Want to see a trick? By Ben Jeapes

Look at the following list. If your name starts in the top half of the alphabet (A-M), pick an odd numbered word or phrase. If it’s the bottom half, pick an even one.

  1. Precious metal
  2. Wool
  3. Cutlery
  4. Golden colour
  5. Highly polished
  6. Ball
  7. Sharp
  8. Cat’s toy
  9. Kitchen utensil
  10. Round

Now, from the following list, pick a phrase that best goes with the item you picked from the first list.

  • Blue felt-tip pen
  • Penny postage stamp
  • Carving knife
  • Yellow ball of yarn
  • Original oil painting
  • Old felt hat
  • South Sea island
  • Western stage coach
  • Antique clock
  • China coffee cup

Now imagine me placing my fingertips on my temples and closing my eyes, and maybe eery music playing as I intone: If your name starts A-M then you’re thinking of a carving knife; if it’s N-Z then it’s a yellow ball of yarn.

If you can’t work out how it’s done, the answer is at the end. It’s from The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success by Dr Kevin Dutton and Andy McNab, ISBN 978-0-552-17106-9, pp 233-234.

It’s just a stage trick, and it’s all about apparently giving people more options while in fact you are quietly removing them. You decide on the answer you want, and then work backwards, removing any options that will lead people away from where you want them to be. They end up where you want them, apparently by their own free will. I threw in an apparent hint of randomness with the instructions about where your name comes in the alphabet - something I couldn’t possibly have any influence over or foreknowledge about - but it could just as well have been based on your birthday or starsign or favourite colour. The options were under my control, not yours.

And it’s a very handy tool to use for plotting. I find plotting one of the hardest aspects of writing because I like a book to keep me on my toes and be forever surprising me - so I immediately lose confidence in any plot twist that I think up, because if I’ve just thought of it I think it must therefore also be obvious to my future readers.

I have to tell myself it’s not like that. I’m starting at the end - where I want the plot to finish - and working back. The readers are coming from the other direction. They have no idea what’s ahead. So I misdirect - I throw in the other factors that have nothing to do with the actual conclusion, but make them appear to be equally relevant. Presto, a plot.

And here’s how it’s done ...  

The second list only has one option that really matches all the odd-numbered items, and only one that matches all the evens. All the other options from the second list are just irrelevant so can be disregarded.

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. www.benjeapes.com


  1. Interesting.I have trouble with plots, so must try to remember these hints.

  2. Clever trick – and perceptive application. Thanks.

  3. Am I normal? I didn't pick the carving knife...

    Good thoughts about plot though. Thank you.

  4. The way my mind was going was 'If I picked a random item from list 1 and matched it with list 2, could I make a story out of it?' So, my new novel about someone finding a cat's toy on a South Sea island will be available for purchase some time later this year ...

  5. That's really interesting. What a great tool!

  6. If I 'over-plot' I.e. have the ending worked out too soon, I lose interest in writing the story. I like to create my characters in pretty fine detail and back story (only for my use, not for the reader's consumption). Then I set them up and see what happens. I might throw in some external influences like historical/political events or a legend as well.

  7. Oops - I didn't choose the carving knife. But I love the method of plotting. I really enjoy writing endings so have often written them midway through but shall now plan it that way from nearer the beginning.

  8. Haha, I´m glad I wasn´t the only one who didn´t get carving knife! I think maybe as writers we are more creative and so did alternative pairings? (Or "precious metal" and carving knife don't seem to go so well together?!) But a fun and thought provoking post all the same :)

  9. I picked kitchen utensil and old felt hat. In my brain they go together beautifully!


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