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Story Starter Grab Bag

If you’re stuck on a story, or just want to mix things up, try making a Story Starter Grab Bag.

You can be a Plotter or a Pantser (or something in between)– be as structured or as loose as you’d like, but set yourself a timer of 3 minutes for each of the following lists, and write down as many things as you can think of:

CharactersPlacesWhat happensThemes/What the story is aboutPostive momentsNegative momentsImages you can picture vividly

Now cut up the lists and mix the slips up in a pile (you can make a separate pile for each list, or mix all of them together). Then set a timer for 10, 20, or 30 minutes, draw three slips, and write. You’ll discover connections you hadn’t noticed, and see your story from new perspectives– and you just might solve some plot problems or writer’s block.

Austin Kleon writes about “A Bag of Words” in his blog post (referencing Linda Barry and Ray Bradbury). When I lead the Grand Marais Writers’ Guild each month, we always start with a free-association word list based on an image, choose from the list, and use those words in a couple writing exercises. I liked the idea of a Bag rather than a list– it reminds me of the party game, Popcorn, that’s sort of a cross between Charades and Twenty Questions. And I like the randomness of drawing slips of paper, like drawing cards from a fortune teller: I like trusting my subconscious or some other unseeable force to point me in the right direction (and you can’t be blocked about what words to choose when you don’t get to choose them).

For longer writing projects, like novels, things can get stuck in a rut: write chronologically, figure out the problem in Act 2 before moving on to Act 3, is this a single novel or a trilogy?, etc. Using slips and words/phrases brings us back to seeing the story; when you can see it, you just have to write down what’s in front of you.

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