Category Archives: Writing resources

Rolling the story dice

I’m really grateful for the online community I built as a kid interested in the Redwall series. I might talk about it more at length another day, but for now, know that I grew up alongside a diverse group of creative people of all ages, many of whose art I still follow today. Carolyn Paplham is one of those people – she makes delightfully whimsical, imaginative art that could have come straight from my childhood stories.

She’s been posting some Inktober drawings lately, and in one of her pictures, I noticed she was using what looked like my creative kryptonite: physical random generators. So I asked about them. Turns out, they were Rory’s Story Cubes.

Needless to say, I acquired all three sets immediately. (If you only get one for yourself or an artistfriend, I recommend the original set.)

I’ve been tossing two or three cubes together at random intervals and jotting down the ideas that flow forth. I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo (more on that in the days ahead!), so I’m spending time on my characters, plot points, and world details – meaning that more often than not, my Story Cube free-associations have given me fodder for November.

For example, one toss of the dice presented a thought bubble + a person in the act of being startled. I took it as an opportunity to jot down each of my main characters’ biggest fear, embarrassment, and hatred.

(I plan to use the outcomes of this exercise against my trio at every opportunity.)

Another toss got me thinking about a key moment early on in the story where the characters encounter something under light-hearted circumstances that, towards the end, becomes crucial to survival. I always want scenes in my books to serve at least two purposes, so when the dice showed a bowl of rice and a smiley face, I decided to make the light-hearted circumstances be visiting a miquil restaurant (for world-building purposes).

If I was reviewing Rory’s Story Cubes, I’d give them a 5/5. I’m all about embracing the little tics of imagination that lead to real inspiration, and the Cubes help me right along. Write along? Whatever. Yes.

15 ways to use random generators

I’m not going to sugar-coat it: I love random generators. I have since I was nine or ten and writing my first code – for a random generator. I made it make funny sentences. It was stupid and useless and amazing.

Since then, I’ve used them as an integral part of my writing process. Writer’s block has no place in a world with random generators. You might use dice, a coin, or Seventh Sanctum’s academic magical realm generator – it’s all the same to me. Use the power of random to break past your writing blocks in one of these fifteen ways. (And check out each link – I’ve found more than 15 great generators for your bookmarking enjoyment.)

1. Take the next step.

Getting stuck happens at all stages of a project: before you’ve written a word, after you’ve jotted down notes, or when you hit 70% completion. There are lots of ways to blast past it, but here’s a simple one: use a random word generator like watchout4snakes to let someone else (or something, rather) write the next word for you. It might make no sense in context, but at least it won’t be your fault. Rinse and repeat until you’re back in the groove.

2. Think outside the box.

Another way to combat stuck-ness is to go spinning off in a wildly different direction. A generator of words big and small can give you a truly random element that your brain can nomnomnom to crap out fresh material, when forced to fit this into your existing piece.

Bonus challenge: Don’t change anything about the generator’s output. Try to get it in there untouched. Not sure how you’re going to talk about coding or suppered in your essay about your child’s first steps? Too bad.

3. Ask, “What if?”

Random generators can help you ask interesting “what-if” questions. Say you’re stuck trying to figure out what your protagonist is going to do next after waking up. Using a random word generator, you might ask yourself, “What if he realized he was in a digital world?” then “What if he was in a digital media that he recognized, like his favorite TV show?” then “What if his reality started to overlap with his favorite TV show?!” As you can see, you probably wouldn’t have gone off in an alternate reality direction with this story, but it’s one path past your writer’s block.

If you haven’t started your project yet, what-if questions can help you hunt down a concept worth writing about. Seventh Sanctum offers a what-if generator that proposes questions about well-known historical and literary figures, for one angle on this tactic.

4. Present an alternative.

Maybe you’ve got to solve a character’s very specific problem, like how to get her birth certificate out of her evil brother’s safe, because your original idea (breaking in with lockpicking skills) just doesn’t feel right. This is where “what-ifs” aren’t enough and you need to turn to the “what-if-instead” question.

Go back to that random word generator and use its output to propose what-if-instead questions: “What if instead, she used gasoline to start a fire that made him panic and unlock the safe?” or “What if instead of stealing her own identity back, she stole his identity and got out of the country on credit?” Let the words swirl around and knock up against your problem until you find a solution.

5. Jump away.

There’s that weird phenomenon where staring at a star makes it seem dimmer than looking at it sideways; the same can often be said of breaking past a block on a project. Come at your writer’s block sideways by working on a different project entirely. A random generator can get you thinking about something else far removed from what you’re stuck on.

I’ve found one of the best ways to get out of a serious project’s funk is to write something totally goofy. Here’s one very silly – yet intriguing – story generator from StoryWonk to get you started. I can’t wait to pick up a copy of your novel about a good-natured Elvis impersonator with an ancient amulet.

6. Introduce someone new.

A story isn’t really a story until there’s conflict, and your story could need more friction – in the form of a brand new character (also known as a victim the author hasn’t met yet). Take the fake character generator for a spin. It uses details like zodiac signs, personal web addresses, and vehicle type to flesh out a virtually-constructed stranger, who you can drop right into your tale with a motivation.

In fact, here comes Sebhat Petros, that dang structural metal fitter who works at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in Pittsburgh and wants nothing more than to reunite with a mysterious sales executive. Boom. Conflict.

7. Change a name.

You always kind of know when a character isn’t quite right. There’s something about them that doesn’t ring true – maybe it’s their name. Using your instincts, and a few choice keywords or cultural selections on a random generator like Behind the Name’s, select a brand new moniker for the offending character.

Don’t like the sound of “Sammy” for your battle-hardened lieutenant with the dark past? Benjamin Caetano sounds like he’s a little softer on the inside than he’d like you to know. Or possibly Sammy is short for Samuli, which he’d die if his squadron found out. As they grow into the sound or the meaning of it, you could find yourself seeing throughlines in your character’s story that you’d totally missed before.

8. Provide a fresh perspective.

So you’ve got your narrator, and they’re reliable (or not), and you’ll probably keep writing this piece from their perspective. But what if you…didn’t? Use a random character generator, like any on Seventh Sanctum’s generous list, to spit out a being or two you whose outlook on life might throw a new light on your tale. A funny assassin, maybe, or a half-nymph necromancer.

Even if you don’t end up using it in the final work, looking at your story or setting through the eyes of a different kind of character can really change what kind of story you end up telling (see this essay on the movie Zootopia for a compelling example).

9. Spark your imagination.

Writers of speculative fiction don’t really need excuses to worldbuild, but a random planet generator can bring fresh territory into play (literally) for a story gone stale. Instead of taking place on Earth, set your story on Ellerkin Major, home of the Ellurians, nomadic reptiles with pale skin and four eyes. Imagine the kinds of spaceships they’d need…

Or introduce a new villain straight out of Chaotic Shiny’s monster generator. Your protagonist will have a hell of a time fighting off a human-sized, ethereal, rodent-like beast named Brad. Keep what you want, discard what you don’t, and keep on writin’.

10. Give it a title.

Not sure where to start? Throw a randomly generated title at the top of a blank page. You can probably imagine where The Crow and the Mirror or The Supreme Toad might lead you.

That’s the easy version of this tactic, though; the super exciting advanced version challenges you to rename something you’ve already started, or giving a random name to something you’d planned on carefully entitling. Try this book title generator, which takes a genre and generates some vague titles that sound just cliché enough to exist already – like Heirs of Sorrow or Signs in the Catacombs.

11. Provide visual stimuli.

I use Flickr for my story research, usually by typing “portraits” and browsing faces until I find one that fits my character, but it’s also got a great random feature: the “Explore interesting photos of the last seven days” page. Click “RELOAD!” until you’ve found a picture that compels you to write its story, or add its setting or contents to your existing project, and you’re off and away.

12. Pick a topic.

Sure, sure, write what you know – the adage isn’t wrong. But I take real joy in getting to research the heck out of a subject when I’m planning to write what I don’t know (because I’m a details nerd). When you’re hoping to think outside the box to find a topic, but obviously don’t know what you don’t know, Wikipedia’s random article function can kick-start your brainstorming.

How about the tale of the first supernatural student at ISF Waterloo? Or an investigative essay about the fate of Pewabic Pottery‘s most famous works? You get the picture.

13. Introduce a new conflict.

This is also known as the “suddenly” tactic. Using random generators like the attitude generator, conflict generator, or the sticky situation generator, introduce a new problematic element into your project.

Let’s say your detective protagonist and her sidekick are on a cruise ship and need to kill some time before, well, the villain kills the victim. Instead of just having them wander around, make it so that suddenly, woman vs. nature flares up in the guise of a terrible storm, and the sidekick’s nautical training from her grandfather kicks in. Or suddenly, your heroine meets a charming man who will swindle her, perhaps out of a secret she can’t afford to tell. Or, suddenly, your sidekick becomes doubtful towards the heroine, due to her friends, and is stubborn about it, and you’ve got inter-character conflict to spice things up until the body is found and they have to set aside their differences to solve the crime.

14. Feed someone else an idea.

Writers usually know other writers, and most writers are always sniffing around for new ideas. If one of your writerly acquaintances is in need of a conceptual seed (ew?),  give Seventh Sanctum’s random generator random generator a whirl. Your friend will think you’re a creative genius! (Meanwhile, you’re hoarding the best the generators have to offer, and giving them the so-so ideas. I mean, who cares about Omni Team Diamond Five anyway?)

15. Choose one or the other.

So you’ve exhausted all other options, and you’re still stuck. Narrow your next move down to two choices, then flip a coin (real or Random.org) to choose one. No take-backsies! You have to go with it. That’s the point of setting the challenge.

I hope I’ve made it clear how much random generators can add to your writing process, and that I haven’t overwhelmed you with so many ideas that you don’t know which one to pick. (My answer to you, if that’s where you’re at? Put your ideas in the list randomizer and OBEY THE RANDOM.)

May all your moments of writer’s block become moments of weird and wacky inspiration instead!