A Paint-by-Numbers Guide to Curing Writers' Block

Struggling with writers’ block?

Lists can help us get specific, detailed, honest, outrageous, silly, wild, uncontrolled, irreverent.  They can help us break out of narrative habits and our tendencies to say no to the weird and unexpected. This is an exercise inspired by my work as a core member of Project: Project, an ensemble theatre company, which recently produced Shiver: A Fairytale of Anxious Proportions in June. Hopefully, it will help you find something unique, intriguing, something that feels right, something that feels wrong.  Feel free to adapt this technique as necessary to the project you’ve been feeling you “should” be working on, and see how, suddenly, all the possibilities are reanimated.


Try making six lists.

Six super fast no-idea-is-bad brainstorming lists.

The first list is 5 random numbers between 5-50.

i.e. 7, 13, 21, 28, 49.

Scribble as fast as you can, try not to think, just write the first things that pop into your head.

New list: 7 things you did this week that didn’t suck.

The sunset walk with your dog, running in the rain, laughing with a friend, kissing your kids goodnight.

When you’re done making the list, pick one.

Your main character is doing this thing you picked.

Now, 13 ways it could go wrong.  Horribly wrong.

Dog’s leash breaks and she runs away, acid rain melts your skin, friend says they want to be more than friends, kid throws up on you and it goes up your nose.

Get super specific.

Pick one.

Now, 21 responses your character could have to that thing going horribly wrong.

Call mom, cry, yell and scream, knock on a neighbors door for help.

Pick one.

Now, 28 unexpected twists.

Pick one.

Now, 49 morals to your story.

Pick one.

Now write your flash story, short play, narrative poem or what have you with all the things you picked as your guide.


Ideas are not sacred, they are as abundant as the air we breathe. All the possibilities can become overwhelming. All you need to do is pick one breath to breathe in, and let it flow through you for a while. 


Editor's note: For more expert guidance and advice from playwright Nina Morrison, check out her Playwriting Intensive at Grub this summer!  


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About the Author

Nina Louise Morrison is a Boston-based playwright, director and teacher with an MFA from Columbia University. She is a 2017 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellow, Huntington Theatre Company Playwriting Fellow, winner of the 2016 Boston Project commission at Speakeasy Stage Company, a Company One Affiliate Playwright, a core member of the devising company Project: Project, and a member of Rhombus writers. Her plays have been workshopped, read, and produced by Company One, Fresh Ink Theatre, Huntington Theatre Company, 20% Theatre Company, Kitchen Theatre Company, Saltbox Theatre, Open Theatre Project, Our Voices, WOW Café, SLAM Boston, Wax Wings, Bostonia Bohemia, and the Boston One Minute Play Festival.  She was a semi-finalist for the 2014 National Playwrights Conference and she is the recipient of a Richard Rodgers Fellowship and a Shubert Foundation grant. Before moving to Boston, Nina was the Senior Program Associate at The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage's Philadelphia Theater Initiative. She also trained as an actor at the National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, the New Actors Workshop, and received her BA from Oberlin College.  She currently teaches playwriting and screenwriting at Grub Street and the University of New Hampshire.

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