The “Five Card” Exercise
So imagine that you’ve signed up for my class. First thing you discover is that a crazed-looking, long-haired, bearded hobo has taken over the class. Where’s the teacher? Who’s going to teach you about short story writing?
Oh, wait – you mean he’s the teacher? Can you still get a refund?
Well, okay. It’s a cold night. You’ve driven this far. May as well sit here in this warm (maybe too warm) classroom for a while. It would be rude to walk out on him – not that you’re worried about being rude to a hobo but, you know, on general principles…
The hobo yaps for a while, going on about “story-shaped ideas,” and conflict and motivation – blah-blah-blah. What does that have to do with writing? Aren’t you just supposed to put down stuff on paper about your uncle Toby and how he used to tell fart jokes at the table when your folks invited him over for Thanksgiving? What’s all this stuff about revolution? Oh – RES-olution. Maybe you should have just taken that volleyball class after all…
Just then, the hobo takes out all these cards – or little slips of paper. Five little stacks of cards. What’s this all about? Are you going to play Monopoly?
On one set of cards, on one side a word is printed:
Another set of cards have on them:
The third set of cards say:
One the fourth set:
And the last:
From each set he asks you to pick one card. On the other side of the first set, on each card is a name. Here are some for example:
Why names? Why not descriptions, or resumes, or articles of clothing?
The hobo says that names are specific. You’re not dealing with generalities. A story is about someone. Not only that, but names are evocative. You hear a name and you imagine a person who has that name. Every student will have a picture of who that character is, but every student’s picture will be different. If you give the same name to five different students you will end up with five different stories.
Let’s say you picked the card for Kate Ballinger. Who is she? What does she look like? Where does she live? What does she do? If you can’t think of anything right away, don’t worry. Pick a card from the “Motivation” stack. You may choose from such things as:
A lot of “R” words in that bunch. But why do you need them?
The hobo explains that characters have to need something, or want something. Static, inert characters rarely make for interesting stories.
Okay. So you pick one and it turns out to be “Survival.”
What’s next? Setting:
Rest stop on the Interstate
Concourse in city commuter station
Well, the all-night diner sounds promising, but the card you pulled is for the commuter concourse.
What’s left? “Conflict,” isn’t it? You pull one of these:
Former friend, now rival
“Angry mob” is an easy one to figure out, but the card you pull is “Ancient Curse.”
So, let’s see. So far, you have Kate Ballinger; her motivation is Survival; the setting is the big concourse in a commuter train station (or something like that); and the “nemesis” is an Ancient Curse.
Now all we have left is to see how it all works out in the end. The last card:
Character succeeds by first overcoming personal demons.
Character succeeds through clever deception.
Character succeeds by restoring chaos to an orderly situation.
Character succeeds by trusting an “untrustworthy” friend.
Character succeeds by restoring order to a chaotic situation.
The card you get seems to dictate that Kate Ballinger will have to trust an “untrustworthy” friend.
You and the other students are now asked to either write down or verbally hash out a story based on these five cards.
Is it hard? Sometimes.
Now, like most creators of exercises, I, the hobo, am usually the worst at actually doing the assigned task. If I received this set of cards, I’d probably come up with a story about Kate Ballinger, an attorney of about fifty who has an unfortunate habit of abandoning jobs as soon as she starts to feel too comfortable and secure. She considers this an “ancient curse,” inherited from her father, whose employment record was at best irregular and kept the family living from paycheck to questionable paycheck. She is in Chicago’s Union Station with her assistant, Miss Maggs, a demoniacally efficient person but with questionable loyalties. Kate and Maggs are ostensibly headed for the suburb of Highland Park to meet with a potential new client.
Kate has surreptitiously bought an Amtrak ticket for Milwaukee, from where she plans to phone in a resignation to her current employer. The weather is terrible. All the trains are delayed. Even so, Kate is determined to go through with her plan, but first she has to distract Miss Maggs long enough to get to the Amtrak departure gates. Now, Miss Maggs wouldn’t mind having Kate’s job for herself, but her mania for efficiency may prevent her from actually doing something to clear the way for Kate’s escape, fortuitous as it may be to herself. This leaves us with two questions as we approach the story’s climax: 1.) Will Kate finally break her self-destructive pattern and 2.) Will Miss Maggs, intentionally or otherwise, help Kate to do the “right thing,” whether that’s to abandon her job or to stay with the firm?
Now, that’s a scenario by me, admittedly a lousy player of this game, done at the spur of the moment with a set of five cards I randomly chose. Most of my students, many of whom are first embarking on the notion of writing fiction, can come up with better ones. Try it yourself with each of the unused category items here.
The point is, you may ask, why? Why play with this stuff?
First and foremost, because students learn better and faster when they’re doing, rather than just listening or even discussing.
Second, the exercise helps illustrate the notion that a story needs to have certain things to work. I’ve called them “elements,” but now I’m thinking a better term might be “dimensions.” If you have them, you can make a story. If you don’t have them, you’ll have to find them.
Third, because it demonstrates that it’s not so difficult to put together a story. It may be built into our natures. Our brains may be wired to think in terms of story* – which is why we can be given these five random cards and make a story out of them. It needn’t be a great story; it doesn’t even have to be a good story; it just has to be a story.
Many students have done the exercise, put it aside and never looked at it again. Others have developed, continued and completed stories started from the cards. Many of them have been pretty damn good.
The point is not to make story writing seem simple, or esoteric, or to advocate a process of writing fiction. The cards simply help people understand that stories have parts – or elements, or dimensions, or whatever lingo you wish to use – and that we can understand our own process – and the processes that others use – better when we can recognize those parts.
Postscript: Plotto’s Republic
I’ve been doing this card exercise for years. I’ve used variations of it in my science fiction writing classes and as part of two- and three-day workshops at conventions.
It grew from things I read about legendary “plot wheels” that pulp writers used in the early part of the twentieth century. You can see one online that is supposed to have been used by Earle Stanley Garner.
Another touchstone for the pulp-era necessity (at least for some) of a “plot generator” was the fabled tome by William Wallace Cook, Plotto. It was an elaborate index of plots derived from numbered, lettered lists of character types, sources of conflict and means for resolution. A writer could choose one from each of these lists and have a plot to work from in an instant.
Many writers saw that as being the sole purpose of the book. Fiction writers, especially writers of pulp or popular fiction, had to be prolific. Some of the most legendary writers of the era – Frederick Faust (aka Max Brand), Walter Gibson (aka Maxwell Grant), Lester Dent (aka Kenneth Robeson), Edgar Wallace (aka “Edgar Wallace”), and so on – wrote at great speed and volume. Quantity was as important, if not more so, than quality. By spinning the wheel, or picking “one from column A and one from column B, you would have a plot and a couple of wooden characters to go through its motions: fiction not quite on an assembly line but conceived to be shot out in rapid fire succession.
A great deal of fiction is turned out in such a fashion. “Series” books have been a staple of the publishing world for as long as the publishing world has existed. Fiction generated for the media – radio, TV, films – has been pumped out with alacrity (or something less so) for ages.
In the back pages of various writers’ magazines (or their electronic equivalents) one can find ads for various kinds of software that pick up pretty much from where Plotto left off. If there is a way to make the writing of fiction for any media as purely mechanical a process as possible, you can bet there’s someone out there trying either to create it or exploit it, or both.
One person, though, who stated he wasn’t looking for the perfectly-machined story, antiseptic, clean and free of any human fingerprints or sweat, was… William Wallace Cook.
Throughout his book, Cook insists that his plot-making machinery is merely the first step in a process that should be completed with one’s own experience and creative input. Give the same plot to five different writers and you will receive in return five significantly different stories. “Each person that lives, has ever lived or shall live is, was or will be a collector of ideas combined into a certain thing called experience. My experience is not your experience; and that means that neither you nor I, when accomplishing original work, will accomplish identical work. If it were otherwise, there would be no originality in the world.” (Tin House Books edition, page 2 of the “manual” in the back of the book)
What’s more, at times he suggests that the study of creating imaginative works is not merely of benefit to writers. He suggests that writing is a kind of problem-solving, and a means of investigation or exploration.
If we’re doing it right, writing is a learning process – a way to collect and understand experience.
“Whether a man shall sell mousetraps or life insurance, stories or drygoods, he will find in his imagination a power which, furthering his originality, will bring him pleasure and profit such as he has never known before.” (as above, page 38)
I would make no guarantee to any “pleasure and profit,” but I wouldn’t discount the possibility, either. In that regard, I’m glad to discover that Cook precedes me on the road that I’m traveling, and not in any superficial way. When we learn to write we write to learn, because that’s what really makes it worth doing.
*See THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: How Stories Make Us Human. Jonathan Gottschall. xviii + 248 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012