Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Story By Name Game

This is a writing game I play with high school students to teach bare bones story plotting minus the usual headaches (teachers, it works best if you do it on the classroom chalk or white board with verbal participation from the class.)

1. Take your local phone book and find five random listings for couples and write down their first names, then select five surnames at random from different pages and assign them to your couples:

Gary & Priscilla Durkin
Terry & Carla Lindsley
Phillip & Dorothy Johnson
Hugh & Alice Cherveny
Clyde & Harriett Maples


2. Pick five major (as in life-changing) events that routinely happen to couples, and assign one to each of your couples (you can do this at random or by what feels right for each couple):

Just married -- Terry & Carla Lindsley
Pending divorce -- Phillip & Dorothy Johnson
New baby -- Gary & Priscilla Durkin
50th wedding anniversay -- Clyde & Harriet Maples
Midlife crisis -- Hugh & Alice Cherveny


3. Choose a primary conflict for each of your couples (this can be about the major event, the couple, or totally unrelated) and add that to your description:

Just married -- Terry & Carla Lindsley: Their marriage is about to be invalidated as both partners are female.

Pending divorce -- Phillip & Dorothy Johnson: Phillip has a serious car accident on the way to court.

New baby -- Gary & Priscilla Durkin: Gary loses his job on the day Priscilla reveals that she's pregnant again.

50th wedding anniversay -- Clyde & Harriet Maples: At the big anniversary party, Clyde is exposed as a bigamist.

Midlife crisis -- Hugh & Alice Cherveny: Alice discovers that Hugh has a young mistress.

4. Now, add another complication, but this time choose one that ties the couple's major event to their primary conflict:

Just married -- Terry & Carla Lindsley: Their marriage is about to be invalidated as both partners are female; Terry reveals that she was biologically male before having gender correction surgery.

Pending divorce -- Phillip & Dorothy Johnson: Phillip has a serious car accident on the way to court; Dorothy discovers she is the only person in the immediate area who shares his rare blood type.

New baby -- Gary & Priscilla Durkin: Gary loses his job on the day Priscilla reveals that she's pregnant again; Priscilla must tell Gary that the new baby isn't his.

50th wedding anniversay -- Clyde & Harriet Maples: At the big anniversary party, Clyde is exposed as a bigamist; Harriet reveals that she has terminal cancer.

Midlife crisis -- Hugh & Alice Cherveny: Alice discovers that Hugh has a young mistress; Hugh finds Alice attempting suicide.

5. Using the major event, primary conflict and complication, decide on a resolution for each couple's story:

Just married -- Terry & Carla Lindsley: Their marriage is about to be invalidated as both partners are female; Terry reveals that she was biologically male before having gender correction surgery. Carla divorces Terry, and then has Terry dress in male drag and use her former male identity so they may legally remarry.

Pending divorce -- Phillip & Dorothy Johnson: Phillip has a serious car accident on the way to court; Dorothy discovers she is the only person in town who shares his rare blood type. Dorothy donates enough blood to save Phillip's life; he gratefully gives her his power of attorney to handle things during his recovery. Dorothy uses it to take all of his assets, pay off the man she hired to sabotage Phillip's car, and leaves the country.

New baby -- Gary & Priscilla Durkin: Gary loses his job on the day Priscilla reveals that she's pregnant again; Priscilla must tell Gary that the new baby isn't his. Gary assures Priscilla that he still loves her and will stay with her, and then quietly blackmails the new baby's father into paying them a large monthly support check.

50th wedding anniversay -- Clyde & Harriet Maples: At the big anniversary party, Clyde is exposed as a bigamist; Harriet reveals that she has terminal cancer. Harriett suggests Clyde's other wife move in with them.

Midlife crisis -- Hugh & Alice Cherveny: Alice discovers that Hugh has a young mistress; Hugh finds Alice attempting suicide. Hugh kills Alice, making it look like the suicide was successful, but is caught by the police when his frightened mistress blows the whistle on him.

At the end of the game, you've got the basic material for five stories. You can also use the Story by Name game for single characters, to add depth to your characterizations, or to create backstories. You can also adjust each step of the game according to specific elements that your story needs: the couple can be replaced by a protagonist and antagonist; the major event can be changed to a historic event; you can use multiple complications, etc.

16 comments:

  1. Have to say, I like Dorothy's style. :)

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  2. That looks like a really fun, and really useful, tool.

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  3. Tammy9:56 AM

    ROTFLOL!!

    I LOVED it, but especially loved the Phillip & Dorothy one. Maybe cause my mom's name is Dorothy and my father's name was Phillip. And no, nothing like that happened, lol, they divorced 40+ years ago and he died about 5 years ago of a heart attack.

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  4. Am I evil for smiling about Dorothy's story?

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  5. This looks so fun and effective that I feel compelled to point out the importance of research if one were actually to use this method for a story idea. You have to make sure you know what you're doing with these complications.

    For example, with Terry and Carla: things may be different in other states or countries, but where I live, their marriage would be valid from the start because it's virtually impossible to change your legal gender from what it says on your birth certificate. (Then again, I live in South Carolina, so.) Case in point: In SC, there is one lesbian couple in the state that is legally married, because one partner was born male and could not legally change her gender. If I were to write that story, I'd let Terry stick it to the government by playing their own technicalities against them. Or maybe Carla would want to leave when she learned the truth.

    And for Dorothy and Phillip, you'd have to know about blood types in order to pull off that story--which types are compatible for donation (and you don't necessarily have to have the same type as your donor). Devil's in the details and all that.

    I may sound petty, but it's so easy for writers to overlook the nitty gritty details that, if written incorrectly, will ruin a story's believability.

    Again, I really like this idea, Lynn! I especially like Dorothy and Phillip's example because it takes the story in the opposite direction of feelgood predictability. It makes me want to see that story written! The backstory and characterization would be so interesting.

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  6. Now that's power plotting in five easy steps.

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  7. Hey congrats on a great review today for "Evermore" over on AAR!

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  8. I probably would have made Priscilla be Hugh's mistress and the baby's his and Alice and Gary take them to the cleaners in the divorces and run away together. My brain works strange that way.

    I, too, like Dororthy. Oh, and Harriet may be feeling generous when she makes that suggestion but how will she really feel after wife #2 moves in?

    Obviously these aren't romances. lol. The only HEA is Terry and Carla and that still wouldn't fly for mainstream romance.

    As a matter of fact, that whole list sounds almost like a half-season worth of Desperate Housewives or some other soap opera-y TV show.

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  9. Great teaching tool. I must say a big thank you for the Novel Notebook, I've just used it to flesh out my YA WIP and it's fantastic, I've recommended all my writer friends take a look at it as well.

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  10. Yeah, I like Phillip and Dorothy, too...

    *G*

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  11. :D This sounds like great fun to get the ideas flowing!! Thank you!

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  12. This is great thanks!

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  13. Wow. This sounds like something I would love to try. Thanks!

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  14. This looks fun - think I'll try it. Thanks!

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  15. If you switched the rare blood type match to a kidney transplant, problems are solved!

    This is a fun game. You make it look easy, but I'm not sure if my brainstorming mind would be as clever. But I'll have to give it a try.

    Do you have any suggestions as to how to take a story idea (as in, instead of starting with characters, you start with a plot idea) and build around it? That is usually how my ideas begin....

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  16. This would even be good at a party if you get people drunk enough to be dastardly!

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