Fuel for Writing: Stealing the Hat.
Most writers have heard the old formula when it comes to fiction.
Put your character up a tree, throw a bunch of rocks at him, and then get him out of the tree.
How succinct and clever. And void of creativity.
All right, I know I am not being totally fair. The message behind this metaphor is legitimate in most cases. It’s a quaint yet straightforward way of informing writers (especially new ones), that something must be at risk in a story. Something has to be solved, or pursued. You must have someone in an understandable predicament at the center of the narrative. All of this is useful advice, and it’s not my intention to belittle it.
Yet be honest. Isn’t it a bit obtuse? If one new to writing fiction isn’t thinking metaphorically, does the old “dude in a tree” thing ignite any immediate realization as to how to proceed? I say no.
I prefer the lesser known advice to steal someone’s hat.
Start with a character wearing his favorite hat. Then within the first paragraph, take the hat away from them somehow. Have him try to get the hat back. Make sure he fails three times for three different reasons. Then (for the sake of the exercise) make sure in the end, he has the hat back.
Now we have both a metaphor and a prompt, whereas the tree/rocks thing is just metaphor. Okay, one could indeed write a story that was literally about a guy in a tree getting pelted with rocks. But that is quite limiting, if one opts to avoid being surreal. A person losing a hat and getting it back both serves as a reminder of the author’s job, as well as a tangible perimeter within which an tentative author can proceed in unlimited ways to tell a story.
It’s not about hats, of course. The hat is just the mcguffin. The point here is merely to make use of something that both educates the writer and invites him to create, all at the same time. Something that an author can relate to no matter how many times they go back to it. (One reason something as universal and flexible as a hat works so well here.)
Now, this isn’t the most creative, mind-bending prompt you are going to see. That is part of its effectiveness, however. Fiction can be daunting, even for seasoned writers. It can be down right paralyzing for new writers. And while the trippy prompts with a dozen requirements do serve a purpose and can be a lot of fun to work on, the clean simplicity of “stealing the hat” may be of more use when the goal is to just get the basic gears turning.
And don’t think it’s just for new writers. No matter how experienced a writer is, sometimes they need to just practice the mechanics without trying to get fancy. Much like simulated games thrown by baseball pitchers, “stealing the hat” isn’t the real deal. A huge market for stories about losing hats is not likely to materialize. But within the privacy of your own writing space, you go through all of the most important steps of your craft when you do this.
Of course unlike throwing a simulated game, something you create while “stealing the hat” may indeed lead to something great in its own right.