Me — New Prompt Challenges

I’ve had a fun idea for writing stories that are based on one-on-one interactions with people. I’ll just tell you about it now and then talk about it.

Ask somebody to give you a writing prompt. Anything it all. Could be one they Google, or just random words. Doesn’t matter. You also ask them to give you a number up to 200. (You can tell them that that’s your word count, but if you want to keep it hidden you can.)

Then you spin that into a micro-fiction story. That’s it. That’s the whole challenge.

I think this is neat because it does a lot of things all at once. First, it can tell you something about the other person. How they get this writing prompt and what they tell you will inform you a lot about their personality. If you ask them for a specific word number and they say “2” rather than “152”, then that tells you something else.

I’ve done this twice, and already I’ve come up with two interesting stories. Forcing yourself to change gears so drastically is a cool switch, because the number is really important for how you approach telling this story. The first friend I tried this on gave me a prompt longer than the word count he gave me. It was as follows:

Prompt: The fictional city of Leshburg is controlled by three crime syndicates/mobs. Upon waking up on December 14th, each mob boss has developed schizophrenia overnight. This is the story of mafioso Don “The Collapser” Delucci. 25 Words.

Story:
His rivals slain via tommy gun,
The city had fallen, “The Collapser” had won.
He asked his voices, “Am I done?”
They responded: “Yeah sure.”

It’s almost more poem than story, but that’s just it. I obviously don’t need to worry about backstory or context because the person I’m writing it for is the one that gave it to me.

When I’m writing these stories, I try to throw in the additional rule that I need a punchline. I think that’s what really makes this challenge work. With such a short story, I needed the rhyming aspect because the punchline is the sudden subversion of the rhyme. Obviously, with more words you can set up something better and, arguably stronger.

But I’m honestly having a lot of fun with this. I’m enjoying asking people for a prompt and word count because I learn a little bit about them, and then I get to spend the next few hours thinking about a brand new story. I might start doing this as a birthday present of some sort, I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that it’s been a blast so far, and I’d highly recommend it for flash fiction writers that want to challenge themselves.

I’m going to try to do one of these a day, but I highly doubt I’ll post them on the blog. I think by nature the prompt and the subsequent story is a private interaction. It means more to the individual than I would to the world, so publishing them would dilute the value, and obviously reading a random prompt and story wouldn’t feel nearly as good as giving a prompt and reading a story written for you.

It saddens me a bit, though. If I were more confident in the viewership of this blog, I would ask for people to comment with prompts and word counts. If that happens enough, maybe I could even make a weekly post based on four or five micro-fiction prompts people commented the week before.

I don’t ask for comments a whole lot, but if this is something that interests you, feel free to leave a comment with a prompt and word count (up to 200 words), and I’ll write you a story. If I get more comments than I expect, then we’ll turn this into a real thing.

Me — “Who is your Mary Sue?”

You probably hear all the time about how budding writers fall into the trap of writing a Mary Sue as the main character of their story, or at least some prevalent character. If you haven’t heard that, maybe you’re accidentally doing it.

For those of you that don’t know, a Mary Sue is basically a character that is perfect in every way. They have no flaws to speak of, they’re super attractive, smart, talented, you know, everything.  They follow the “Rule of Cool” to its extreme, forgetting realism and ending up with a boring character. Good characters have flaws they have to face, after all, so a character without flaws is generally pretty boring.

But it got me thinking: We must all have a Mary Sue floating around in our head somewhere, right? Even if we’re cognizant of the fact that we can’t put an amazing being of perfection in our story and retain a compelling tale, we still like to fantasize about those perfect characters, right? (I actually don’t know if everyone does this, but I certainly do, so bear with me.)

I then came up with a thought experiment for myself. If I could make a character, or even several characters, without worrying about anything, what characters would I make? If I didn’t have to worry about making the characters too powerful, too cliche, too edgy, too anything, what would those characters look like?

Well, stay tuned for that, because I’m still working on their abilities and personalities. As you could probably expect from an epic fantasy writer such as myself, they’re all fantasy-based people with demi-god level power. Something interesting that I’ve noticed, though, is that I’m instinctively considering backstory and flaws. It’s difficult to curb that instinct, because giving somebody the title “The Corrupted Flame” implies backstory, but I am intentionally avoiding giving them flaws and backstories unless that is part of the “Mary Sue” I attach to them. It defeats the whole point to give characters flaws to make them more well-rounded, because the whole exercise is imagining these people in their most awesome form.

I’m struggling a bit because I have about 4 different archetypes of “Mary Sue”, but they come in slightly different species. One of them is the archetypal paladin, white armor with gold accents, harnessing the power of the Light to strike down his foes and defend his realm. Another is a vengeful angel sent down to incur the wrath of her god. These Mary Sues, I’ve found, are actually the same character, just different flavors.

It’s a strange balance to strike—imagining the identities of these characters without thinking too hard about it. After all, it should be intuitive. What is the coolest thing you can imagine?

And then, I realized something. What if fantasy book series are just about your protagonist’s journey to earning their “Mary Sue” status? I mean, think about how powerful characters like Rand Al’Thor from The Wheel of Time, Tavi from Codex Alera, or Kaladin from The Stormlight Archive get the more you read. If a character arc is about overcoming their flaws, they are, by necessity, becoming more perfect. So I bet you could pretty easily begin a book series with the end “Mary Sue” in mind, making the perfect hero, and then working backwards and imagining how your protagonist gets from Point A to Point Z.

Improv 101 — My Movie

Like many improv games, I’ve seen My Movie played a couple of different ways. The core of the game is the same, but there is a bit of variety to the nuances that can be tailored to suit the needs of a particular troupe.

Most often, it is played as a high energy group game. It can work with lots of people, but generally as long as you have more than four you’ll be fine. The idea is that the improvisers are a group of scriptwriters pitching movie ideas to the ref. You get some initials from the audience and you have the improvisers come up with movie titles using those initials. One by one, the ref points to them and they yell the title of a movie using those letters. If it sounds interesting, the Ref calls “Tagline!” and the improviser must then give a short description that could appear on a poster or in a movie trailer. If the tagline appeals to the ref, they can say “Let’s see it!”, in which case the improvisers must then act out a snippet of a scene from that movie. After that, the ref and improvisers return to calling out movie titles until the next one sticks.

The biggest difference in the two ways I’ve seen this game played is the intro. Namely, what happens before the ref starts pointing at people and the game actually starts. The first time I had seen this game, all the improvisers chant “My movie, my movie my movie, aww yeah!” in the same tone of Big Booty, a game I’ll probably never actually talk about in detail. Because I obviously can’t describe what the tone of that chant is, I think the second way is easier. Instead of the chant, all the improvisers just yell “My movie!” as fast as they possibly can while trying to get the ref’s attention as if they are a bunch of people at a crowded press conference trying to be called on. I prefer it this way, and it’s a lot easier because it doesn’t require synchronization.

Another reason I like the second intro is the faster pacing. The key thing to remember for this game is that it’s meant to be high energy. The ref needs to point to his or her targets quick to get them to pitch movie titles rapid-fire. There should never be a full second of downtime in this game, and all transitions must be seamless. This is the sort of game that is a good warm-up for an audience, because it gets their heart rate up. My Movie isn’t a very funny game, but it only needs to be fast and entertaining to get your viewers into the mood.

This is also the sort of game that combines preparation with on-the-spot moments. You kind of have to think about movie titles as you wait for the referee to point at you, but it’s hard to have both a tagline and a scene ready if it’s a good movie title, so you often have to say the first thing that comes to mind.

With this game, improvisers can do no wrong. With as fast as the pace is set, the most difficult thing about it is that you’ll often be expected to pitch movie titles faster than you can come up with them, and as such it’s a great way to force beginning actors to think more quickly. There will, inevitably, be instances where you have to speak when you don’t know what to say. It happens a lot in improv, but don’t let that stop you from saying anything. Sometimes the most memorable quotes come from instances in which you hadn’t put any thought to your words. And even if you do say something dumb, the game is supposed to be pretty quick. People will only remember the gems in a game like this. And if you have upwards of six people, this game is super easy, because it allows the other improvisers time to think about better titles.

This is one of those games that is great for beginning improvisers, and I try to introduce it very early on to the kids I teach. Also, here is a link to a great example of this game.

Improv 101 — Superheroes

Superheroes is one of those weird games that can’t be played a whole lot. For one, the only version that I’m familiar with is easy to script, and it’s a hoop game where the difficulty is set totally by the improvisers themselves. That being said, it is a fun little game that is easy to teach people with little improv experience.

The game is a low energy hoop game for about four people (but can still work with three or five). From the audience you get a suggestion of a superhero name and a problem for them to solve. The scene starts with that superhero on stage, doing some menial activity their alter ego might do as a hobby. They then get word of this problem via telephone or Batsignal, or anything else as long as it is portrayed in the scene. Instead of solving the problem, however, they think about this for a while, and says something along the lines of “I can’t handle this, this sounds like a job for ___!” introducing a new superhero, who then enters the scene. The first improviser can say any superhero name they want (meaning it can unfortunately be scripted), and the two of them discuss the problem. Even with the two of them, they still can’t solve the problem, so Superhero 2 calls in number three, giving them a completely new name. This goes on until all of your previously discussed improvisers are on stage, and the last person to come onstage does solve the problem (ex. Duct Tape Man solves the problem of the world exploding by taping everything up so it stays together).

Obviously, as each person gets called on stage they should personify their superhero. If somebody is “Talking Backwards Guy” then they should either say words in reverse order or speak gibberish as if he talks backwards. It really doesn’t matter, as long as they portray that superhero.

The grievance I have with this game is that the conflict is an artificial one. The only rule to the first three heroes is that they aren’t allowed to be able to solve the problem, so they are pretty much irrelevant to the scene and can therefore be literally anybody. You can also give the last superhero a power that is perfectly suited to solving the problem. This all leads to a very real possibility of everything happening systematically rather than organically, which is not how improv should be.

Now, I have thought of a fix to this game. I’ve never tried it, so I don’t know if it actually works, but here’s the idea. Once all four(ish) superheroes on stage, they can solve the problem, but only when all of them work together. It doesn’t quite work if you act out the fix, but rather the superheroes should come up with a plan. If Treeman, Catface, Steelletto, and Astronomurder all get together when all the world’s water somehow evaporated, how do they solve it? Easy. Instead of saying “Astronomurder can just make a bunch of water-rich asteroids collide with Earth, problem solved”, you must include all of their powers. Astronomurder calls down a bunch of meteorites, sure. But how will this not also destroy the planet? Easy. You get Treeman to turn into a giant tree, which Steelletto climbs, and once the meteorites breach the atmosphere Steelletto uses his cool sword legs to slice all the meteorites into tiny debris. Catface brings all her cats for moral support (or leaves one at the top of Treeman’s tree form to inspire Steelletto to climb at heroically fast speeds).

This way, a bunch of seemingly random superhero names can become a team to solve any problem, and only with their powers combined were they able to handle the task at hand. This makes the improv game into one where each person really has to use their head, and allows them to personify really weird characters to boot.

Also, I’m pretty sure Astronomurder is actually a super villain given his name and power. But maybe he wants to destroy the world on his own terms, or get revenge on his nemesis, Treeman, before killing everybody off. This is all stuff that can (and should) be explained in the actual context of the scene.

D&D — Dispelling More Misconceptions

Just like there are many things people don’t understand about playing Dungeons & Dragons, there are even more things to get wrong in regards to the dungeon master, even for avid players (especially for the players, in fact). Being a dungeon master is both more and less work than people realize. So let’s talk a bit about the things I’ve learned over my years of playing D&D, and what I’ve learned from being a DM.

People have the idea that being a DM is all about inventing a world, monsters, and even politics that the players can interact with. Apparently, if you don’t do everything from scratch, you’re not hardcore or dedicated enough. All the pros invent everything off the cuff, right?

Not even close. I guarantee that any official module you buy online will be more creative and detailed than anything you could come up with yourself. Most of the dungeon masters I know of have started their campaigns off with a preset city and quest. There’s no shame in it. It does a ton of the work for you, and the only cost is the literal one your wallet will have to face. Besides, it’s a great way to learn about what being a DM is all about before you venture off into the hard stuff. Nothing is stopping you from building a world around the module once your players get through it, either! (That’s what they’re there for.)

The consideration of whether or not a DM is morally obligated to worldbuild their adventures from scratch completely sidesteps what it really means to be a dungeon master. This is something that a lot of people don’t understand. You are not (necessarily) an evil overlord trying to kill your friends. You are not an author dragging your friends through an adventure.

The way I see it, the dungeon master is the true force of neutrality. They set the board up, and the players move their pieces around however they want. They shouldn’t be punished for making what you might consider the wrong move. Dungeons & Dragons is all about choice and freedom. You give them the world, and then you supply the means to make it interesting. A campaign is not the dungeon master’s game, or his/her story. It is everybody’s story. The players set the tone of the narrative just as much, if not more, than the dungeon master does. In the words of Matthew Colville, who has a series about DM’ing adventures on YouTube (go watch it), “Giving the players one choice is the same as them having no choice at all.”

Now, there’s a lot to learn about being a DM. I won’t pretend to be somebody seasoned enough to go through all the do’s and don’ts, but the key thing is that it is the DM’s job to ensure that the party is having fun. They give interesting things for the players to do and explore. They challenge their wits and their rolls. A realistic campaign is all well and good, but sometimes realism has to fall by the wayside in order to make sure the experience is enjoyable for everyone.

A DM is somebody that knows (or makes) the rules. But they are also the person that breaks them in favor of memorable and fun adventures.

D&D — Dispelling Misconceptions of Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons is a strange thing that exists in our world. Arguably, probably the nerdiest. It’s basically a group of friends sitting around a table pretending to be a bunch of people way cooler than they are, slaughtering monsters and going on adventures. It used to have a huge stigma (and probably still does in a lot of places that aren’t southern California), but really, it offers a unique experience, and I would say that pretty much anyone could benefit from playing the game. So today I’m going to talk about why it’s a lot less scary than it sounds, and why it’s better than alternatives (referring to video games, books, and movies, not alternate table-top role-playing games).

Most people I talk to about D&D that have no experience seem to have this idea that you have to know how to play the game in order to enjoy it. They see a lot of confusing numbers and different kinds of dice and think “that’s too complicated for me”. If that isn’t enough to dissuade them, the idea of pretending to be somebody else usually does. And I don’t blame them. Those ideas are scary. But that isn’t what D&D is about. If you think about role-playing or number crunching when you think about Dungeons and Dragons, you’re wrong.

To me, D&D is fundamentally about having an outlet for one’s own creativity. And it’s an outlet that nothing else can fill. There is nothing that can let you be somebody else in a dynamic world. One that changes because of the choices that you have made. D&D (and other table top games) is the only thing that can hit all of those targets. The closest thing is playing a video game where you kill monsters and level up, but the character you play isn’t uniquely yours, and neither is the environment you’re in. Every session of D&D is unique because even if the dungeon master is using a module they printed out online or bought from a store, the way they present the characters and the world will still be one-of-a-kind, not to mention the interactions your characters will have in that world.

Now, I won’t beat around the bush. Dungeons and Dragons is undoubtedly an extremely complex game. If you’re playing the fifth edition of the game, any serious dungeon master will have at least the core three books: The Player’s HandbookThe Dungeonmaster’s Guide, and The Monster Manual. It’s a lot. But here’s the thing, you don’t have to have those to play. Heck, the DM doesn’t even have to have those! They are nothing more than a tool to enhance the experience, and they are pretty much meant to be instructional so that you can access information quickly, rather than them being supplementary on “this is how to roleplay your character” (though there is that, too, if you’re so inclined).

For somebody unfamiliar with D&D, there is precious little they need to understand before they can have fun. Basically, the only thing I tell people is what choices they have for class and race. I look for the type of fantasy that would suit them best, and then I help them create a character from that. They don’t need to know what all the abilities are, how to calculate their hitpoints, or even what anything means. Any experienced player can do that for them, no teaching necessary. (I would, however, make an attempt to get them vaguely familiar with how to access all the information on the character sheet in front of them.)

But let’s say you’re still not interested. It may be simple for a newcomer because other people can do the numbers for you, but what about the roleplay? “I don’t want to sound ridiculous pretending to be a half-orc barbarian!” you protest. That’s fine. Don’t roleplay, if it doesn’t suit you. This is something a lot of people (even a lot of DM’s) don’t realize. It is perfectly acceptable for people not to be interested in roleplay. Does it diminish the creativity and the immersion of the game? Maybe a bit, but there are so many types of D&D players it’s kind of ridiculous. Not everyone likes to really become their character, and that’s fine. But you can be a part of the world and make important decisions without speaking in your character’s voice.

In fact, your friends can even be a little cheeky and explain that your character is mute. It’s a simple explanation that eliminates all the possibility of making you uncomfortable. Can it create obstacles for your character and the party? Absolutely, especially if the DM wants that to happen. But now you’re one step closer to having a unique and memorable experience, and that’s what the game is all about.

Learning! — Beginners are Unoriginal

A big problem that beginning writers (and other content creators) have is that they struggle with the concept of being original. Obviously, it’s really hard to come up with things that are original. There are so many things out there it almost goes without saying that anything you try will have been done before.

But what many aspiring writers don’t realize is that this doesn’t really matter. One of my first blog posts was about how originality is a myth, but really the core concept of being unique boils down to three things.

The first is that the single most important thing for a writer to do is to read and write. It doesn’t matter much what you read and write, in fact. You could spend your days reading magazines and writing a blog (self burn) and it still counts for author brownie points. They may not teach you as much as reading and writing novels, but practice is practice. Don’t waste your time not writing because you’re worried about the words not being poetic or unique. That’s not what matters.

In fact, this leads me to my second point, and that is that originality is far from unattainable. The only thing that isn’t original, in fact, is straight up plagiarism. If I told you to sit down and spend the next few weeks writing The Lord of the Rings from memory, filling in all the gaps with plausible plot points, it would end up being pretty different. I’d bet that if you changed all the names, the only thing that would bear much resemblance to Lord of the Rings would be the plot structure . Certainly the words wouldn’t be the same. Tolkien is practically old enough to be considered literature, for crying out loud. All things considered, I’d wager an experienced writer that took me up on this bet would be able to publish if those gaps they guessed at were compelling enough. (This activity would probably be an excruciatingly painful and unfulfilling exercise, though. Would not recommend.)

My third point is that it is perfectly acceptable for an aspiring writer to be intentionally unoriginal. Fanfictions are good writing practice, because the story structure is all yours. It’s a good crutch because you don’t have to invent new characters, but it still teaches you a lot. At the same time, writing a story about a group of kids that discover a new world will teach you about pacing and description regardless of how much you base its characters or events off Narnia. I would actually consider this sort of thing a great idea if you want to hone a specific skill. If you want to know how to put sentences and paragraphs together before you start stitching personalities into characters, fanfiction is a great place to start. If you like to build characters, don’t be ashamed of copying the plot-line of your favorite book.

Here’s the takeaway, really. This goes for everything, not just originality.

An aspiring writer can do no wrong as long as they are both reading and writing.