Apprentice Wordsmith A Writer's Blog

Use Randomness to Get Unstuck

My last post was pretty heavy, so this time, I want to share a quick, practical tip that you can use today to get a stuck plot moving again.

So your characters are in a sticky situation, and you have no idea what happens next. Or your characters are at point A, and want to get to point B, but you don’t know what happens along the way. Instead of spending hours or days worrying over which one out of hundreds of possibilities would make the most sense or give your story the most awesome points, you can leave it to chance.

Roll a pair of standard game dice (2d6). If the result is 10 or greater, your characters succeed, getting exactly what they want with little trouble. If the result is between 7 and 9, your characters succeed but at a price. You get to decide what they must give up in exchange for what they want, or what new complications arise from them getting what they want. If your result is 6 or less, then the characters fail and face the consequences of that failure. This is the concept of “failing forward,” of failures creating a new, interesting scenario for the story to move into. You can also think of this as an opening for your antagonists to effect the story in a major way. Make sure they take advantage of it.

(I borrowed this mechanic from the tabletop RPG Apocalypse World.)

2d6 Result Story Outcome
10+ Success
7-9 Success at a price
6- Failure with consequences

But Joyce, I don’t have any dice right now. What do I do?

If you’ve got three coins in your wallet, then you’re in luck. For the best results, though, they should be three coins of the same type (three pennies for example).

Shake the coins and toss them. If you get three heads, your characters succeed, getting exactly what they want. If you get two heads and one tail, the characters succeed but at a price. If you get two tails and one head, the characters fail, but not as badly as they could have. Not getting what they want results in a minor setback, rather than a course-altering “failure forward.” If you get three tails, though, then the characters fail and face consequences. This is the course-altering “failure forward”.

Coin Toss Result Story Outcome
3 heads Success
2 heads, 1 tail Success at a price
1 head, 2 tails Failure as setback
3 tails Failure with consequences

I should stress that you aren’t locked into these random results. Treat the results as a writing prompt. Work with it a bit and see if you like it. If you do, awesome! If not, then you can always adjust toward success or failure as much as you like. You can even roll the dice again to get a completely new result.

The point of this exercise is to focus on a single possibility instead of spending energy generating multiple ones. This focus will kickstart your imagination and get you thinking beyond this moment – to get your plot unstuck. Even if your original results don’t lead to something you want for the story, it will give you insight into your characters, your world, and what should change in order for it to become the story you want to tell.

I’d love to hear how this helped you in your writing projects. What result did the dice or the coins give you? Are you keeping it or not? Have you found other ways to incorporate randomness into your process?

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