Make a collection. Some of the most popular challenge-based shows emphasize teamwork: Chefs are tossed together to create different components of a meal, while multiple designers are tasked with producing a unified line of clothes. For this exercise, spend 30 minutes brainstorming as a group to agree on a theme, character, setting, or emotional tone for a collection of writing. Each of you then has another 30 minutes to complete your contribution. At the end of the exercise, read all of the pieces back to back to see if you have achieved your goals of unity and seamlessness.
Design for another writer. Reality contestants such as fashion designers are often tasked with creating for one another. You can do the same by taking on another writer’s work-in-progress for 30 minutes while he or she does the same for you. Not only will you get experience in a different genre or topic, but seeing how someone else approaches your own project may give you a perspective you haven’t considered before.
Lose your equipment. Contestants on reality TV competitions are commonly forced to bake, decorate or create without the proper tools. Rather than locking up your keyboard in a drawer, the real writing challenge is to take away your words. This exercise, to be done in teams of three, prohibits one writer from using adverbs, one from using adjectives, and a third from using verbs. The three of you must complete a piece of writing together within the time limit by relying on one another to choose the missing parts of speech. Consider this Mad Libs gone wild! And you thought all that TV was just a waste of time. Tune in and you may find new ideas for zigging when you usually zag—and, who knows, you may just become America’s Next Top Writer.