I get excited when I hear the phrases “flash fiction challenge” or “story in a bag” or even just the word “prompts.” My blood starts pumping for several reasons. And they’re all great.
One, it means my writing group will likely be writing alongside me, or at least during the same week even if we’re physically apart. In any case, we’re participating in something together. I love that. Second, it means I get to come up with a whole new story I never knew was inside me. Three, it gives me another chance to get, if only for the briefest of moments, something every writer longs for. For someone to say, “that was great, I enjoyed that,” or something along those lines that gives me satisfaction, validation and motivation to keep writing. Four, if it’s a contest, heck, I might win something, even if it’s just kudos or bragging rights. That’s pretty awesome in itself. And it means what happened up there in my third reason wasn’t just people blowing hot air to make me feel good.
My writing group and I call these fun little exercises “Stories in a Bag” or “SiaBs” for short, simply due to how they were introduced to us. In the Spring of 2013, I stumbled upon the one-hour Story in a Bag Challenge in the schedule for a little-known, heavily writer-themed science fiction convention I wanted to attend that year called “ConQuesT.” Yes with three capital letters. ConQuesT is held in Kansas City every Memorial Day and has quietly brought in the likes of G.R.R. Martin and other big authors over the course of the past 46 years (as of 2015). I told my fellow sci-fi friend and now fellow Wordwraith Jeni Frontera about the con, and she was like, “how have I never heard of this thing before?” We both went, had a great time learning and rubbing elbows with other writers, and when the time came we did the Story in a Bag challenge side-by-side. She ended up winning the Fantasy genre in her first go-round, and it became the first story in a long line of short stories following the same characters. THAT right there is why the SiaB is one of the best things that ever happened to my group of writers. And is the reason I love the idea of the SiaB so much. My God, talk about a cure for writer’s block! This is the solution to your problem, when you sit and stare at that blank page and can’t come up with anything. And it works.
Five prompts. They can be anything. You can use three if you’re just starting out. You can use eight if you think you’re a badass. Five prompts, one hour, and BAM! You have a story.
There is a reason why I titled this blog post “The wonders of the (probably poorly named) ‘Story in a Bag’ exercise.” The only time the ‘in a bag’ part is accurate is when we’re competing at ConQuesT. All the other times we come up with prompts in other ways. The folks at ConQuesT who host the Story in a Bag Challenge like to use five bags, each with a prompt: a random theme, a random character, two random nouns, and a random sentence that has to be the first line of your story. My group, the Wordwraiths, like to use various assistors to come up with the prompts. We use Story Cubes, The Storymatic, websites that provide random prompts, books that provide first sentences, and we’ve even just opened a random novel to a random page and pointed with our eyes closed to get our first sentence (and if you happen to come up with a raspberry doing that, like we have, just repeat the process). So maybe we’ll come up with a new, more accurate name for these things someday. But for now, the group seems content to call these awesome little exercises “SiaBs.”
Your SiaB can be as long as you like. Or as long as you have time for. It can be 300 words, it can be a thousand words. It can be the start of a larger story, or it can be complete (has to be if it’s part of a contest). When the hour is up, you stop typing or writing, and lo and behold, you’ve created something that wasn’t in the world an hour ago. It doesn’t matter if it’s not great. It exists. It’s raw, it’s unedited. But it’s there.
Next thing you do with this wonderful new creation of yours depends on the situation. If you’re at an in-person contest at a con, you turn it in and don’t worry that it’s probably crap. It does have to be legible, however, which is why I prefer to type mine and arrange to print the thing out before the hour is expired (this is usually a harrowing experience, I might add). If you’re with your writing group, you share it. Who cares what shape it’s in? Everyone else is in the same boat. Heck, read it out loud, it’ll be fun. If you’re doing it for an online contest, you edit the hell out of it, find some beta readers, take their suggestions to heart, and edit the hell out of it a few more times before you submit. It’s that simple and that fast.
And guess what? You can do it a hundred more times with so little effort it will surprise the hell out of you. Next thing you know, you have a collection of short stories. Or several chapters of a novel. Or various chapters of several novels! SiaBs open so many doors, windows and sunroofs it’s beyond amazing. And when you turn on that faucet, there’s no shutting it off.
Just do one. After your first one, you’ll understand.
Need some prompts to get you started? Let me grab my tools … Okay, here are three (choose ONLY ONE from EACH group below)!
Themes (drawn at random from The Storymatic):
A wrong number
First night in a new home
No place to hide
The time machine malfunctions
Characters (drawn at random from The Storymatic):
A person who is lost
Prompts (Story Cubes rolled):
An ancient journal
You have one hour. GO!
Oh and you’re welcome.
🙂 Rod Galindo and the Wordwraiths