Collaborative Storytelling

Last week an old friend emailed me out of the blue and proposed a collaborative story game. Mel’s a buddy from grade school, and beneath the mandatory veneer of adulthood she’s exactly what I remember—wicked smart and creative, bubbling with intricate schemes and ideas. She’s also, as it turns out, a great writer. Here’s the opening she sent to get us started:

“It’s rumored that the Oracle of Delphi once said, ‘Lies are a necessary human element, but that which begins with a lie will end in a lie—a tortured, evolutionary invention to mask the original lie and its long, stringy spawn—which distant as it may become, never dies.’”

And so we began to write together, sending paragraphs back and forth. The emerging story centers around an unlikely foursome: Slipstream Jack, Carmella the seamstress, her beekeeping sister June, and June’s boring but wealthy husband, Gabe. It involves cats and dripping cans of tuna fish, lies and bees and sedative-dusted calla lilies.

I’m fascinated with the way our little experiment is unfolding, with each of us layering on images and elements in turn. The story is flowing in a way that doesn’t usually happen for me—there’s more plot and less fiddling.

I’ve noticed several things that are contributing to the happiness of this work:

I can’t go back and edit previous sections.  I can revise my two hundred or so words to my heart’s content before I send hit send, but then it’s done. It does me no good to fuss over what’s already been written. I can’t change it, so I don’t look back.

I’m forced to focus on external conflict. Typically no matter where a story starts, I end up sucked into layers of internal conflict—messy stuff that’s hard to sort out myself, much less clarify for readers. With another person involved, it’s harder to get so deep into a character’s head, and I’m less likely to get frustrated.

The story must be written in a linear fashion. There’s no way to skip around, writing a bit here and a bit there, then backtracking.  I can’t look ahead, because I have no idea where Mel will go next, and she keeps me on my toes.

I can write until I get stuck, then hand it off. I waste a lot of writing time trying to think myself out of sticky places, determining just the right direction a story should go. With someone waiting to pick up where I leave off, there’s no getting bogged down.

I don’t have any expectations. I’m not putting pressure on myself to create something beautiful or meaningful or perfect. It’s pure play.

I’m curious to see how the story comes out, whether we can create something that holds together and blends our styles enough to be an enjoyable read. If not, that’s okay. It’s turning my gears in a different way, and that’s exciting.

~Kellelynne H. Riley