In class, I give each student a note card and ask them to write down three ingredients for a short story. I don’t give them a lot of time, just a minute or two. I tell them to go with the first things that come to mind, to not worry about making sense or getting too crazy. In fact: don’t make sense, get a little crazy.
Afterwards, I collect all the note cards, shuffle them, and have each student draw a card that is not their own. Upon seeing their ingredients, some will shout with joy. Others will groan. When they share their ingredients with each other, there will be envy and commiseration, depending. Regardless their assignment is to write a story that uses all three of these ingredients as seamlessly as possible.
I liken this exercise to the “mystery box challenge” (thanks, MASTER CHEF!) of short story writing. The idea is to use “a little or a lot” (thanks, CHOPPED!) of the ingredients and to make each ingredient feel as organic as possible. In the best examples of this exercise, the “ingredients” don’t jump out as random, wacky details, but feel essential and inevitable.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the students who get an “easy” list, i.e. ingredients that all fit together in an obvious way (pirate, shark, rowboat), tend to produce the less interesting exercises. It becomes tempting to fall back on the obvious; the imagination isn’t sufficiently pushed. Usually the most exciting stories come from the students gifted with the more esoteric lists (piranhas, Bury Reynolds, Abu Dhabi), who get put in a box so kooky they have no choice but to think outside it.
I first tried this exercise on a whim, in an attempt to engage a class of high school seniors who had fallen into a bit of a mid-semester slump. For many of these students, their “ingredients” stories were among the best work they produced all semester. This exercise is now one of my all-time faves.