Friday, July 6, 2012

Let's Play a Game!

Years ago, I read in a writers' magazine an article that offered one of the best and simplest bits of advice on writing I've ever read:

Surprise your readers. Whatever they expect, do something else. 

The example the author gave in the article had to do with characterization:  If Joe, the young truck-driver lifts weights in the living room while his wife, Sarah embroiders cross stitch, then no one is surprised. But if you give the weights to Sarah, and the cross-stitch project to Joe, things get a bit more interesting.

I love books that surprise me, and in my writing, I'm proudest when I have created a recognizable character - I'm thinking of Finis, the overbearing preacher in To Dance In the Desert - and turned his stereotype inside out so you see the real person inside.

It works with plot, too. Ever read a book that lead you to believe things would pan out one way, but then something happened and the story went a different direction altogether? The new course has to make sense, certainly, but when it does, to my mind, it's story magic.

Much as I love books about the craft of writing, sometimes a good rule-of-thumb is worth 300 pages of literary theory.

Since this is Friday, let's play a game. Nothing too heavy. We're going to grab three random numbers, and write a quick plot the easy, predictable way, and then mess with the elements a bit, to make it more interesting.


To prepare, pull up the random number generator:

First Number: 

Generate a number between 1 and 7. Write it down.

Second Number:

  • If the first number you generated is 1, generate a second number between 1 and 39, and write it down.
  • If the first number you generated is 2, generate a second number between 1 and 38 and write it down.
  • If the first number you generated is 3, generate a second number between 1 and 26 and write it down. 
  • If the first number you generated is 4, generate a second number between 1 and 33 and write it down. 
  • If the first number you generated is 5, generate a second number between 1 and 27 and write it down.
  • If the first number you generated is 6, generate a second number between 1 and 40 and write it down.
  • If the first number you generated is 7, generate a second number between 1 and 9 and write it down.

Third Number: 

Generate a number between  1 and 36, and write it down.

Now you're ready to play.


Surf over to If you want, take a moment to  read the story of this brilliant, enigmatic photographer.

There are seven portfolios featured on her site, and for the purposes of this exercise, you're to navigate to one of them. The first number you generated, between 1 and 7, will tell you which one:


In the portfolio you have just chosen, use the "next" arrow under the first image to navigate to the image that corresponds to the second number you generated. (For instance, if your second number is 18, navigate to image #18.


Open a new tab in your browser, and surf over to .

Here you will find a list of Georges Polti's 36 Dramatic Situations. Choose the one that corresponds to the third number you chose. If you like, click on the situation to read a brief discussion of the parameters.


Now, dear reader, you are ready write the outline of a new story, using the photo and situation you just chose. First write what seems most obvious to you, and then change things so it still fits the picture, but in a more surprising way.

Here's what I did with mine: 

My generated numbers were: 6, 18, and 35.

That gives me this image:

My dramatic situation is number 35, Recovery of a lost one. (How ironic: the theme of both my novels.)

My first take on the story:

Ten-year-old Gracie's brother Steven, aged five, was last seen two months ago, getting into a navy blue, 1947 Packard no one had ever seen in her small town.

Now, on the way home from school, she has just spotted the same Packard pulling up a dirt drive to a house all but hidden behind trees and tall bushes.

The sign near the sidewalk says, "No Trespassing." She stands wringing her hands, mustering courage to tiptoe through the brush and look through the windows for her brother.

That was too easy.

And boring, and predictable.

What if Gracie isn't a little girl, but an elderly woman who has just failed the eye test for her driver's license? And what if she isn't your stereotypical old lady, but is was riding that bike to the local college, to finish her Bachelor's degree in... let's see...  Marriage and Family Counseling, to help a family - her family - whose dysfunctions trace directly back to the stranglehold she's kept on her children and younger siblings all their lives.

And what if the missing person is the brother who has managed to avoid her completely in the three months since he announced his engagement to the twice widowed woman who runs the local food bank? And she has met her sister-in-law to be, and has identified in her the clear traits of a sociopath.

But now she has seen her brother pull up the dirt drive of this hidden house. And the sign out front says, "No Trespassing. Especially Not If You're Gracie."

Now it's your turn. 

Generate your three numbers and use them to come up with a predictable plot in just a few words. Then change out the predictable bits with less-predictable ones, and let us know what you have.

Oh, and include the link to your photograph.

We love to read what you have to say.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh boy. I'm the first? Ack!

Here's my photo:

My dramatic situation is #21 "Self-sacrifice for kindred.

First take:
LuAnne is the primary caretaker of her mother who has Alzheimer's. Her mother never loved her. The Alzheimer's brings out her true disdain for her daughter.

zzzzz....sorry. Gotta get some more coffee.

Second take:
LuAnne nurses her elderly mother who is suffering from Alzheimer's. Her mother had always smothered her, even in adulthood. Not out of love. But something more difficult to understand. Out of fear? Or desire to isolate LuAnne?

Toward the end, LuAnne's mother forgets who she is. Thinking that LuAnne is an old childhood friend. She, through a variety of delusional conversations, reveals that LuAnne was not really her daughter. But that she kidnapped her 40 some years before. The birth mother? The aunt that LuAnne never knew existed.

LuAnne must decide if she's going to push her dying, kidnapping mother to reveal the name of her birthmother or allow her die in peace. She still loves the woman who raised her (in a weird, twisted kind of way).

That was fun!

Cherry Odelberg said...

Don't have time to play games, but could we please hear more about,
" finish her Bachelor's degree in... let's see... Marriage and Family Counseling, to help a family - her family - whose dysfunctions trace directly back to the stranglehold she's kept on her children and younger siblings all their lives."

Cherry Odelberg said...

Don't have time to play games, but could we please hear more about,
" finish her Bachelor's degree in... let's see... Marriage and Family Counseling, to help a family - her family - whose dysfunctions trace directly back to the stranglehold she's kept on her children and younger siblings all their lives."

Kathleen Popa said...

Suzie, that's terrific! My grandmother had Alzheimers, and there was a time not long before she died when she became her vivacious younger self, and my mother got to meet a side of her mom she cherishes to this day. I like the story you've started here.

Cherry... mwah!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

My grandfather had Alzheimer's, too. I was 6 and he acted 6. We played together a lot.

And, thanks. Hmmm....I might have to go deeper into the story.

Bonnie Grove said...

Katy, my numbers were 6, 27, 16. Generated the same image as you did (the shadowed woman with a bicycle). My generated dramatic situation is #16: madness (how funny is that? All my stories involve the exploration of some type of madness), and now I'm working on a plot.

But I really like my first idea. Can I keep it? Please, please?

Let me get back when I've noodled the out better.

Kathleen Popa said...

Bonnie, how can I give you permission to keep the first story if I haven't seen it?

Bonnie Grove said...

Um. . . cuz you love me?

heh heh

Kathleen Popa said...

There is that.

Megan Sayer said...

My link was to a smoking woman in a car - - and my dramatic scenario was erroneous judgement.
My initial reaction was she was witnessing some kind of social scandal, her sister getting into a car with a strange man, and she asked her husband to stop the car while she took down the license plate number...BORING.
But then I thought she could be a private detective, New York's first female Private Eye, and the man next to her was her chauffer...
Still needs work, but MUCH more interesting.

I once visited the home of friends of friends, where the most beautiful and intricate tapestries were displayed all over. I complemented the wife, who told me they were done by her husband, a massive burly bearded tradesman. That was the first time I'd really been surprised by people, and I'll never forget the feeling.

Kathleen Popa said...

Megan, a private eye with a hat like that - and gloves! My!

I love finding people like your burly bearded tapestry weaver.

ellen staley said...

Ugh. Here I go:

mistaken jealousy (Worker on power pole ladder)

Jim would effect the repair with stunning speed and earn that coveted promotion. Ed waited till Jim disappeared behind the work truck and charged up the ladder to complete the repair and take the promotion for himself.


How Dad could marry a woman half his age was beyond Paul. Paul watched from his position on the ladder as the lawyer, legal papers in hand, alighted from his conveyance and followed her into his dad's home. Adding her to the will would steal his due inheritance. Paul whistled as he compromised the power line that connected to 521 East Street. Dad's new wife might dress like a doll, but her skills as a power pole worker were every bit as strong as his own. Paul knew she wouldn't be satisfied watching the will signed in the dark.

Bonnie Grove said...

My first thought (a woman in shadow, with a bicycle + madness), was the woman only understood herself within the crisp lines of her changing shadow.

That who she really is, ragged, withered, toothless, scratching is soothed by the company of a neat, detail-less shadow. And here she is, with a stolen bicycle--borrowed for the occasion--stopping, not to prolong the going, but to remind herself who she is. Not ragged, not ravaged, but whole. There are no holes in her that the sunlight can shine through. She is solid. Real. As real as anyone.

So she rides her bicycle to the courthouse where she stands accused of a terrible crime. Her mother awaits her, ready to give testimony--its her mother's testimony that will convince the jury of her guilt--ready to tell the world what this girl has done.

And she has done terrible things. She has, she remembers many of them. Others might have been a dream, or a stolen idea. But she's sure of some. Bad things.

But not this thing. Not this terrible crime. She didn't do it. But maybe it's okay anyway. Maybe she'd be better off far away. Some place safe and quiet. Some place where she could stand in the sun and watch her shadow stretch across the ground.

Kathleen Popa said...

Ellen, very intriguing - I love it. Much better than the first idea.

Bonnie, I love the idea that the shadow is more whole than the girl. What a great start. Yes, my dear, you may certainly use this one!

Bonnie Grove said...

Yay! You DO love me! :)

Cherry Odelberg said...

Bonnie, I am going to spend more time attending to my shadow where I am whole, solid, unwrinkled, non-sagging and don't need braces. Usually, I am also taller and thinner.

Bonnie Grove said...

You and me both, Cherry.