I trialled a writing exercise in early 2012 with my writer’s group, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG), based on the annual Write-a-Book-in-a-Day contest. In the contest, teams are given a set of randomly selected story elements (2 human characters, a non-human character, a setting, an issue and some random words) and have 12 hours to produce a collective story of about 8,000 words. In the exercise with CSFG, I also added one of Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations to the mix, had the group put the characters into a relationship triangle (courtesy of fellow-CSFG member Chris Andrews) and then had the group build the story on Chris’s Hollywood movie structure. I left out the random words as being inconsequential to the process.
As an exercise in story generation, it bears the same kind of relationship to most writers’ processes of inspiration as the Karate Kid painting the fence and waxing Mr Miyagi’s car does to him kicking the arses of black-pyjamaed villains. That is, it’s like a drill, and I think it does what a drill does – trains your writerly muscles and reflexes. I subsequently delivered the same exercise as part of a formal workshop, and one of the participants afterwards described it as “very intellectual” – to which I added “mechanical”, because it does have that feel until, at a certain point, the group puts the pieces together in a particular way and suddenly… SPARKS!
The story elements we started with in the CSFG exercise were:
Three characters – a hunter, “Tony”, and an invisible talking rabbit (non-imaginary)
A setting – a snowy alpine forest
An issue – megalomania
A dramatic situation – suffering of an unjust punishment
Here’s a picture of our group planning on the whiteboard:
To follow the exercise through, I wrote out the story from the plan, hopefully adhering reasonably well to my own advice about delivering beginnings, middles and endings, characters and details. As a product of such an unnatural-feeling generation process, I think it’s got the makings of quite a serviceable story.
Of course, trying as an individual, rather than with a group, to get similar quality story ideas out of these kinds of random elements is a much harder exercise. (Although writing it as an individual is waaay easier than trying to write the damn thing as a group – here’s the result of CSFG’s entry in the 2012 Write-a-Book-in-a-Day contest, planned and written by committee.) But harder is not necessarily a bad thing. The 24-hour story challenge that forms part of the Writers of the Future workshop has a broadly comparable basis in random elements, although it’s less structured. My experience of that exercise was similarly positive. The story I wrote from it, “Rust Night”, can be found through the Stories page of this website.
written by me
story by the CSFG Hive Mind
Edgar paused, scarcely breathing. His prey was close. Slowly, he drew back the string of the bow. And waited.
“Over here,” a voice hissed.
A breathy giggle raced ahead of Edgar as he whirled. Snow sprayed from the side of a drift. He loosed. A hoot of mirth. The arrow thunked into the bole of a tree.
Edgar let out his breath, a long plume in the frigid mountain air.
He spun, reaching over his shoulder for the quiver that wasn’t there. There was a flurry on the slope above him. Then nothing.
“Damn,” he said, then shouted, “Damn you!”
The echoes of his cry bounced back at him.
Almost, he wept. Broke his bow over his knee and flung himself to the ground. Almost.
He strode down to retrieve his arrow, boots sinking deep into the snow.
Damn the witch for keeping a stag for a familiar, and for letting it roam on common land. What did the stupid hag expect to happen? Damn her vengeful black heart.
He levered the arrow free of the tree trunk.
One unwitting, honest mistake, and here he was, trapped on this mountainside until he completed this impossible hunt.
No, Edgar told himself. Not impossible. He had shot plenty of things without seeing them, found his mark from nothing but a whisper of sound, a movement of air.
He climbed up to where he had last heard the trickster’s voice. The tracks in the snow were shallow. He followed them until they slowed enough to become clearer.
Edgar frowned. The tracks looked for all the world like rabbit tracks.
The witch Antonia watched the huntsman from her scrying window as he laboured up the slope. Her lip curled in satisfaction.
“He is not stupid, you know,” said a whispery, singsong voice from behind her.
She didn’t bother to turn, swept her hand over the cold glass. The window showed the bare, frosted branches of the sycamores outside. Beyond them, deep green spruce trees climbed the sides of the valley.
“He will figure it out, sooner or later – that killing me is not his way out of this.” The trickster giggled. “And then he will come for you.”
“If he kills you, I will set him free,” she snapped. But would she? He had slain her familiar, after all. What fool shoots a silver hart, anyway? Even the most cretinous peasant should know better than that.
“But he cannot kill me,” the trickster hissed, by her right ear.
“He cannot,” from high to her left.
“He cannot,” from the floor in front of her feet.
She kicked. Predictably, its giggles came from across the room. Antonia closed her fingers around the knife she kept in her left sleeve.
“He will know,” the trickster gloated. “Because I shall tell him so. And then he will come for you.”
She swiveled on her heel. The knife shot from her hand. She watched it sail out through the open window in the opposite wall.
The trickster’s laughter trailed back to her from the forest outside.
Edgar blew into his cupped hands, then tucked them under his arms, leaning over his fire. The dismantled carcass of a bush turkey lay on the snow beside him.
He fought to push aside his despair and think through his predicament. After tracking his prey for several days, he had established a rough pattern to its movements, a number of preferred paths and places it frequented. He could try snaring it. Of course, he would never know if the trickster was watching him while he set his traps, but it only had to miss one.
“You cannot catch me,” it whispered, close beside him.
“You cannot, you cannot, you cannot.” Its voice bounced around, from his right to his left, up in the trees, across the fire.
“You leave tracks,” Edgar said. “I can hunt you.”
“But not always. Not always, not always.”
It giggled. Then, from directly above his head, “And I see you. I know what you are doing all the time.”
Edgar swiped at empty air.
“And I am fast.”
Something whipped through the middle of his fire, scattering branches and spraying embers. Edgar shouted angrily, beating at sparks on his clothes and hair.
“You cannot kill a god, huntsman.”
“A god, are you?” Edgar retorted. “Then what are you doing stuck on the side of this mountain? Perhaps you are only a little god?”
“Little? Little?” the trickster shrieked.
A bough groaned above Edgar. He rolled aside but only a scatter of snow fell. The fire hissed.
“I was great!” the trickster screamed. “But I was betrayed! Betrayed, betrayed, betrayed!” It gave a strangled snarl before continuing. It’s voice was taut with the effort of controlling its temper. “I will escape, though. And I will have vengeance. And I will rule!”
Quiet, for a long time. Edgar strained to hear, wondering it if had gone.
Softly, conspiratorially, the trickster said, “Even if you catch me, she will not let you go. Not ever.” It drifted away through the woods. “There is only one way out of this.”
Suddenly it was right by his ear. “You can reach her tower, you know.”
Dawn found him on the high shoulder of the mountain, looking towards the point of the valley, where the witch’s squat stone tower nestled among the bare branches of a stand of sycamores.
He glanced down at the bow and arrow resting on his lap. One shot was all he would have. Perhaps it was all he would need.
“He has worked it out,” said the trickster, apparently from a spot on the ceiling.
“He has come for you,” it added. “Now.”
Antonia hesitated, about to call it a liar, then she stood and went over to the scrying window.
“Up in the trees,” the trickster hissed.
Even with the window, she almost didn’t find him. With unaided sight, not expecting him, she never would have spied him, hidden in the thick needle foliage of a spruce, so well disguised he seemed almost part of the tree. Her heart beat hard. His vantage would put her in range of his bow when she stepped outside.
Not that his arrow could pierce her wards.
“You are tired of being hunted, trickster?” she said. For once, it made no reply.
Clearly, regardless of the trickster’s manipulations, this had to end. Muttering a spell to further harden her defences, Antonia slung her cloak around her shoulders and marched outside. She kept her gaze fixed on the spruce tree the scrying window had shown her.
Shoot then, brave man, she thought.
She squinted up at the tree in question, at the spot where the window had shown him perched. Her brows drew together.
She moved closer to the tree, confident in her defences.
The huntsman wasn’t there.
Damn that trickster, she thought.
A movement to her left caught her eye. The huntsman rose from behind a fallen tree trunk, no more than a dozen paces away, the bow drawn, arrow aimed at her chest.
Antonia sneered. She spread her arms, fingers weaving a killing spell. “Shoot then, fool.”
The bow twanged. Antonia staggered. She stared stupidly at the arrow jutting from beneath her collarbone, in the hollow between her shoulder and ribs.
How was that possible? How could it have breached her wards… Her…
She blinked, and met the bowman’s horrified gaze. He was gaunt, unshaven. His hiking clothes were filthy. There was a tear on the front of his quilted parka.
Ed stared down at the weapon in his hands, a compound bow with flat alloy arms. Its paint was flaking, metal pulley wheels corroded, its strings frayed.
He looked at Toni. The arrow had struck her high in the chest, near her shoulder.
“Ed?” she said, and collapsed.
He flung the bow aside and vaulted over the log in front of him. Lurched the few paces that separated them and fell to his knees at Toni’s side.
“Jesus Christ, I thought you were a… I thought…” He shook his head, what he’d thought didn’t make any sense.
She coughed. “I thought it wouldn’t hurt me.”
There was a lot of blood. He started to reach for the aluminium shaft of the arrow, hesitated.
“Leave it in,” she gasped. “It’ll bleed worse if you take it out.”
Ed nodded. “Right, of course.”
He cast about, spied the storm shelter a short distance away. “Maybe there’s a first aid kit in there.”
“No!” Toni grabbed his arm. “Don’t go in there.”
Ed returned her wide-eyed gaze. “No,” he said, with a sudden chill. “No.”
He put an arm under her to lift her a little way and eased her jacket out from under her, that she’d worn draped over her shoulders. He tore at the sleeve with his teeth, then his fingers, making strips. As best he could, he started to bind them around her wounded shoulder.
“Going to get you out of here,” he said. “Going to stop this bleeding and get you to some help.”
“I could heal her, you know,” said a voice.
Ed froze. His eyes locked with Toni’s.
“But there is a price.”
Ed looked around for the source of the voice. Something in the snow nearby caught his attention. His scalp crawled. Animal footprints slowly approached, made by nothing that he could see.
“It’s real,” he breathed. “Oh my God, it’s real.”
“You hit the artery,” the voice hissed. “Just a little nick, but enough.”
Now it sounded high up away to his right. The footprints hadn’t changed. It’s still there, Ed thought. It’s throwing its voice.
“She will not last.”
Blood was already seeping around the edge of the makeshift bandages. Toni’s eyelids were drooping.
“What do you want?”
Ed looked up sharply.
“My mind in your head, yours in mine. You stay, I go free. She lives. You choose.”
Toni’s hand fluttered. “No, Ed.”
“You will heal her, and she goes free,” said Ed. “And you will cause her no harm.”
“I will heal her and she goes free and I will cause her no harm,” the thing repeated, its disembodied voice an irritated whine. “Choose!”
“Ed, no,” said Toni. “Don’t believe it.”
“You must choose! You for her! Or she dies here!”
Ed caught her grasping hand. “Take me out of here.” Her voice faded with every word.
“You cannot!” the voice screamed. “You cannot escape me!”
“Don’t believe it,” Toni breathed.
Don’t believe it, Ed thought. Toni’s head fell back in the snow. He hesitated, heart pounding.
Ed reached for the remains of Toni’s jacket sleeve and tore off another strip.
The thing shrieked. Snow sprayed. Ed flung out his arm instinctively. His fist connected with something. He felt fur against his knuckles, fragile ribs and a light body that offered little resistance to his blow.
A gouge appeared in the snow where it landed, several feet away. The thing howled.
Ed wound the last bandage around Toni’s shoulder and knotted it tight. He lifted her in his arms and looked around. The road was down at the bottom of the valley, he remembered.
His gaze fell on his cottage, nestled among the sycamores. The mermaid’s head flopped limply back. He had to get her inside. He started out that way. His limbs felt weak.
Damn, there was a lot of blood. He hadn’t meant to shoot her, had mistaken her for a seal, lying on the sand. He felt his grip slipping, hefted her higher in his arms. She had been dry long enough that her tail had separated into human legs.
Almost there. Once he had her inside he could draw the arrow and cauterise the wound. There was smoke coming from the chimney. The fire hadn’t gone dead, at least.
Putting his foot up onto the step in front of the door, he glanced up at the mountainside above. He paused. Mountain? Mermaid?
Ed shook his head.
“I don’t believe you!” he shouted.
The invisible thing screamed and babbled.
Ed turned around and started downhill. Toni’s skin was deathly pale. He had to hurry. Had to get her back to the cottage and draw the arrow. Damn those bastard soldiers…
Once again he turned back around.
He skidded through a deep drift, ploughed on down the hillside in great bounding strides, barely catching himself each time as his boots sank deep into the snow.
He wasn’t going to make it. He would have to use his power to heal her. Have to call on the forest spirits. Her wound was dire, and there would be a price. His life for hers…
He yelled, wordlessly this time. Don’t believe it, don’t believe it.
Something caught his foot, knocking him off his stride. Toni slithered out of his arms and slid down the slope. Sharp teeth sank into the back of Ed’s calf. He screamed, lashed out with his other boot, hit nothing. It landed on his chest, claws gouging at his face.
Ed flailed his hands at it, jerking his head aside. The side of his skull connected with a rock protruding from the snow. Purple lights flashed behind his eyes.
“You have to save her,” a voice reminded him.
Toni. “Yes,” he heard himself agree. No! He kicked out, felt his boot connect.
The invisible thing wailed.
Ed scrambled down to Toni and gathered her up again. Grunting with effort, he lifted her and stumbled on.
The thing’s cries trailed after him, a sound of utter desolation and despair.
He staggered into a ditch, and up the other side, tearing through a screen of brambles, and suddenly he stood, swaying, at the side of an icy road.
The car park where they’d left the hire car wasn’t in sight. Ed had no idea in which direction it lay. The town where they were staying was to the right though, of that he was certain, down in the main valley.
An engine note caught his ear. He turned to see a truck cresting the rise.
“Hey!” Ed staggered out into the middle of the road, boots slipping in the slush.
The truck driver honked his horn.
“Stop!” Ed shouted. “Please, stop!”
The truck’s airbrakes blasted, the pitch of its engine rose and fell as the driver ground down through his gears. With a last squeal of its brakes, it came to a halt. The door of the cab flung open.
“Help me!” Ed cried, hurrying forwards. “She needs to get to a hospital.”
The driver scrambled down. “Jesus Christ, what happened?”
He stared wide-eyed at the arrow shaft sticking from Toni’s shoulder, then up at Ed’s bloodied face. Slowly, his gaze turned to the forested slope above.
“You came out of there?”
The driver met Ed’s eyes once more. He licked his lips. “Then I don’t want to know,” he said, decisively. He held out his arms for Toni. “Let’s get her to the hospital.”