In an effort to actually do the writing exercises I’ve recommended here (and elsewhere), I’ve already done my list of titles, writing to an image, sort of a failure on a dialog exercise, and writing to a random story prompt. Over the weekend, though, I added to my list of behavior prompts the category WRITING EXERCISE. Inspired by my online Writer’s Digest tutorial Six Strategies for Breaking Through Writer’s Blockthis prompt will pop up on my calendar and get me working through some of these exercises. The category asks for an additional roll on the following subtable*:

  1. List of 10 murder methods
  2. List of 10 character names
  3. List of 10 writing prompts
  4. List of 10 plot points
  5. List of 10 interesting locations
  6. List of 10 words you never use
  7. Write to a prompt
  8. Write to a random image

Having done the last two, let’s try all of the first six today…


List of 10 murder methods

This is, of course, taken from Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, which we use in my online Pulp Fiction Workshop (starting up again in a couple days, by the way).

  1. Crushes his victims in a commercial trash compactor.
  2. Lures her victims into an airlock then blows them into space.
  3. Injects his victims with a bioengineered virus that seems to be a different fatal disease in each victim.
  4. A gun that acts as a sort of EMP (electromagnetic pulse) tuned to the human brain.
  5. A giant fish swallows people but doesn’t digest them—it feeds on the heat energy generated by their efforts to escape.
  6. Plants make you want to kill yourself. (Wait, no… that’s a terrible idea.)
  7. A poison that mimics an allergic reaction.
  8. Slowly “gaslight” an innocent person until he kills your intended victim himself.
  9. A psychically controlled swarm of bees.
  10. A teleporting spike that can simply appear inside your intended victim, killing him, then it teleports back to a remote location leaving no trace.


List of 10 character names

Today, let’s go with names for characters from a far-future space opera science fiction story.

  1. Vexx
  2. Captain Exten
  3. Gurrax
  4. Nillarra
  5. Ouron
  6. Gavull
  7. Pieceworker Ten
  8. Epeen
  9. Jimblest
  10. Towler

I made these up right off the top of my head, but should Google them before I use them for anything. Chances are at least one of them shows up in a book, movie, or video game. I tried Nillarra and got a musician named Nil Lara, but no exact matches, so I’m good to go on that one, at least.


List of 10 writing prompts

Keeping it in the Fantasy Author’s Handbook family, I’ll generate these using my post from a couple weeks ago: “The Five-Minute Story.”

  1. A remote piloted drone that the hero Captain Jenkins must destroy or risk the destruction of his homeworld and that Lord Frixx must possess at all costs so he can use it to blackmail his father into making him sole heir of the family estates.
  2. Silanna has to find a vial containing a virulent plague that was stolen from her laboratory before anyone finds out it’s missing, but her intern, Hellux, the one who stole it and sold it before he understood what it was, is trying to get it back first and cover his tracks.
  3. The Sacred Dagger of Vermivex has brought Goran nothing but misery, so he brings it to the Swamp Witches to be destroyed, but one of the witches has other plans for the demonic weapon.
  4. Intergalactic thief Teenia stole the little scout ship to escape the hellworld of Kleeveland one step ahead of its owner, Borb the Slugmaster, who’s eggs (unknown to Teenia) are stowed in the ship and are almost ready to hatch.
  5. The last bottle of Champagne in the galaxy is Mula’s father’s prized possession but has made him the target of every smuggler and crime boss in the galaxy. When he’s kidnapped and the kidnappers demand the bottle as ransom, how can Mula tell him she accidentally drank it?
  6. Captain Hatton immediately regrets agreeing to transport the slime weevil across settled space to the new game reserve, but he’s committed to making the delivery no matter how many big game hunters are fast on his trail.
  7. Linda never understood why people were so afraid of snakes until she started turning into one.
  8. When Sergeant James went AWOL and hid in a huge plastic box in a truck parked outside the base, how could he know the box would be loaded onto a remote-piloted cargo ship headed for Mars in advance of the first human mission to the Red Planet?
  9. Grax and Keebo never liked each other—in fact, they hate each other—and now they find they’re the last survivors on their starship, which is slowly losing air, and there’s only one spacesuit left aboard.
  10. The last man on Earth stumbles across the last woman on Earth, then discovers that the global cataclysm that killed everyone else was her fault.


List of 10 plot points

A plot point is, y’know, anything that happens.

  1. The main engines fail to fire.
  2. Swarms of rats begin to flood the streets and they seem to be whispering to each other.
  3. The missing crewman is finally found—in pieces in the food locker. They’ve been eating him for the last six weeks of the long flight to Titan.
  4. Every cellphone on Earth gets the same text message: It’ll all be over soon.
  5. The fingerprints on the murder weapon don’t match anyone on the starship’s crew manifest.
  6. The particles making up the ring around a Saturn-like gas giant turn out to be trillions of individual living creatures.
  7. The spinning space station begins to accelerate out of control, increasing the pull of artificial gravity to dangerous levels.
  8. The baby turns out to be a half-orc.
  9. A powerful ion storm suddenly blows in.
  10. A sniper destroys an important item with a long-range laser rifle.


List of 10 interesting locations

Places where a plot point might happen, a story might start or end, or otherwise be interesting to explore in our created-completely-on-the-fly space opera setting.

  1. A ruined cathedral on a distant planet.
  2. A fast-spinning asteroid.
  3. An abandoned space station.
  4. A haunted, derelict starship.
  5. A planet covered by a giant sentient fugal colony.
  6. An extradimensional laboratory in close orbit around the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy.
  7. The roof of a thousand-story skyscraper.
  8. A volcano lair—because how can you not have a volcano lair?
  9. The quiet, dusty streets of an abandoned Mars colony.
  10. In a space elevator, going up.


List of 10 words you never use

Then either consider using them, or be proud of yourself that you don’t and never will!

  1. Pussy
  2. Triggered
  3. Voluptuous
  4. Instantiated
  5. Libtard
  6. Towards
  7. Dove (as past tense of dive)
  8. Rightsizing
  9. Spooktacular
  10. Shart

Yeah, I’m not going to start using any of those.

You may have noticed that some of the items on all of the lists are obviously goofy, clearly here for comedic effect. But does that make them bad? Who says a space opera story can’t have a little humor in it? And what might start as a joke could, if treated seriously, make for a perfectly exciting and interesting drama. But in the end, the point of these exercises is to have fun while getting your creative juices flowing. If any one these things lead to an interesting story, this was a couple hours well spent.

Okay… your turn!


—Philip Athans


* Yes, I am a giant nerd who makes actual decisions in real life based on d20 and d8 die rolls. Got a problem with that? Roll 1d6:

  1. Take a long walk on a short pier.
  2. Yes, you can use a random number generator app.
  3. He who is without weird personality quirks can cast the first stone.
  4. Try it, you have at least a 1-3 chance on 1d8 of liking it!
  5. Do you really think your 401(k) is managed any better?
  6. No, I will not give you my lunch money.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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