Weekend Workout – Incidences

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Connie Willis and James Patrick Kelly read in conjunction with the Locus Awards this weekend. In the Q&A afterward they were talking about the bits of information we store in our heads as writers that breed and connect and eventually appear in our work. Not the big life and death things, but smaller moments, odd and funny bits that just hang out waiting for a home on the page.

I remember I wrote an short story that was inspired by a man writing the letters U.F.O. in the fog on a bus window. Another story was inspired by a hat I saw sitting on a bench.

This weekends (Re)Post is about writing from those small incidences.

Today while I was in a waiting room, a young child put a plastic stool up to the counter and stood up on it. One of the legs collapsed and he fell. He cried until his mother picked him up. The other day, I sat down on the bus and picked up the paper sitting in the seat to read it. An old lady behind me, with a thick German accent, said “You don’t want to read that, it’s for the gays.” She raised her eyebrows when I responded “I don’t mind” and the man behind her started laughing.

These are the kinds of small incidences that I tuck away in my mind to use later. These little tidbits are useful when bringing the depth of details to your work. That’s why I often have my students focus on these small moments instead of larger abstractions. I encourage my writing classes to find the smallest incidences possible in order to find the larger truths within them.

So, today I want you to begin SMALL.

Exercise #1

You’ll have to go outside for this one. (It’s kind of challenging to do this one inside your own home, but you can try it if you’d like.)

Wander around or sit and locate any “small incident.” Not between human beings, but between the grass and the trees, the clouds and the sun, the chipmunks, the neighbor’s cat, even the blades of grass. Pick something, the smallest “incident” you can and look at it politically.

For instance:
The clouds blocking out the sun.
One cat chasing another through a hole in the fence, guarding its territory.
A leaf falling from a tree and getting caught in the wind.

Using the incident as a start line, simply let it take you away. Start with the incident, describing the participants (in this case leaves and the wind), and then let it lead you somewhere. Time yourself for 7-10 minutes (may be done in poetry or prose).


The leaf, now dead, now over, tumbles down, turns, flits, too weak to direct itself. Its job description simple, the distance equal to the third act in its performance. Caught off guard in the wind it blows off course, if such a course exists. If such a path could be bought and sold. Now helpless, now bullied, it gives in to the breeze and crashes end over end in the street, passing parked cars and fences, the house being demolished and the house being built. In the direction of the park, now rolling faster… ETC.

Exercise #2

This one is done in a public space (again, if possible), on a bus, in a cafe, in the park. This time, note the people interacting. Note any small incidence that involves power, manipulation, deceit. Something a little “under the surface” would be good, or if an emotion is evoked. Using the same technique as above, write for 7-10 minutes on this small incident.


Sitting side-by-side, two gangly, acne-faced teenagers with long uncombed hair and ratty baseball caps. One says they are looking for Sarah, for Sarah’s school. He points to a bus stop and says “that’s Sarah’s stop.” His smaller friend tells him he’s retarded. The larger boy says “I was born in 200 log cabins.” His smaller friends says “How is that possible, unless you were born in parts and assembled later?” The bigger boy thinks this is funny, he laughs and says “cool.” They pick up a drum beat, singing loudly about tattoos and skateboard stores. The Asian Ladies shift their grocery bags and frown. Big boy wants a free skateboard. Wants to skip school and go to the store…. ETC.

Exercise #3 – Putting it all together!

Now, using a character from a story (novel, screenplay, etc) on which you are currently working, pick one (or both!) of the exercises above and put your character inside the “incident.” Make her a part of it. You can try it twice with each incident or use them together if you’d like. Write a SCENE, this time, with action and dialogue.


Polly walked through the scattered leaves. The leaves William had raked into great piles the morning before. The wind had taken no time to mock his work. It wouldn’t have bothered her if he had gotten angry about the leaves, flying fiercely about the neighborhood. He had simply laughed and shrugged. So typically Bill. She used to like that he took things so lightly, that he could let the days and months and seasons go by… ETC.

You may be surprised by where you go in this scene and may end up using it in your final manuscript.

Have a great weekend!


  1. 4amWriter
    Jun 17, 2012

    Danika, I’m bubbling over with excitement and must comment before reading your entire post–but I know James Patrick Kelly! He lives in NH and facilitates Writer’s Night Out at a local restaurant. I have taken one of his workshops through the New Hampshire Writer’s Project. He also has personally helped me with my query when I first started pitching my novel. He is a great guy.

    What a truly small world.

    • Well, lucky you! I thoroughly enjoyed him. He read the first part of his sci-fi detective story, which is now on his podcast in its entirety. I’m going to have to listen to the rest to find out what happens.

  2. 4amWriter
    Jun 17, 2012

    Back again. Great post. I love starting small. Generally, that’s how I construct my scenes, from a small seemingly inconsequential event or detail, then develop them. I have found that the smallest moments are the most meaningful or symbolic.

  3. That’s how I generally write poems, but it’s more challenging with speculative fiction. But I still think in small relationships and subtleties when dealing with my characters. And small moments they have on my behalf.

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