Earlier today, the folks at Rory’s Story Cubes asked me how I use the cubes to write. Good timing, since I was doing just that this morning.
If you haven’t seen the cubes before, they’re a set of nine dice with images on each side. If you can’t find the actual dice, or if you’d rather stay digital, there’s an iPhone app available. In either case, the idea is you roll the dice and use the images that come up as the prompts for a story. How? Well, that will differ person to person. But here’s how I approach it, using this week’s Story Cubes Challenge, which should post this weekend:
Once I roll, I spend some time just considering the results. Today, I got the thought bubble, a tree, flames, a parachutist, a key, a magnifying glass, a bridge, scales (of justice) and a happy face. Now, I always use these when writing in the Exeter world, so I know my characters and setting. Usually, I find that there are one or two images that are going to be difficult to work in. Those generally start me off.
For example, if you’ve read Enough Rope, you’ll notice it’s set right around Halloween. That’s because that was a prompt that time. That, plus the skyscrapers, set me off. Exeter doesn’t have skyscrapers — it’s a small Massachusetts town. Fortunately, I have an artist (Becca) in my cast of characters. So those two prompts gave me the time and pushed me toward art as an element. The story unfolded from there.
Today, I spent a lot of time (well, 5-10 minutes) contemplating the fire image. Evan’s a firefighter, so that had some potential. But I also had to consider the parachutist. Fire, since it has many forms, can go many places in a story. A parachutist? Not so much. So then I tried to figure out why a parachutist would connect to Exeter. I ended up thinking about World War II, and decided it was time for Riordan to tell a story about Exeter’s past. The fire became the fireplace at Becca’s house, where the story is set. As for the rest? Well, I haven’t figured out how all of them will work into the story yet, so you’ll have to wait until I post.
To pull back a bit, here are some general tips I’ve picked up since I’m been using the cubes to help spark story ideas:
- Don’t be too literal. The smiley face doesn’t have to be the yellow smiley we think of. It could be a mood of a character, an emoticon in an e-mail, a description of somebody smiling… Look at the prompts from all perspectives.
- Don’t plan it out too much. Find the two or three key cubes you need to build your story around, then let the rest unfold. Just knowing you have those prompts out there will often spark ideas in your head as the pieces rattle around.
- Expand your similes and metaphors. When I first started, I ended up doing a couple of quirky images to incorporate prompts, like “the idea skittered around in her head like a bug” when I had the beetle prompt. Pretty much every time I’ve done that, I’ve felt like I should apologize to readers for having a wacky line. And pretty much every time, somebody’s flagged that phrase in comments as something they really liked about the piece.
- Spend some time just playing around with ideas before you start. There’s no time limit. Well, unless you have a teacher using them in your writing class and s/he gives you one. 😉 Let them bounce around. Sometimes, I’ll even draw them the night before my writing session and let my plot bunnies roam overnight.
- Give yourself permission to tell a bad story. With nine prompts, sometimes you’re going to get a clunker. Don’t get too hung up on any one piece. Treat this as an exercise. When I started the Story Cubes Challenge, I just planned to use them as a way to get to know the Exeter characters better. I didn’t expect the pieces to give me the basis for a book of short stories. That was a happy accident.
Have you used the Story Cubes in your writing? What tips would you share for people who want to try to incorporate them?