Challenge,  On Writing

Fantastic Writing Advice by Keith Johnstone

Maybe Worth Really Looking At…

I found it amazing. This advice came from a blog post Johnstone did back in 2020. Sadly, since that time he has done very few. He is 87 years of age and no longer teaching as far as I can tell as well. But he is an actor, a writer, and is known as one of the pioneers of improvisational theater. In essence, he is amazing.

One of his many thoughts in this random blog post of misc. stuff was called Five Ideas. You can read the entire post here…

I was sent this part of the post and think it is amazing. Thanks, Paul.

Here it is by Keith Johnstone… Give this one some thought, folks. It might help you with critical voice issues as he says… And so much more.


At age twelve I thought that it was important for writers to be able to create similes and metaphors, so I invented a game that I’ll share with you. I’m very bad at it, but it may have altered me; people are surprised that I can so quickly replace one idea by another, that I’m not attached to my ideas: this game may be responsible.

Choose something, anything, and find a phrase to describe it. For example, ‘a dog’; a dog could be ‘a mouth on four legs’. It’s a description that could apply to many animals, but we’re not deciding good or bad, we’re just trying to get an underused part of the mind to operate. And, anyway, ‘a mouth on four legs’ might be exactly how you saw a dog that was leaping up to bite you.

That’s not the game. The actual game demands that you find five ways to describe something. They don’t have to be ‘right’, or ‘clever’, ‘or witty’ but you’re not allowed to say that you can’t think of anything. As a game for two people, you lose when you can’t think of anything, but when you play it solo you’re not allowed to lose – this forces you to ‘lower your standards’. (In improvisation there are no good or bad ideas: a good idea is one that you take somewhere; a bad idea is one that you don’t.)

Other people change the game. They lower the number of descriptions demanded from five to two – but then it’s hardly worth playing. Supplying five ideas is cruel (at least it is for me) but it forces bad ideas out of your subconscious – and that’s a different process. It helps you to by-pass the crippling self-censorship that demands only ‘good ideas’.

I’ll think of five descriptions for a dog: ‘your heart medicine’, ‘the thing that has to love you’, ‘your furry philosopher’,’ the member of the family,’ the guardian of the house’. My mind freezes here, but I’ll keep going by lowering my standards: ‘my bone cruncher’, ‘my rabbiter’, ‘the only creature I can trust’, ‘God spelt backwards’, ’the tyrant that makes me go for walks’. I could try for twenty, but I might start screaming. The point is that my mind wants me to do well, so it protects me from ‘bad ideas’ by insisting that it can’t think of ideas of any kind, and yet the suggestions I get when I ‘lower my standards’ may be better than the previous ones.

I’ll try ‘autumn leaves’: ‘memento mori’s from the trees’, ‘panicking crowds’ (as the wind blows them across the road), ‘a billion announcements of the death of Summer’, ‘the tears of the trees’, ‘nature’s dandruff’, ‘like walking through cornflakes’.

A version that you can play each time that you look through a newspaper involves covering the last ‘cell’ of a strip-cartoon and writing down five possible endings. I usually feel that I’ve failed miserably, only to find that I’ve had the same idea as the cartoonist, or a better one.

I realize that although I’ve never considered myself an expert of this game, no one else is even playing it. And if you play it all your life – as I have – you’ll certainly be less afraid of ideas. I’m proud of my twelve year old self for insisting on five ideas; where did I get the courage?

Joseph Conrad might have been a good player. Someone asked him to describe a woman entering a hotel bar: he said something like: “An exquisite woman with a speck of dirt on one nostril.” (But could he have done it four more times?)


  • JM6

    “daily blog”
    1. public diary
    2. practice writing
    3. external storage device for my thoughts
    4. a peek into my soul
    5. that thing Dean Wesley Smith has done for years

    That actually WAS tougher than I thought. Thanks for sharing this.

    • dwsmith

      LOL… And yeah getting to three is pretty easy. Four gets tough, five can really push doors in your mind. Great fun. Thought you all would like it. I did know improv people do this sort of thing all the time. Because this started back in the early days. Actually a lot of improve people keep the game going until someone misses. That gets wild.

  • Catherine

    Oh, this is delightful!

    The ‘bad’ ideas were so unique, so specific to the opinions and world view of the writer. They make me think of glimpses into the writer’s minds I’ve seen in books that just made me adore them. Pfah on perfect writing – this stuff is what makes reading fun.

  • Alex Scott

    I guess this is why I sometimes come up with better descriptions while cycling back. It kind of reminds me of that old game on Who’s Line Is It Anyway where the actors will start a scene, and whenever a bell rings or someone says “Change,” the last actor to speak has to change what they just said. And they might have to do it multiple times for one line. I managed to find an example on YouTube:

    I’ve found that sometimes improv games can also make for good writing exercises–heck, I think I’ve mentioned it before, but the first time I did a weekly story challenge, I came up with half the story ideas using the generator at

    • dwsmith

      Yup, both of those are great. Anything to just trigger the story to start and have fun. I always kind of feel sad for those poor souls who think you have to come up with an idea ahead of time for a story before you can write. Much more fun to just improvise and make it up as you go, and do the same as you cycle. Check that link, folks. Thanks, Alex.

      • Alex Scott

        It for especially freeing once I realized the improv prompt didn’t have to dictate the whole story. I had one where the relationship was something like “Lost child/911 operator,” and the operator only stuck around for the first paragraph, then the rest of it was about fairie children.

  • Laura E

    What an inventive idea for defeating self-censorship (aka the critical voice). I’m definitely going to practice this.

  • Emilia Pulliainen

    I decided to try this with my old dog Nikki. She was a coton de tulear, a very fluffy and small white dog. Here’s what I came up with:

    1. unstoppable force of fluff
    2. three black buttons on white fluff
    3. rug with opinions
    4. A hungry presence in the corner of one’s awareness
    5. The barking doorbell enhancer

    Number four is my favorite, describes her well. I have to do this again, it was fun.

    • dwsmith

      And #3, 4, and 5 would be great descriptions with a voice character. That’s how you do depth.

      Three very different characters. Just thought I would point that out.

  • Cora

    Thanks for the reminder Dean. This was a complete blast from the past for me. We played this game in public school English classes. I think I really lucked out with English teachers over the years.

  • Kat

    This is the best game! Thanks for posting this, Dean. What fun. I love how casually you can play this, too, just having fun, whenever it occurs to you. The same way to approach story.

  • Britt Malka

    I love this game. Absolutely amazing. I’ve read all the comments here as well and that was a joy.

    This one by Keith Johnstone made me laugh: “’the tyrant that makes me go for walks.”

  • Kate+Pavelle

    Thank you, this is fabulous! I’ll rope people into playing it as a dinner table game, or while we travel by car. Just casual, no pressure. This will be fun!

  • Nathan Haines

    Now the amazing thing here is that I read the blog excerpt while thinking about improv and the “yes and” rule and how one improvised line doesn’t have to be great, because if it can be built on top of with the improvised response, it can lead to something great.

    The important thing is to get the line out there.

    But then I read “like walking through cornflakes” and it was amazing. Suddenly, I was 6 and walking to school in the crisp orange leaves under the canopy of trees, stomping fallen leaves for the crunch they made on the sidewalk my grandfather had paved 20 years prior. Suddenly I was 8, at a different school, crawling around trees of the grass area, smelling the incredible smell of whatever those trees were, finding the pods that could be stomped on for a pop or torn apart to smell even more like the trees (and the smell would linger on your hands back into the classroom), and finding the fuzzy orange and black striped caterpillers we liked to pick up and examine closely and pet while they crawled along our outstretched fingers like a tree branch. We were always gentle with those. And the maps I used to draw of the playground area, making sure to mark where the best trees were for relaxing or hiding.

    Just a simple sentence that immediately and vividly brought back decades-old memories that I hadn’t even thought of in years and years. Actually, I was a little sorry to break myself from the daydream and keep reading.

    Not bad for the result of “lowering one’s standards” just a bit. But a brilliant illustration of the concept. And an interesting game to play that I immediately recognized the value of. Now to read the entire full original post.