Us plotters love maximizing details. That’s why we enjoy writing everything down about our characters and stories to the point that it sometimes takes us longer to sort through and organize all of it than it does to actually write the novel itself.
But story is simple really, and consists of three base elements when everything else of lesser value is stripped away:
And sometimes it’s best to keep things vague so as to allow our brains plenty of creative room to wander through unrestricted wonderment while connecting random people, objects, places and events in unexpected ways without breaking a sweat or steaming our toiling thinker.
So take out your best plotting friend, the trusty ol’ pack of index cards, and get ready to make then play your own plotting game I call Simple Story which is made up of three stacks of index cards.
The first stack is the Protagonist stack, which consists of any random occupation (or any basic description of character). Since we’re keeping it vague so as to allow our imaginations freest rein you’ll choose one-word types. For example:
The second stack is the Goal stack, which consists of any random goal you can imagine. Again, vague, so limit these to three-word types; an action verb, the, and an object or person. For example:
1. save the princess
2. hide the gold
3. find the treasure
4. catch the unicorn
5. steal the blackmail
6. survive the sharknado
7. discover the artifact
8. arrest the murderer
9. deliver the McGuffin
10. protect the family
The third stack is the Obstacle pack, which consists of any random threat you can imagine preventing the Protagonist from achieving their Goal. Remember that vagueness, so we keep it to two- or at most three-word types. For example:
1. zombie apocalypse
2. time-traveling cavemen
3. robot army
4. deserted island
5. giant lizard king
6. vampire Nazis
7. sentient murder vehicles
8. alien invasion
9. haunted mansion
10. intelligent dinosaurs
Now, to play Simple Story you just mix your three stacks of index cards into three separate piles (Protagonist, Goal, and Obstacle) then draw one from each. Try imagining the story by allowing your brain to fiddle and fondle with the information. But don’t think too hard or else you defeat the purpose! So after drawing your three cards, limit yourself to one minute of telling your story.
Here’s just one example:
Goal: save the princess
Obstacle: giant lizard king
Of course it does!
But I’ll extrapolate anyways with a little creative tinkering applied:
“A plucky plumber must save the beautiful princess in a magical mushroom world from the giant lizard king who kidnapped her.”
Everyone knows Super Mario Bros!
Simple Story also makes a great game to play with your kids, or a party game with friends. I only included ten examples for each but you can make your stacks as large as you wish. Simple Story is more fun and creative when played in groups because you don’t know what’s written on all the cards until you draw then deal them.
Simple Story is also a fantastic way to teach others or learn yourself how to construct great loglines because the simplest logline is just that: a brief description of the story’s Protagonist, their Goal, and the Obstacle involved.
So gather some friends or family, hand out pens and cards, have everyone write down whatever they can think up, then shuffle and deal. Now go around the table slapping down cards while creating your Simple Story.
But let’s say you do want to complicate things a bit.
We’ll do so with a little more extrapolation on our three parts of Simple Story.
1. For the Protagonist: discover their Wound, Shield, and Sword.
2. For the Goal: discover the Possession of, Relief from, or Revenge for it.
3. And for the Obstacle: discover its motive and opportunity for happening.
This easy three step extrapolation will help you further flesh out your Simple Story into the most basic logline. Let’s use our Super Mario Bros. example as . . . well, as another example, and with a bit of ingenuity applied.
1. Protagonist: plumber (Wound: returning to the Mushroom Kingdom from the real world for a hot date, our horny Italian plumber Mario discovers his true love Princess Peach was kidnapped during his absence; Shield: Mario is determined but cowardly because of all the new enemies roaming the Mushroom Kingdom seeking to thwart him courtesy of Bowser ushering them forth from his realm; Sword: Mario needs to embrace his courage to defeat the gauntlet of enemies in his way and eventually rescue Princess Peach from the giant lizard king who kidnapped her).
2. Goal: save the princess (Possession of: Mario needs to regain possession of the kidnapped Princess Peach while saving her from the evil clutches of Bowser before the giant lizard king forces her into a marriage that will fully merge their realms and make of Bowser the Mushroom Kingdom’s dictator).
3. Obstacle: giant lizard king (Motive: Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach to force her into marriage so their two realms can merge and he can take over ruling the Mushroom Kingdom; Opportunity: Princess Peach is alone and unprotected during Mario’s absence in the real world).
So what’s the simple one-liner logline of this all?
“Cowardly plumber Mario must embrace his courage and save the kidnapped Princess Peach or else Bowser will force her into a marriage that will merge their realms and make of him the Mushroom Kingdom’s dictator.”
See how easy it is to extrapolate our Simple Story with a little creative tinkering?
Now go make your own deck of cards and have some fun!