WritersBloxx – A Box Of Story Prompts Disguised As A Game

An Interview with Gary Zenker

WritersBloxx box contents
WritersBloxx on Kickstarter

One of the best things about plugging into the writing community — online and off—is that you find yourself surrounded by people with creative and innovative ideas that spark your creativity as well as their own.

One such person is Gary Zenker who is, among other things, a writer and a game designer.

Gary’s new storytelling game, WritersBloxx is the perfect tool for StoryADay writers, who already enjoy writing prompts and want to be more productive.

I used Gary’s WritersBloxx game at two Flash Fiction workshops this spring. The prompts got the workshop attendees writing, laughing, applauding each other and, in a few cases, wiping away a tear or two.

The game’s up on Kickstarter until July 31, 2017, and I highly recommend you check it out.

Recently Gary and I got together for an interview. He’s also going to be featured on the podcast soon, so watch out for that.

Check out the Kickstarter for WritersBloxx.

What is WritersBloxx?

Gary: WritersBloxx is a storytelling party game and a writers prompt tool.

You use 20-sided dice and special PromptGrids to generate random writing prompt combinations. There are six categories of prompts: Timing, Genre, Object, Setting, Character and Event.

WritersBloxx Story Grid and Dice

In Party Play mode, you have six minutes to create a story using all of them.

At the end of the round, you compare the stories and score a point for each prompt used and an additional point for each player vote for Best Story.

Can people complete an entire story in six minutes?

Gary: Some do. Others don’t. The goal isn’t necessarily to finish the story, but to get a good piece of it done, work all of the required elements into it and make it interesting. Six minutes go fast.

So are there any plot twists in the playing of the game?

Gary: Absolutely. The ultimate version of the game includes a set of PlotTwist Cards.

Midway through the story, the card gives you a direction to change something. You might add an object, make your entire story as written so far a dream sequence, or even be forced to kill your main character.

So there’s always something to make it more challenging if you think it was too easy.

How does it work for writers?

Gary: Individual writers decide on their own time limits depending on what they are trying to do.

If they want to challenge their writing speed, they can stick to short time limits like the party mode. If they want to test their ability to write more complete stories, they can set longer limits or not have any limits at all.

Groups of writers can use it to examine how they think and approach the same words and concepts differently.

How does a short time-frame and words that don’t go together solve writers block? You would think it would make writing much much harder.

Gary: It’s ironic but sometimes the more restrictive prompts spur creativity greater than easier ones. When faced with a much harder task, our subconscious goes to work.

Of course, it could just be desperation as well (laughing).

Either way, the entire goal is to challenge yourself and have fun while doing it.

And you’ve done some special things to accommodate writers of different genre?

Gary: Yes! The PromptGrids that come with the game span all genre and offer a wide selection of prompts.

WritersBloxx users can get PromptGrids for specific writing genre, like crime, horror, romance, even erotica. And there are two designed specifically for younger kids.

There’s a last part of this that makes it much bigger and different than other tools and games. Posting the stories publicly.

Gary: Yes. I like the idea of taking a table game or a personal writing tool and it becoming something that creates a larger community. Sharing the stories online with others who can see your prompts is just a natural for a tool like this.

Well, our six minute interview round is up!

Gary: See, six minutes goes faster than you think!

There’s probably just enough time left to thank you for interviewing me and recommend that all the writers who use WritersBloxx to use Story-A-Day to further leverage their creativity.

Gary Zenker is the developer of WritersBloxx and a writer himself of flash fiction (stories under 1,000 words).


Check out the Kickstarter for WritersBloxx, and tell him I sent you!

Write on Wednesday – Quick Story Formula

This is an awesome way to quickly launch (and finish) a new story, any time you have time to write but are short on inspiration. Try it!

green chalkboard with mathematical formulae

Use this story formula to to create an interesting character, give them a desire, kick off some intriguing action and plan the kind of resolution you want.

Once you have that skeleton, you can start filling in colorful details…and soon your creative brain will be demanding you start to write!

The Prompt

A _______ (adjective) ________(noun), who _________(verb) ___________(subject), then _________(related verb) __________(resolution)

TIPS

  • Using these kinds of limits short-circuits your inner editor and makes ‘writing a story’ seem much more manageable. Just take it step by step.
  • Make sure you give your character an adjective that implies some desire (e.g. ‘ambitious’ not ‘young’; or ‘contented’ – which implies that their desire is for the status quo to remain unchanged)
  • Use the middle set of blanks to kick off the action (use a verb that implies change: “discovers”, “uncovers”, “decides”, “is forced to”, “commits to”, “resists”, “invents”, “journeys”)
  • Use the final set of blanks to define what kind of ending you want. Will it be a happy ending? Will it be bittersweet? Will your character achieve their desire or lose it? Will they learn something or not?
  • Paint the big picture first (e.g. A “dissatisfied woman”, who “uncovers something about a rival”, then “uses that knowledge to get what she wants”, or “discovers she has everything she needs, all ready”)
  • Now add some details and desires. Think about what would be fun/exciting/engaging for you to write about (e.g. “An ambitious mommy-blogger”, who “finds out her biggest rival has been lying on her blog”, then “uses that knowledge to ruin her rival and make her own blog successful”, or “realizes how shallow her ambitions had been and decides to refocus”)
  • Next, add even more detail, with desires, needs, colorful details. You don’t have to fill in any details of *how* the resolution comes about, just the overall thrust of it.
  • Don’t worry that your story will be formulaic. The originality comes in the details you choose, the characters you create and the situations you dream up for them. You and I could both use my mommy-blogger idea and I guarantee you our stories would be wildly different.
  • Try writing different options for each of the sets of blanks. If you don’t love your first ending option, try something different. If your character’s adjective makes her unappealing to you, try a different one.
  • Going through this exercise helps keep your story on track. If you know, at the start, how you want the story to end (even if you don’t know the details of how you’ll make that happen), it limits your choices, and lets you choose between three or four sets of action for your character. Knowing whether you want it to be a happy ending or a bitter one, makes it much easier to decide on the types of choices you make (N. B. Neither is inherently better. It all depends on what you enjoy reading/writing and what kind of audience you want to attract).
  • Don’t be afraid of this, if you’re a ‘pantser’. This is not a restrictive outline that will constrain your creativity. Rather, it is a set of guideposts that will get you where you want to be (i.e. at the end of a satisfying story).

If you’re intrigued by this, sign up to find out when I release a new mini-course that will take you through this exact process — with examples and resources to help. (Get the StoryADay Creativity Bundle for free, as soon as you sign up.)

 

Settings – A Writing Prompt from Josh Barkan

Writing exercise: (20 minutes)

Choose a place that you know well, which you have strong feelings about. Describe that place, first when you are in a happy mood. (10 minutes) Then describe the place when you are in a sad mood. (10 minutes)

What difference did you note?

Writing exercise: (30 minutes)

What is described in a particular setting often depends upon the point of view of the story. Describe a real park you have visited, first in the first person point of view through the eyes of a young man or young woman in love (15 minutes), and then through the eyes of an old widow or widower (15 minutes).

What differences in setting did you notice, even though it was the same park?

 

Tips:

The purpose of these exercises is to realize that setting is never neutral. Setting descriptions are subjective. So your setting should always evoke a mood. Think of your setting as another character. The setting should help us feel the mood of the scene you are describing. If there is conflict in the scene, then the setting should be described harshly, in a way that evokes the harshness of the moment. If the scene is a warm scene, with love, then the setting should reveal that warmth.

 

About Josh Barkan

Josh Barkan is the author of MEXICO. Josh Barkan has won the Lightship International Short Story Prize and been a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the Paterson Fiction Prize, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing has appeared in Esquire. He earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at Harvard, Boston University, and New York University. With his wife, a painter from Mexico, he divides his time between Mexico City and Roanoke, Virginia. For writing advice from Barkan and other top-notch short story writers, download Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing.

 

Hansel & Gretel – A Writing Prompt for May 30, 2017

Today I wrap up the story structure series with a bang.

The Prompt

Write a Hansel & Gretel Structured Story

Tips

  • The Life-Changing Moment in this story structure, comes at the start.
  • The Life-Changing Moment may have happened ‘off-stage’ before the story starts (imagine the story of Hansel and Gretel where the kids are already alone in the woods. That would work, right?)
  • Remember to focus on what your character would never, ever choose to do, and how the circumstances are forcing them to face that (for example, Hansel and Gretel would never disobey/mistrust the adults in their life, but life is giving them a pretty clear directive to do just that).
  • This story starts with a big moment, and then throw complications at your character. Once you’ve told us enough about the character for us to figure out how they’re going to survive, you can end the story.
  • If you’d like to read more about this story structure, check out this post.

Don’t forget to post in the community or leave a comment to tell us how you got on today.

The Ugly Duckling – a writing prompt for May 29

Today we continue looking at story structure: this time, with what I call the Ugly Duckling Structure.

The Prompt

Watch the video and write an Ugly Duckling story

Tips

The ‘life-changing moment’ comes in the middle of this story

Balance out every challenge from before that moment, with a similar, but different moment afterwards. Show us how the character (or their circumstances) have changed now.

This story might have to be longer than a Cinderella-type story. Sketch it out, if you don’t have time to do it justice today.

Read this post, which talks more about the Ugly Duckling structure.

Don’t forget to leave a comment or post in the community and tell us how you’re getting on. What have you learned this month, so far?

Non-Traditional Love Story – a writing prompt for May 27, 2017

The Prompt

Write A Non-Traditional Love Story

Tips

  • You could use non-traditional partners for your love story (it doesn’t have to be romantic love; and if it is, it doesn’t have to be between straight, white people).
  • The way you tell the story could be non-traditional (it could be told in a non-narrative form).
  • Here’s my review of The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec by John Chu (with links to the story).

Letters – a writing prompt for May 26, 2017

Today I throw you one of my favorite prompts, because I love reading these kinds of stories.

The Prompt

Write a story in the form of a series of letters

Tips

  • The ‘letters’ can be anything really: letters, journal entries, found documents, Tweets, Facebook updates…
  • The letters can come from only one person — in which case we hear only one side of the story.
  • The letters might come from various sources and in various time periods.
  • You might mix letters with documentary evidence (school report cards, obituaries clipped from a newspaper, a termination document from an employer).
  • Your writing might be in the form of a ‘gospel’ for a new religious or political cult.
  • This might grow to be a bigger project than you can handle in one day…

Prose Sonnet – A writing prompt for May 25, 2017

Today’s prompt sticks with this week’s theme of pushing the form of the short story away from the idea of it as a ‘mini novel’.

Short stories are incredibly versatile and short story readers are willing to work for their thrills. Let’s get to it:

The Prompt

Write a prose sonnet: a story 14 sentences long

Tips

  • Of course, our prose sonnets aren’t going to rhyme or be in any particular rhythm (although you can shoot for that if you like).
  • You can draw inspiration from traditional sonnet forms. For example, it could follow the structure of a Petrarchan sonnet which presents an argument or observation in the first 8 lines (sentences, in this case), then a  turn in the next line. Then you can spend the rest of the story ‘answering’ the question/observation/argument of the start.
  • You could model your story on a Shakespearean sonnet: three groups of four related sentences, and a final two-sentence ending that perhaps turns the story upside down OR reinforces its message.
  • You could go from the specific to the general and end with a universal truth, or set the story up the other way around.
  • One powerful image might be all you need in a story this length: a grandparent with their grandchild, feeding the ducks, for example. Placed at either end of your story (or in the middle), this image might allow you to illustrate a theme on relatable, specific and still universal levels.
  • You could also write a sonnet ‘sequence’, if your story demands more room. That would mean you write groups of ‘scenes’ in 14 sentences each until your story is finished.
  • For more on the form, read this.

 

The List – a writing prompt for May 23, 2017

The Prompt

Write a story in the form of a list

Tips

  • You could write
    • a ‘to do’ list,
    • a list of grievances addressed to your character’s boss/children/spouse;
    • a shopping list;
    • a McSweeney’s style list;
    • a list of steps you are advising someone to take,
    • any other type of list you like.
  • The title is hugely important. You might need to write it last. It should perhaps have a double meaning: it might mean one thing to the reader before they read the story and yet peel away a layer once the story is in their brains.
  • Don’t be afraid to let the reader work. Leave things out. Imply much, explain little.
  • Don’t feel the need to wrap this up neatly. Jennifer Egan doesn’t.
  • The twist in this kind of tale, comes because the form betrays the meaning: a list is a utilitarian, ephemeral thing. The more important/dramatic the issue your character takes on in the list, the more impact the story will have (this can be dramatic, funny, ridiculous, dark, or anything else!)

Go!

Sumptuous Settings – a writing prompt

Today I encourage you to make your prose as purple as you like, in a quest to find out how much description you really need.

The Prompt

Write a story (set in your novel’s world) that makes sensation a priority. Use all five senses.

Tips

  • Don’t be afraid to write ridiculously floral prose today. You can always dial it back, but it’s fun to find new ways of describing things.
  • Don’t worry too much about pacing or characterization. This is an exploration of your world and the sensations a character might experience, walking through it.
  • Get outside, if you have to. Listen to things. Smell the world. See what you can feel. Then come back inside and write.

Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!

Societal World Building – a writing prompt

Today we look at a less tangible aspect of world-building: What makes your society the way it is?

21The Prompt

Write a story focusing on an aspect of society that matters to you/your story. How did society get to a place where this is important?

Tips

  • You’ll probably have to go back into history for this (or ‘history’, if your world is completely made up).
  • Think about issues like gender/race/economic/religious norms. How did they get where they are? What made the norms, normal?
  • Pick something that matters to you. Don’t try to explain everything, just the thing that makes your blood boil, or that gets you excited.

Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!

Concrete World Building – a writing prompt

Today I invite you to do some world-building, either for a novel in progress or for a story world you’d like to spend more time in, focusing on concrete aspects of the world.

The Prompt

Write a story that focuses on the discovery/invention/ramifications of something that shapes your characters’ physical world.

Tips

  • Some questions you might ask: Why do we have roads? What invention led us to spend our evenings the way we do? What does your futuristic society have that might need explained? How did those things come about?
  • Write a story based on the transition point between a world with those things and the world that came before (think: Marty McFly in Back to the Future arriving at his younger-mom’s house the very day her father hooked up their first TV. Rolling the TV into their dining room that first time, probably affected their family dinners forever!)

Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!

Secondary Meeting – a writing prompt

Today’s writing prompt invites you to look back into your characters’ past again.

 

The Prompt

Imagine the first (significant) meeting between your protagonist and a secondary character

Tips

  • Again, if you’re not a novelist, imagine this scenario for a short story you’ve written in the past, or for one you’re planning.
  • If your novel-in-progress’s protagonist has a best friend, that might be the perfect person to choose here. If they have a ‘frenemy’, this story could shed some light on that relationship. You can even do this with a villain, if they have a history that begins before the novel starts.
  • Show us this meeting. Set up some of the dynamics we’ll recognize between the two characters later.
  • If your work-in-progress doesn’t have a great candidate for this story, invent one. A friend in the protagonist’s past, that we never meet in the later work, could set her expectations for all future friends (good or bad). Examine that.
  • If you need help getting to the emotional heart of the matter, take a look at Donald Maass’s newest book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Don’t forget to leave a comment letting us know how you got on, or come on in to the community and do your Victory Dance!

 

The Protagonist’s Journal – A writing prompt

Continuing our series of prompts to help novelists as well as short story writers, today I encourage you to move forward a little in your protagonist’s timeline, but still stay before the main story.

The Prompt

Write a story about the days leading up to the beginning of your novel, or your story’s big incident. Alternatively, write a journal of those days from your protagonist’s point of view.

Tips

  • Use this story to ‘brain dump’ all the stuff that your reader doesn’t want to wade through before they get to the jumping-off-point for your story.
  • You can use this knowledge to season the story later, with a light hand.
  • Remember, you can recycle these stories are freebies and giveaways to help you promote your novel and build your audience.

Don’t forget to leave a comment to let us know how you got on, or post in The Victory Dance

Turning Point – A writing prompt for novelists

This week I’m focusing on prompts that novelists can use. If you’re  novelist, I don’t want you to feel like you’re wasting your time here at StoryADay May. While short story writers can easily use these prompts, too, you novelists will find much in them that enriches your work-in-progress.

Let’s dive in:

The Prompt

Write a story that investigates a turning point in your protagonist’s past.

Tips

  • Every interesting character has an internal struggle fighting with (or complementing) the external struggle of the plot. It usually stems from a character flaw/defect/protection mechanism they’ve been building for years. Use this prompt to write a story that captures the beginning of that character development.
  • If you don’t have a novel or work in progress, investigate a character from an earlier story you’ve written (or one you hope to write).

Lisa Cron’s Story Genius (referenced in the video) can be found here or requested through your local indie bookstore.