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2021: Celebrating The Writers' Greenhouse
10 YEAR anniversary!

Friday, 27 November 2020

Weekly writing prompt: List of deaths


List: Deaths

In the run-up to the online Imaginary Worlds course in February, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend, to carry you through the winter – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, start inventing, get your pen moving, and have fun!

This week's prompt is a list exercise: a list of deaths. All the ways that people could die, either in general or in your story's world specifically.

This might seem a gloomy exercise, especially in the middle of a pandemic, but once you get past the initial few, it quickly becomes fascinating and yes, even funny, as you run out of more likely deaths and head into the realms of the bizarre.

Why deaths? First, everyone does die, eventually, so even if you don't kill off any characters, people in their back stories will have died. Second, death and danger are vital sources of peril and narrative tension in stories. And third, and most importantly, the ways people die tell you an enormous amount about the time and the world.

Take Twitter's Medieval Death Bot, for example. It tweets real deaths from medieval coroners' rolls between 1200 and 1500, and the results are bizarre and illuminating. A surprising number of people seem to have got drunk, fallen into a ditch, and died of that. One person fell asleep making bread and butter and stabbed himelf to death in the process. Sometimes somebody got hit over the head with a staff, and the cost of the staff is carefully recorded. A surprising number of people are killed by clerks. I'm always killed by clerks. (If you tweet at it, it'll reply with a death for you.) Here's my writer twitter-handle, being killed by clerks again. Why are clerks so dangerous? One of the main coroners' rolls it's using is from Oxford, students were called clerks, and the dates cover some of the worst town-vs-gown riots. You can scroll through its fascinating assortment of deaths here. And if you're in any doubt about people dying in bizarre and informative ways, that snapshot of the medieval world should cure that!

So: get your notebook ready, set a timer for ten minutes, and start writing all the ways people could die in your world or your story.

If you'd like to find out more about the Imaginary Worlds course this February, you can read about it and book here. I'll be posting writing prompts each week, so if you want them delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to the blog here:

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