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The Challenge of Collaborative Storytelling

In my creative writing course, I try to incorporate as many group writing exercises as possible. You may be thinking, “But isn’t writing a solitary act?” Writing can be both an individual and community effort. Two projects that my students particularly enjoy are the group novel and the class short story.

For the group novel, I divide the class into pairs or groups of three. As a class, we brainstorm the novel’s major elements: main characters, setting, central conflict, point of view etc. Then, we roughly outline 10 chapters and try our best to make a narrative arc. Each pair or group is assigned a chapter they must write to the best of their abilities, consulting with the writers of chapters before and after them to make sure each chapter flows into the next. At the end, I collect all the chapters and compile them. The class has a chance to revise the novel together. Some group novels have come out better than others, but the students always enjoy this exercise because it manages to be completely ridiculous and instructive at the same time.

Another favorite group writing exercise is the collaborative short story. All students write their names on a blank sheet of paper and then free-write on any subject for two minutes. Then, the students pass the sheets to another student. In two minute spurts, the students must continue the story, and the task becomes more difficult as the stories become longer; students must skim what has already been written and simply continue to write. At the end of this period, the writers receive their original sheet of paper. I believe this exercise teaches students how not to censor themselves in a first draft and how to maintain narrative drive in a story.

In an effort to show the power of collaborative storytelling, I would like to complete a version of these exercises and publish the resulting story in my upcoming collection The Prescribed Burn. As an added incentive for potential backers of my Kickstarter campaign, I’ve decided that, if I can reach 75% of my goal by this Friday, I will give all my backers – regardless of their pledge amount – the chance to help me write a new story for the collection. I’ll invite all backers to contribute a word or phrase that I will have to include in the new story. After each word or phrase, I will insert a footnote that cites the contributor’s name.

Have you ever tried a collaborative writing exercise? What was the result, and would you ever consider doing it again? I personally enjoy these types of challenges because they push me out of my comfort zone and inspire me to write about subjects I wouldn’t normally pursue.

(Photo by michaelcardus)

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