Sunday, July 17, 2005

Random Story Idea Generators

I am somewhat ambivalent about systems to generate story ideas at random. I have tried it, but the results were somewhat mixed. I had a set of Native American "Sacred Path Cards" (I have no real clue as to authenticity of these cards, but given my brief exposure to working on the local Navaho reservation, I have my doubts). I drew one card at random ("Counting Coup," I believe it was), looked up the meaning of the card, and came up with a story based around that concept. It was an interesting exercise, but I can't say as the story really thrilled me. I did write a complete story, and it certainly had a message that was related to the card, but it was nowhere near one of my better stories. I've seen other idea generators based on the same principle. If you want to try it for yourself, you can go to this link and use an applet based on the site's "Archetype Cards." The cards, by the way, are beautiful, so there may be some inspiration there just in that.

I'm certain that cards and other gimmicks can generate an idea for a story. The story I wrote certainly shows that. So from that standpoint, if you're really stuck for something to write about, maybe they might get the creative juices flowing. On the other hand, I have a couple of problems with this method. First of all, any plot needs to have some kind of logical consistency. Holly Lisle has recommended drawing a random map for your story's world and then trying to explain all the squiggles in a logical manner. I think that works well for background (which is inherently non-story), but I don't think it works so well when you're trying to tie random plot elements together. Anything which doesn't directly advance the story, must be cut out. The odds of one of these random plot elements surviving that test is fairly small. Secondly -- and more importantly -- however, as I've said in previous entries, if you personally don't have a stake in the story as a writer, your readers aren't going to have a stake in it either. It is very difficult to have a personal stake in a random plot.

In general, I think as long you don't force yourself to stick with the idea and plot elements generated by these systems, you're probably okay. They might even be useful. You may start a story based on these cards (or whatever device you are using), but end up branching off into a tale you really care about. That's great, just remember to go back and chop the extra stuff that no longer fits. My experience has been, though, that if a writer is observing the world around him, then ideas are a dime a dozen. The cards may be another source of inspiration, and that's fine. But just don't forsake the real world around you for inspiration as well.

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