A Moment of Explosive Change

choice for writer unboxedYears ago, I participated in a sub-one-act play writing competition, where the name of the game was to generate real drama, story and characters within a run-time of no more than ten minutes. I’ll spare you the suspense – I didn’t win, although if you ask me The Unbearable Lightness of Being Mr. Wacky was some kind of wonderful, but whatever. The guidelines they gave for the contest were brief but effective: Look for a moment of explosive change. Don’t worry about before, don’t worry about after, just drop your characters into the middle of something really earth-shattering in their lives and explore what happens there.

I never was much of a playwright, but I sure knew a great creative tool when I saw one, and I have since often taught from this one. The first time I used it as a teacher was in, of all places, a California state prison, where I needed an exercise that could be done in one page, right there in the room, without fear of failure.

I made one refinement to the exercise. I told my student-felons not just to look for a moment of explosive change but also to look for the choice that drove the change. Wow, did that open some doors .One guy wrote about hiding in a Dumpster with a gun in one hand and a bag of stolen cash in the other.

One guy wrote about hiding in a Dumpster with a gun in one hand and a bag of stolen cash in the other.

As the cops closed in, he faced the choice of which hand do I lead with? Not just an interesting choice, a life-and-death one.

Now, most of us (I’m going to hazard a guess and say all of us) are not in prison at this moment. We’ve probably never had to face the choice between hard time and a hail of bullets. But we have had to make interesting choices – often hard choices – under pressure. And of course we want our characters to do this all the time. Yet we get bogged down; we do. We get caught up in motivation, detail, logistics, timing (grammar, spelling, punctuation) (ridiculous overuse of parentheticals), and we accept this with the (moderately) good grace of working writers. We knew the job was dangerous when we took it.

Every now and then, though, it’s nice to cleanse the palate. It’s nice to have a writing challenge that’s not hard, and is easy. It’s nice, above all, to experience success on the page, even when there’s not much at stake and even when it’s not part of the “big” projects we’re working on. When I need that kind of break, I still turn to this exercise. I give myself ten minutes and one page, and I set myself the goal of setting a character down right in the middle of some big pickle (a physical or emotional one) and seeing if I can drive her to a real choice about something, anything, before I reach the end of the page. It’s a fun and enlightening exercise, and a really good way to jump-start my creativity when, as we all do, I’m having “just one of those days.”

Can I recommend this exercise to you? If I were your teacher (or warden or otherwise the boss of you) I wouldn’t just recommend it, I’d assign it. Here and now, though, all I can do is invite you to assign it to yourself. Like, now. Right now. Drop what you’re doing and write a one-page description of a moment of explosive change. Connect it to a choice if you can. It can be something from your life or something from your existing body of work or something from the far reaches of your imagination. Don’t worry about whether you do a “good” job or not. It’s a ten-minute writing exercise; there couldn’t be less at stake.

I think you’ll have fun. I hope you’ll have fun. If you do have fun, it’s probably because the exercise plays to the playful side of the writing experience, that sense of writing as an intriguing adventure which got us all hooked in the first place. If you don’t have fun, it may be that you let your expectations get in the way of your process. Let those go. No one’s looking over your shoulder. No one will care what you put on the page.

I like to think that I made a difference for those gentlemen in orange jumpsuits. I like to think that I gave them an easy and instantly gratifying way to record the truth of their experience. At minimum I gave them something to do. For you I have higher aspirations: I want to impact your practice by giving you a new tool you can turn to whenever your writing process needs refreshing. So spend ten minutes. Waste a page. Explore a moment of explosive change. I bet you’ll be delighted by what you discover. “You must be 100 percent satisfied or your money cheerfully retained.”

This “moment of explosive change” exercise is just one of the many ways I can think of to energize the creative process. What are your go-to strategies for getting the wheels spinning when the spinning of the wheels has stopped?


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!


  1. says

    John, you present this as a stand-alone exercise and it is indeed a very cool one, especially with the element of identifying choice. However, as I sit editing my novel (and yes, practicing avoidance by coming over here), your post spoke to me on a different level.

    Making sure we recognize critical change and its accompanying prior choice, and their role in the narrative is critical in keeping a story alive. You have inspired me to look at my problematic scene with another perspective. Thanks!

  2. says

    What a fantastic exercise, John. I must bring this into my writers’ group. My brain is already swimming with possibilities. Well done, John!

  3. says

    Thank you for this post, John. What I’m going to do is use this on the novel I’m currently revising with regard to explosive and life-altering changes and decisions. This book’s been a bit of a challenge and your ideas will help.
    Thank you.

  4. says

    The exercise works just as well for a tiny internal explosion that changes the world completely from one state before to another after.

    Situation to huge risk to explosive consequences to entirely different situation – all in a tiny space.

    I did one this morning – I like those!

    Some people like to go to a new place when they do exercises. I prefer to stay exactly where I am – and see how the idea can be used.

  5. says

    What I like about an exercise like this is that it forces me to jump right into the scene. Like the novel, a scene can have too much back story as well. This cuts out all the un-interesting parts and gets right to the meat. As for other writing prompts, I like James Scott Bell’s suggestion to put something unexpected in every scene. I look at my scene and ask what is the most unexpected thing that can happen here. After I eliminate the zombies and asteroids, I whittle it down to something that will work. Great post. Thanks!

    • says

      Per your approach, Ron, I’ve boiled that big idea down to a trivial one-liner (like I do): “Storytelling is easy — just never have anything happen as planned.” -jv

  6. says

    ‘Spend ten minutes…Explore a moment of explosive change.’ What a wonderful way to kick-start a story.
    Over the years, I’ve developed many useful tools to make my muse dance. But when her feet are stuck in concrete, my no fail cure-all is Stephen King. There’s something about reading–or listening to my audiobook edition of On Writing–that frees my muse.

  7. says

    Great prompt, a keeper.

    Funny you should mention prisons. Just yesterday I drove up to the visitors’ parking lot of a state correctional institution in Pennsylvania. (True.) I was’t visiting just needed to see the place for reasons of my own.

    Inside those high, stained walls are a couple of hundred guys who’ve experienced moments of explosive change–and their consequences. I saw a car park and a young mom step out with two little kids, heading for the visitors’ entrance. That hurt.

    So maybe there are some related exercises, like write the moment when things might have gone differently but didn’t, or the picture that paints the most painful regret.

    You’re on to something here.

  8. says

    Hi, John.

    Great timing! I’ve been stuck for a few days on my novel. Reading your post allowed me to realize why–I’ve been trying too hard to build up to a choice for the character and to justify why that choice matters to the character and his story. One of the things that’s been hanging me up is my limited time for writing. I didn’t want to have to flesh out a whole story line only to see it flop. I’m going to try your idea a few times with several different choices–at ten minutes each that is manageable!