Round Robins: Flexing Those Creative Muscles

When I was a teenager, my first summer job was as a camp counselor. Yep, it was the traditional tents in the woods, meals in a lodge, and campfires every evening. Around those campfires we sang songs and played games, one of which was Round Robin. If you’ve never participated in a round robin, the premise is easy: someone starts a story, and everyone adds something to move the story along until it ends with the last person in the circle, who tied up the plot. The stories got silly and usually strayed far from the original idea.

I hated it. I was a terrible storyteller.

Fast forward twenty years and two children later. Round robins reentered my life as a way to keep my oldest child entertained and to bolster his writing skills. We joined a writing group where five children of the same age wrote the beginning of a story. Then it would pass on to the next child who would add to it and then send it to the next child on the list who would add to that. Everyone was given three weeks to add to the story and move it on. By the end, the kids had five stories that they all participated in creating.

To keep things interesting, the group had an adult division where five parents were set up in a circle, so to speak, and we started our own stories.

I loved it.

This was so different from my campfire experiences. I have always been one of those people who can never think of the right thing to say in the moment but give me time to write and I can be all kinds of eloquent.

I still have those stories, tucked away in a drawer. Occasionally I’ll pull them out and chuckle over the fractured fairy tales and silly day-in-the-life stories that the five of us created.

And, like the campfire round robins, the stories never ended anywhere near where they began.

A few months ago, I dusted off the old round robin idea and pitched it to a writer friend who has been quarantining in the town next to ours. We each started a story and decided to pass it between us four times. This way we were able to contribute to each story twice and we didn’t end the story we began. We tweaked the format a few times as life events and writer’s block got in the way, but eventually we had two short stories that were a blast to write.

Writing round robins are exercises in plot development. My friend and I have totally different writing styles and meshing those styles was both a challenge and a joy. I wrote a story in first person; she wrote in third. She began with background information; I jumped in with dialogue. Both styles are good and instead of confusing the project, the differences added spice to the word stew.

The real fun came with moving the story along without preconceived ideas about where the plot was going. Strangely, we both chose fairy tales as our starting point, updating them to the present day.  In my friend’s tale, Little Red Riding Hood became Li’l Red, a popular rock star who went missing. In mine, the Woman Who Lived in a Shoe longed for a she shed to escape her enormous brood. From there, the stories moved to a haunted house, the she shed filled with unruly kids hoarding pandemic supplies, an election for king, and flying puppets.

Writing round robins are nothing new. In the 1930’s, the famous Detection Club funded their endeavors with the sales of books written as a round robin. Writers the likes of Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers used the format to produce The Floating Admiral and Ask a Policeman. While a professional project, the mental gymnastics required to create a coherent plot were the same as our short experiment.

According to Martin Edward’s book The Golden Age of Murder, when the Detection Club took up the challenge, Dorothy L. Sayers laid down two rules: one, “each writer must have a definite solution in mind and must not add fresh complications without having any idea of how to resolve them,” and, two, “each writer was expected to tackle the challenges set by earlier installments.”

The rules were good, but even Sayers admitted that, human nature being what it is, when one writer lays down a clue thinking it points one way, the next writer will invariably come along and make it point in the opposite direction.

And that’s what happened in our short stories, although I must confess that I dropped cliff hangers without any thoughts on where it might lead my friend. We each growled in frustration as we twisted the plots into pretzels to make it work as coherent stories, but, in the end, we laughed at the final destinations.

When all was said and done, however, I realized that participating in the round robin had an unanticipated result: it made me a better writer. My friend took me out of my comfort zone and made me flex my imagination muscles in a way I had never used them. I was forced to think outside of the box and for that I am grateful.

Our next project? Another round robin beginning in September. I can’t wait to begin.

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