Writers of all kinds and varieties love anything that makes the writing process easier or more straightforward. This is particularly true when Stress and Life make it difficult to keep thoughts organized and maintain focus. Going through such a period myself, lately, I kind of just sort of made up this thing: a card game that “randomly” generates a genre fiction writing exercise. And I’ll share it with you, because hey, maybe I’m not the only person out there with this particular idea of fun!
I have been under a considerable degree of stress lately, Internet. Most of it is good: new (better) job, new romantic relationship about which I am intensely enthusiastic. Some of it is bad: had to acknowledge my flaky nature and take a major step back from a collaborative project that I’ve poured some soul into, missing my old co-workers, and other things.
Anyway, I’m not trying to get all “my so-called personal life” on you guys. It should suffice to say that I haven’t focused on making time for the original intended purpose of helo frend: cheesy genre fiction and fucking loud-ass techno music!
My brain is a massive jumble of what-the-fuck these days. I can’t write anything decent for the life of me. When I do find any amount of free time and mental focus in the same place, my muse (or whatever the hell you want to call it) is sleeping, and I can come up with nothing to put to paper. I have a huge mix of ideas and thoughts rolling around up there, but no matter how many noodles I throw at the fridge, not one wants to stick. Ever.
Ah, but I am not an artist!
I’m no artist, so why the fuck should I have to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike? Writing is a craft, right? What do craftspeople have?
What I really need is some better mental organization—an Ikea-quality shelving solution for my dome, in a manner of speaking. Plastic bins and shit. Shoe trees. Baskets that go in closets. Know what I mean?
So in something of a hurry, I put together this thing.
Check Out My Tool!
What we have got here: Genre Fiction Flashcards. This is the ideal solution for generating cool ideas when you got basically nothin’. Pretty much, this is just a stack of 3” x 5” index cards that I have scribbled my ideas onto in different-colored markers to prevent me from trying to include too much into one story or small project.
The General Idea
Fiction is comprised of several basic, distinct elements. I may have dropped out of college, but I took enough literature appreciation classes to get that much, at least. Every story you read or write has all of these (or else it’s not a story):
- Theme - The core idea, what you are trying to say, the moral of the story. In other words, What Is The Fucking Point?
- Setting - Where and when does the story take place?
- Character - Who inhabits the story? What are they like? Where do they come from?
- Plot - What is happening? What happens as a result? How does that influence what happens next?
- Point of View - Who is telling the story? What information is available to him/her/it?
You might have a dozen ideas for a story’s setting, and all of them seem equally fun to write. Same with theme—it can be a challenge to pick out just one basic idea to communicate, and it’s easy to want to cram a bunch of thoughts into the same 2,000-word short. The point is to pare down all the branching thoughts you have to give a story some focus instead of allowing it to just run wild. Tame that shit. Say one thing, say it well, right?
Every little marble of an idea for a story that you have running around in your brain, right now, can go into one or more of the above categories. For genre fiction (and fantasy/sci-fi in particular), some elements can get particularly involved. There is a lot of opportunity for mixing-and-matching just with a story’s setting alone. So, borrowing from my underachiever lit class experience, here are the categories I have settled on (for now) and a sampling of their contents:
The most important part of any story—here is a good chance to go nuts. Just sitting down and focusing only on potential story themes for half an hour and writing them down, ignoring all else, is a great exercise for short fiction writers. Think it might be a point worth making or an idea you could make central to a two-thousand-word story? Write it down. If you decide you don’t like it later, just don’t use it. I wrote mine down on index cards, tore up fully half of them, and still ended up with a couple dozen. Some of those:
- Dreams are real.
- Consumption informs creation.
- Humanity is/is not capable of transcendence (pick one!).
- YOU are the common denominator.
- One person can only do so much.
Your short story should have one and only one theme. Once you have a stack of cards in this pile, only draw one at a time!
Settings in genre fiction tend to be more generalized and (really, when you think about it) not quite as varied as in literary fiction. They might be more fantastic and “out there” than in literature, but they’re not usually quite as fine-grained so as to keep the fiction accessible to a young adult audience. For my purposes, that’s a good thing—it makes mixing and matching easier! So instead of jotting down a few settings I’d like, I can rough together the general idea of setting and leave the granular specifics up to whim. I broke Setting up into three categories:
- Social: Time and Culture—what social mores exist? How do people speak and act? What are politics like? Examples: Contemporary, Middle Ages, Victorian…
- Technology: What technology is available in the story world? Early 20th century, steam power, spaceships and lasers…
- Magic: Because, come on, really. If there is magic, though, is it widespread, studied only in secret, or…?
So, your story could take place in a feudalistic world where everyone talks like an Arthurian knight, but there are tanks, and maybe a secret cult of Chinese lightning-throwers (like that guy in Big Trouble in Little China!).
Probably better thought of as “inhabitants,” more along the lines of setting. I don’t generally have a problem focusing on and thinking about specific characters, so this mental cue isn’t altogether interesting to me. You may differ, though, in which case you could create character cards that are much more involved—personality traits, mannerisms, style of dress, etc. I just included:
- Humans only, no elves and junk.
- Stock fantasy races—elves, dwarves, dragons, blah blah blah.
- Folklore—pre-Tolkien elves, dwarves, etc.
- Aliens! (From outer space!)
Putting together a stack of index cards which, when randomly drawn, will generate any kind of plot worth reading (let alone writing) would be a huge project in and of itself. Show me any “random storyline generator” out there and in just a few minutes I’ll give you fifty or so plots that aren’t worth a shit. True story! Try it yourself.
But, with genre fiction, there are a number of common plot devices that are worth revisiting time and again! Here’s a sample of some personal favorites:
- Shared Dreaming
- Sentient Machines
- Giant Robots with Guns
It’s up to you how many different plot devices you want to include in your story. I have dozens of these in my pile and they’re fun to pair up, so two or three sounds good to me.
Not one of the primary elements of fiction, no, but this is a genre fiction game! So, from a short stack, I randomly choose:
Maybe we’ll put our tank-driving knights of the round table into a wild west gunslinger or a juicy bodice-ripper! Come on, don’t be a wuss.
Tying it all together
If you’re following along, it might look like my little game is going to just pigeonhole me into writing a specific story that I might not be altogether crazy about. So what if I draw a card and I don’t like it? I can swap it out, skip it, leave it out altogether, whatever. But, while there are no hard and fast limitations, creativity does tend to flourish within boundaries!
Remember, the point is to organize thoughts well enough to just get a coherent story out onto paper. I’m not trying to write the Great American Novel here. This is not—at this stage, at any rate—the makings of fine literature sure to withstand the test of time and become a classic read by high school students long after I’m dead. I’m having fun and keeping my brain juices flowing. There is every possibility that I’ll put together the beginnings of a story, characters, and a world that I’m really crazy about. Until then, it’s just exercise.
To play the game, I separate all my cards out into their respective colored decks and make one draw (or, in the case of plot devices, two draws) per deck.
So, what does it look like? Here’s a synopsis of my first draw:
Life is not fair, but it is often hilarious (theme!) in this mystery (genre!) about an average guy (character!) who finds himself in over his head after an attempt on his life (plot device?!). In a modern-day midwestern United States (social setting!) busted back to the mid-20th century (technology setting!) by an occupying alien military force (plot device AND character omg and also wtf!) and besieged on all sides by a coven of misanthropic teenage witches (magic…that’s setting!), our protagonist becomes an unwitting but active player in a political coup (plot deviiiice!) that will unravel the very fabric of society…or will it?!
See? Fun shit! I’m giving myself…2,000 words. Let’s go.