The Story Remix Matrix

I like to make “devices” for use in creative pursuits. What I mean by “device” is a tool of some sort that smoothes the creative process or provides inspiration, sort of an automation process. I do this with a lot of things: music making, games, and also writing. Today I want to share one of my devices that I call The Story Remix Matrix and teach you how it works, as well as how to build your own. You’ll need:

  • A program that lets you write in table format, such as Excel, Numbers, or Evernote OR a sheet of paper and pen
  • A D20 die or dice rolling app like Dice Ex Machina for iOS.

What’s A Remix?

Remixing comes from music production, originally founded (as near as anyone can tell) by Jamaican producers who wanted to get more mileage out of their songs and create alternate versions (with the added bonus of not having to re-hire the band). Since the songs were split into separate parts already due to the process of recording through a mixing desk or a multitrack recorder, the engineer or producer was free to take things out, put things in, change parts, and so on (This gave birth to Dub. Disco producers like Tom Moulton would really push the remix as a viable method of creating new songs for the dancefloor. Today, remixing is ubiquitous in Pop and Club music).

Inspired by this, what we will be doing with The Story Remix Matrix is breaking up 20 plot synopses of books and movies that we enjoy into their component parts so that we can then reinterpret them into a new plot (or character arc) for ourselves to write with. First, I’ll show you a bit of the one I made to give you an idea:

A screenshot of one of my matrices in Evernote

You’ll notice that we have five columns. The first is our number column, of which there will be 20 in order to line up with the 20 sided die we are using. After that are four text columns where we take a story synopsis and break it up into something like Subject-Modifier-Predicate+Object-Result. You should immediately recognize the first few synopses, but just in case they are: Star Wars-A New Hope, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension. You really want at least 20 of these in order to maximize the potential for weird and useful combinations, but you can of course adjust this to your own comfort level.

How It Works

You roll your D20 four times, once for each of the text columns moving from left to right. Each time, you write down the corresponding text of that column til you end up with a possibly useful and probably strange new synopsis. I’ll roll one up now from my table and show you what I mean:

  • Roll: 7, Text: A wood elf from a foreign tribe
  • Roll: 6, Text: Who can no longer hack because of burnout
  • Roll: 12, Text: Trains his fellow slaves into a fighting force
  • Roll 19, Text: And saves the world and his soul

So what we end up with is the somewhat-nonsensical synopsis: “A wood elf from a foreign tribe who can no longer hack because of burnout trains his fellow slaves into a fighting force and saves the world and his soul.”

(In case you’re wondering, that is, in order, the backstory of Nissa Revane from Magic: The Gathering, Neuromancer by William Gibson, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson and The Dark Tower by Stephen King. The raw material can come from absolutely anywhere.)

Now, if we were stopping there, this would rarely produce useful results. However, the next step is to translate this into either a world that already exists or to invent one where all the pieces make sense. I’ll demonstrate by dropping this into the world of Middle-Earth (not hard as I’m re-reading The Silmarillion at the moment). How about this: “Finduïn of the Noldor, a seer, was tricked by a disguised Morgoth and enslaved in the pits below Angband, losing his gift as well as his sight. He unifies the other enslaved Eldar and escapes to Valinor, where he warns of a plot by Morgoth. He receives the forgiveness of the Valar and recovers his vision and his gift.”

Not bad, right? It takes some inventiveness, but it can give you immediately useful raw material (and is a lot easier to use than Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies).

Some Other Uses

You can do the same thing to create the motivation for your antagonist. A really fun game to play is one I call “Serenity”, as in the ship from Firefly. In this game you roll up five synopses. Each one will be the motivation of a character on board your imaginary ship. Then, you figure out the common thread that has caused them all to be in the same place at the same time and trim up the text a bit and BOOM, you have yourself a full cast with complex motivations and backstory all built in.

Well, there you have it. I hope you’ll give this a try and let me know what you came up with. You can of course make other roll tables to flesh things out. I’ve got tables for things like magic sources, unusual theme sources, cool words, and so on. Sky’s the limit here.

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