Fort Satala cover image

A few months ago, we posted about using Frankenstories to write competition-level flash fiction.

We were quite chuffed that our Challenge #1 entry to NYC Midnight’s 48hr Flash Fiction comp placed 4th in its group, and we are even more chuffed to say our Challenge #2 entry also came 4th (in Group 12), which put us in 3rd place in our group overall and let us advance to Round 2 (from 4500 competitors down to 450).

The judges' feedback was pretty positive, for example:

The idea is really creative. The author has come up with something really unique and has built a fun narrative around it. 

You do a great job anchoring the reader in medias res, in the thick of things, with your detailed description of locale.

I really loved your first line that situated the reader in a lavish lineage and set the tone of your story.

Paetus' litany of vulgar obscenities was quite original!

You can read our entry here (note that it contains some vivid and historically accurate Roman swearing): "Fort Satala, Near the Arsanias River, Armenia, 62AD, on the Eve of the Roman Surrender"


Frankenstories for "real" writing

The point of this exercise is to explore how Frankenstories might be used in a “serious” writing process, and we think we’ve demonstrated that it can be a very effective group brainstorming and drafting tool. 

Frankenstories can spark ideas, provide story elements for development, provide a guide to plot, and help overcome the paralysing fear of a blank page.

However, there are a few steps between playing Frankenstories and submitting a final draft, which we've outlined below.


Process for Challenge #2

In Challenge #1, we played two long Frankenstories games that formed a continuous story, but we wondered if it would have been better to play more, shorter, standalone games to come up with completely different scenarios. 

For Challenge #2 we took a slightly different approach:

  • Sat p.m
    • Received our Round 2 group's writing prompt: Comedy | Emergency room | Mouthwash
    • Played 3 x short brainstorming games that explored different scenarios (E.R.: Under Pressure, Gaswoman: Origins, Pour Flip)
    • Decided that—while it wasn't elaborated in the brainstorming games—we were all interested in doing a period twist on "emergency room"
    • Slept on it—sleeping is an important part of the creative process!
  • Sun a.m.
    • Team members did their own private walking, thinking, internet-researching—also important parts of the creative process!
    • Two team members came back with period-concept pitches ("Medieval monks overdose on a dead abbot's herbal viagra with mouthwash as antiseptic for bloodletting" vs "Roman legion gets dysentery from mouthwash made from infected urine”)
    • Roman legion story won the vote
    • Played 2 x more short brainstorming games to dig for interesting details within that scenario (A Tentful of Poop, A Juicy Revenge)
  • Sun p.m.
    • One team member wrote a first draft
    • Team gave feedback—consensus was it had good characters and story but didn't have a strong enough voice (and it was 300 words over the limit)
    • A second team member wrote a voice and compression pass
    • Team gave feedback—right length and good voice but the revised ending was so dark the story no longer felt like a comedy
    • Slept on it
  • Mon a.m.


What 'flowed through' 🙄 the drafting process?

It's interesting to track story elements from the first Frankenstories game through to the final draft:

  • E.R.: Under Pressure gave us a fruit-based gastrointestinal outbreak, bulk orders of mouthwash, and buried in the Round 1 alts a period setting.
  • Gaswoman: Origins gave us a venal authority figure.
  • Pour Flip was a waste of time—we were clearly losing energy attempting to start a third story from scratch.

There was clearly enough raw material to process overnight and both pitches the next morning were really interesting and funny, combining and reworking the raw material in different ways.

The subsequent, "Roman dysentery" games let us explore ideas from the pitch and figure out some orchestration and pacing:

  • A Tentful of Poop had the cart, the pig bladders, the sandals joke, Pedanius Diskorides' put-upon tone, as well as—buried in the alts—the beginning of General Paetus' Greek insults plus Diskorides' vision of Hermes on the horizon introduces some of the mysticism that is a feature in the final draft.
  • A Juicy Revenge sketches a version of the final twist, amplifies the Greek-Roman conflict, and introduces the goblin joke, and the alts include the word "flux", the image of bowels as Hades, despairing soldiers begging for relief, a first attempt at naming the legion, and the image of smoke on the horizon which is the germ of final image in the completed story.

So you can see how most of the plot, character, imagery, and detail in the final story is established by the second round of games.

Our first story draft expanded that material to create a complete story. The second draft compressed and condensed it, then used the extra room to add even more character and detail (including the character of Felix, who is not in any of the games).

All of this drafting was produced by a continually negotiated interplay between individual writing and group review and revision. That is a complex process demanding a high degree of skill and your mileage will vary when working with students, but it is definitely a rich, rewarding, and effective creative process.

If you are using this process in class, one key decision will be whether students submit individual or group drafts. Group drafts won't have uniform effort or input from all group members, so it may be better to submit individual drafts, but our experience is that group drafts are worth the effort.

Next up: Challenge #3

Immediately after getting our results for Challenge #2, we had to write our entry for Challenge #3: Suspense | University dormitory | Wet cement.

That was a tough one! We'll see if we made it through to the finals in a few weeks' time.

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