The Crumpled Paper Exercise

Collaborative Storytelling

T&W teaching artist Alice Pencavel’s crumpled paper exercise engages students with the process of collaborative storytelling. The lesson enables students to harness a greater aptitude for spontaneity and deepens their understanding of story structuring.

Grades: 6th and up

Materials/Set Up: One writing utensil and sheet of paper per student. Desks should be arranged in a circle, or students can sit on the floor if that works better.


  • Have the class sit in a circle. Everyone should have a sheet of paper and something to write with.
  • Students are to write on their paper (without putting their names anywhere on the paper) a one-sentence character description; e.g., “Bob is a poor farmer.” No one should see or know what their neighbor is writing.
  • Students crumple their paper and toss it to the center of the circle.
  • Students then retrieve a crumpled paper from the circle that is not the same as the one they tossed in.
  • Students read quietly, to themselves, the character description on the crumpled paper they just retrieved. They are then to add on to that character description a one sentence objective that correlates to the character description; e.g., “Bob wants more cows to make money.”
  • Students then crumple and toss the paper in to the center of the circle, and again, retrieve a paper they did not just have.
  • Students read the two sentences on the paper they just retrieved, quietly to themselves, and then add another one-sentence obstacle that correlates to the character objective; e.g., “Bob’s car is broken and he has no way to get to town where cows are sold.”
  • Again, the paper is crumpled, tossed in the center, and then a different crumpled paper is retrieved. This time, students add a one-sentence tactic that correlates both to the obstacle and the objective; e.g., “Bob gathers his messenger pigeons to fly to town and bring back some cows.”
  • One last time, the paper is crumpled, tossed in the center, and a different crumpled paper is retrieved. Students then write a one-sentence conclusion to the set of story sentences they now have. The conclusion must correlate directly to the character’s objective. Either they succeed or they fail; e.g., “Bob’s pigeons come flying back, leading a herd of cows behind them.”
  • Students then read aloud what is on their paper, including character description, objective, obstacle, tactic, and conclusion.

Note: With every sentence, students must accept what is on the paper they retrieved—the additions they make must build upon what is already there. The story must make sense. It can be as wild and imaginative and far-fetched as they students desire (epic imagining encouraged!), so long as each sentence relates directly to the sentence or sentences preceding. 

Discussion Questions: 

  • When were you surprised? Did you begin your character description with an intended outcome? If so, how was the outcome different, or similar, to the one you had intended?
  • If you could redo any part of this exercise, what would you choose? Why?
  • Which stories or characters felt the most interesting to you? Why? What makes a story interesting?
  • In every story, a character undergoes a change. How did the characters in these stories change and when did they change?
  • What part of this activity was easiest? What was most challenging? How did you overcome the challenge?
  • When did you notice the biggest change occur in these five-line stories? Was it the tactic sentence? The conclusion sentence?

Photo (top) via The Chaotic Soul

Alice Pencavel is a writer and teacher. Prior to joining Teachers & Writers in 2021, Ms. Pencavel worked as a Teaching Artist for multiple non-profits, including Arts Connection, SAY (Stuttering Association for the Young), Brooklyn Acting Lab, Stages on the Sound, Girls Write Now, and Teachers & Writers, among others. As a playwright, she has collaborated with Naked Angels, Lincoln Center Theater, MCC, Manhattan Repertory, Superhero Clubhouse, and the Kitchen Theater. She also worked in Customer Support with DonorsChoose, helping public school students receive educational materials. Having served as a Teaching Artist with Teachers & Writers, Ms. Pencavel has seen first hand the impact of bringing writing programs into schools, and is thrilled to offer her services in this new capacity. Ms. Pencavel holds a BFA in Acting from Ithaca College, and an MFA in Playwriting from the New School.