[Writing Tips] The Police Blotter Exercise

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I was poking the fire in the wood stove the other night, and my wife says, "Don't set your beard on fire." One thing led to another and we played with writing it up as a police report for a while. I think my favorite permutation of that exercise was:
Domestic disturbance. Husband pulled from wood stove, extinguished beard. Wife arrested.
"Just the facts, ma'am."
Bang on.
And this got me thinking: Can the brevity of a police report or headline help us focus on the core story? What happens when you strip out all the niggly details and side plots, and limit yourself to a dozen or so words to describe the story?

I've taken to calling this the Police Blotter Exercise.

You could give Lord of the Rings the police blotter treatment and get something like this:
Malicious destruction. Two short gentlemen destroyed ring that caused self-doubt, wars, betrayal.
Or A Song of Ice and Fire:
Domestic disturbance. Warring kings ignore impending supernatural invasion. Winter is coming. Everyone dies.
Or Ender's Game:
War crimes. Guilty child prodigy masters fleet game, destroys alien race, saves humanity. 
Found at Soul and Sweet Tea.
The Rules
Describe a story in 15 words or less. Use the first couple of words to frame it with a crime, then strip down to the essence of the core story. Ignore side plots and embellishments. Feel free to tag it with #PoliceBlotter if you feel like tweeting it. What's the most basic way you can communicate your story?

Why should I do this exercise?
It gets you writing, isn't that enough? No? Then I'll give you two reasons:
  1. If you can't express an interesting story hook in 15 words, you may need to revisit your story's premise. In the examples above, you get a bare thumbnail of what happened, but you also force the reader to ask "Why?" and "How?" - there's your hook. The answers to these questions are the meat of your story. Why did she throw her husband in the stove? How did the ring cause wars? How does everyone die? Why is the prodigy guilty, and how did the game destroy the aliens?
  2. It'll help train you to pick stronger, more descriptive verbs instead of leaning on the adverb crutch. I'll spend more time on the evil of adverbs in a different article, but this exercise does an admirable job of forcing careful word choice. With only 15 words to work with, you can't afford to spend one on an adverb that modifies a weak verb when a better verb would work twice as well.
As Joe Friday says, "Just the facts, ma'am." Save why and how for longer formats.

Now get out there and hone your core story.

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