To get the ball rolling with this discussion, Ashley posed a question about story prompts; what we think of them and if we ever use them. Sarah answered by saying she thinks story prompts are great at getting your mind to think of something new—you only have a few clues and your mind has to create the rest of the story. She pointed out this is essentially what writing a novel is, too, where you might have a limited idea of how it’s going to work but not the whole picture. But with writing a novel, we get so tied up with plot mechanics we sometimes forget how to let our mind explore possibilities, so story prompts are great for reteaching this. Ashley added that they can be great ways to come up with new material, as they introduce ideas that your mind may not naturally gravitate towards.
Sarah then went over what story cubes are, and the ‘rules’ for the game. Story cubes come in a pack of nine six-sided die. Each dice has images which, when rolled, act as a prompt. The way we chose to do it out of several options was probably one of the more simple ways, which was by rolling the die and creating a story by linking in each of the nine images.
I chased after Li. We pushed our way through the bustling fish-market, turning down a narrow alley between two rundown housing complexes. Looking up, people’s washing was strung from window to window—a rainbow of undergarments and muted t-shirts.
“Keep up, Lucas,” Li said in Mandarin as he scrambled over a chain link fence ahead.
I followed suit, less gracefully, my phone tumbling from my pocket and smashing on the cracked concrete below.
“Forget it,” Li snapped as he helped me down the otherside.
I hesitated, maybe I should go back and get it.
“There’s no time,” Li replied, taking off at a run again. “We’ll be late.”
I checked my watch. The Parlour closed for entry in five minutes. The whole reason I jumped on that plane to Shanghai at such short notice was to visit The Parlour. “Get a move on,” Li yelled at me. “We’re almost there.”
We skidded around a corner, and Li stopped in front of a splintered wooden door with a flashing neon sign. “Dim sum” blinked in blue lights with a flashing yellow shooting star beside it.
“We’re here,” Li said breathlessly. He pushed the door open, revealing a long hallway with two guards standing at the end. I tentatively followed Li down the passage towards the guards.
“Name?” the male one demanded. His head was shaved, and he held an AK47 across his chest, studying us with stern, black eyes.
Li explained who we were, but my eyes fixated on the female guard. Her hair was pulled into a high-ponytail, eyes watchful. A snake tattoo climbed out from under her shirt and up her neck. Her hand rested on the door handle, with the tattoo of an arrow running along her forearm.
“Let them through,” the male guard said.
The door opened, and we walked into a dingey room heaving with people. I canvassed the room, taking in the gambling tables with people tossing dice and playing cards. Clerks behind barred windows used ancient Chinese abacuses to quickly calculate their earning. There was no dim sum here.
“Keep an eye out for Lana,” Li said. “She’s got to be here somewhere.”
Ashley’s cubes: L, arrow, abacus, rainbow, dice, plane, cell phone, shooting star, fish
Ashley’s process: Her mind first tried to group as many as she could together. The first ones she linked were dice and abacus – which led her to think of gambling. Plane and phone made her think someone travelled somewhere to gamble. She decided to use the letter L for the names and the first name that popped into her head was Li, which led her to think of China.
Freddy stood, terrified. His shadow had grown teeth. Real teeth that gnashed. Spindly dark legs connected him to the monster. And though its arms lay still, frozen at its sides just like his, he imagined claws growing from their fingertips.
“It’s not real,” Fred muttered, closing his eyes. This was why he liked the night, when the stars were out. Their light was soft and kind. Twinkling. It shooed away the shadows. But as he opened his eyes, the shadow monster was still there.
His mom would say that he’d been reading too many scary stories. How he was an odd child. She never had to encourage him to read like she did with his sister—his head was always buried in a book.
Maybe she was right. Maybe he was odd.
A cartoonish speech bubble ballooned from the monster’s lips: YOU CAN’T HIDE FROM ME, FREDDY.
It was true, there was no escape. Even if he swam in the ocean with the fish, or flew in a jet-plane to the farthest corners of the world, his shadow would follow him.
In one of his books, he’d read about Egypt, where there were gigantic pyramids that stretched out into the expanse, towering over the dusty, arid deserts. He’d wanted to go there, but his mom just rolled her eyes and muttered, “maybe when you’re older.” She said that a lot.
Still, he dreamed of it. He pictured himself with a sturdy cane in hand, walking barefoot among hot dunes. Like a true traveller. True travellers didn’t need shoes. The only thing left behind would be his footprints, soon to be swept away by the wind. But now, he realized, he could never go to Egypt. Because the sun was too bright there. And the sun made his shadow strong.
Sarah’s cubes: A shadow scaring a child, a star, a book, a speech bubble, a fish, a plane, a pyramid, a cane and a footprint.
Sarah’s process: She selected an image that interested her the most, which gave her the protagonist, Freddy, terrified of his shadow. From there she tried to dive into a child’s mind and link the other items in interesting ways. She tried to include the actual word of the prompt in there, rather than just describe it, though she found this made it more challenging and possibly didn’t flow quite as naturally due to this.
We rounded off with a brief analysis of our experiences. Ashley felt, similar to the free-writing exercise we did in Episode 21, that she wasn’t entirely sure what to expect or the best way to approach the exercise. She ended up doing something similar to free writing but with a bit more direction—she knew where she wanted to get to but wasn’t entirely sure how it was all going to work out. Overall, she enjoyed it, and was a bit surprised with the results. Sarah admitted to being a bit worried about how she was going to link the seemingly random pictures, but she got there in the end. She discussed how it was challenging with multiple prompts, but this was potentially a good thing even if it felt more restrictive. It forced her to think and create connections, which is a key skill in writing. She also had never written from the perspective of a younger child, either, and found this an interesting and enjoyable change.