Start with a Line…


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“Start with a line…” Okay. How about…”My emotional development was arrested when I was eighteen and given a life sentence.” Actually, I don’t mean that type of line when I wrote the above title. I meant the modern version of the old campfire game where someone thinks of a sentence to start off a story, the person next to them offers a second sentence to continue the tale, the next person creates a third sentence, and round and ‘round the campfire they go until the story is complete or something like it. It was inevitable that someone would create a new version of this game. Several someones have, actually.

I learned about the new versions of this storytelling method through a friend whose high school and college-age daughters have been writing short stories and novels online in collaboration with like-minded people from all over the world. There are a number of websites dedicated to this purpose. Each has their own rules. One gives a potential contributor a couple of minutes to come up with a sentence with a set word maximum. Another imposes a character limit, in terms of letters, numbers, and spaces (as opposed to, you know, people in the story).  There is at least one that permits contributors to critique each other. I bet that gets interesting. The stories, as one might expect, can meander quite a bit and the quality of the contributions and the ultimate sum of the parts can vary wildly. A number of the finished products actually turn out pretty well, however.

Two of my favorite sites of this nature are Folding Story and Novlet, but there are others to be found if you google “stories collaborative written online” or something similar. My participation has been limited to reading as opposed to contributing (I’ve been too busy watching Love, Death & Robots on Netflix, notwithstanding the warning that it is for mature audiences). It seems likely, however, that these and similar sites would be good places todevelop the ability to craft killer sentences or paragraphs by hitching them to developing stories, get the creative juices flowing during an episode of writer’s block, or even suffer the slings and arrows of peer critique if you are looking for that sort of thing and Facebook happens to be down for the day.

Please take a few minutes, check out the sites I mentioned (or find your own!), and let us know what you think. If you have been a participant on one or more of them and are so inclined please share your experience. Thank you. And enjoy the first Saturday of Spring 2019. Boing!


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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

18 thoughts on “Start with a Line…

  1. Happy spring, Joe! I’ve played a similar game on Facebook. It’s always a blast. Especially when you get various genres in mix. A romance writer might add a line where the man leans in for a kiss, but if a crime writer takes the next turn, she may slit his throat instead. Hilarious!

  2. Happy Spring to you, Sue, and thank you. Re: the Facebook game and the example you gave, I know some folks who in the heat of the moment would regard what you described as a warmup! Thanks for the example.

  3. Haven’t tried this but it might be fun. A few years ago, in the early days of my writing group. I took one line and asked each person present to finish it with a short paragraph. Amazing the different stories that came about.

  4. Good morning, Joe.

    I’ve been at parties where each person started a sentence (in writing), then passed the paper to the next person, who finished the sentence and started another one. The process continued around the circle. There were as many stories being written as there were people present. After each person had contributed to all the stories, and the story had made it back to the originator, we read the stories out loud. It was fun picking out the sentences that specific people had written.

    I had never heard of doing this online. It does sound like a good warm up before starting writing. And I wonder if a person could do their own story, writing a short section daily, (say a page a day), and simply seeing where the story goes. Maybe a good exercise for those of us who are obsessive – compulsive out-liners.

    Great post! Have a good weekend.

  5. Good morning, Steve, and thank you for your kind words as well as for sharing that party story. That’s quite an interesting exercise. I’d like to see it done at one of the writers’ conferences sometime, just for grins and giggles. Hope you have a great weekend!

  6. Before GALLEYCAT, a trade newsletter and site, died. One of its editors, Jason Boog, had the brave idea to do a remix of an Horatio Alger novel, JOE’S LUCK. He asked for volunteers and gave each of us a page which we were to rewrite in the genre or style of our choice. It ended up with everything from poems, song lyrics, noir mystery, to graphic novel images. I never got to see the final product because of an email issue, but it certainly was an interesting experience to rewrite Alger’s turgid prose.

    • That sounds really interesting, Marilynn, kind of a cross between fan fiction and collaborative work. Thanks for sharing. I wonder if someone has ever tried that with Ulysses by James Joyce? Y’think?

  7. I was member and moderator of a Yahoo group called “Round Robin Writing,” that tried this back in the pre-Facebook (even pre-MySpace – showing my age I’m a-feared) days.

    My OCD-ness, though tended to get riled sometimes with plot directions and bad grammar, but all it all it was fun while it lasted. .

    I’ll hafta check out these sites, and I definitely see how this can work as a warm up or to reboot a stalled WIP.

    • THanks, George. Myspace is still around and actually made the news a few days ago, though not for a reason that the site should be proud of. It apparently lost a significant amount of music that had been lodged there. The reason is beyond my ability to explain, but the lesson is clear to all of us: back up your work! This technology is extremely fragile and becomes more so with each so-called advance.

      • Yeah, ain’t that the truth~ I had a dozen-and-a-half demos with cowriters go poof~ but fortunately I had ’em elsewhere as well – on a coaster looking thing called a CD… ?

  8. I used to write for a flash fiction blog where the picture and first sentence were provided. It discontinued but was fun. I wrote for a couple more where only the picture prompt was provided. I may do it again. Once you have that small flash fiction story it can provide the germ for a longer story. Happy Springtime to you and yours, Joe. 🙂 —Suzanne

    • Thank you, Suzanne, and Happy Spring to you and yours as well. I really like the idea of a photo with a first sentence as a prompt. I’m glad folks are encouraging creativity out there.

  9. I’ve been doing a version of this for quite a long time. Each person has a character (or two) and they write a paragraph or so from that pov, interacting with what’s been written before and moving the story forward.
    I don’t know if it helps the quality of the actual sentences, but it really helps with envisioning what’s happening in a scene, and with getting into a character’s motives. And it’s fun to not know what might happen.

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