Using CHSL Cards to Shape Your Story

Written by David Brooks on January 18, 2016 2:52 am

The second way we use CHSL Cards is to shape already-existing plot points. That most-often means something we think is weak.

In most cases, that looks a lot like the process of using CHSL Cards for writer‘s block. But there are a few nuances that might be worth mentioning.

I asked some friends for examples of scenes they would find difficult to write. My friend Adrian responded with a scene that would make me especially uneasy: romance. Writing about romance often feels so awkward to me that, in fact, I almost ignored it. But for your sake, I‘m going to come up with a scene.

So let‘s take a couple. Steve (his friends call him, Schteve), and Angela. (She goes by Angela, not Angie.) I just made them up, hopefully I don‘t know anyone named Steve who is recently dating an Angela. But for the scene, they‘re on a walk together and they‘re about to hold hands for the first time.

But there you have it, I‘ve thrown myself into the scene and I don‘t have a plan on how to get out of it. So, I draw a card:


Thankfully I didn‘t draw “Food” again, though that could have been funny.

Reading through the opening paragraph a few things stand out to me.

  1. We make promises, even if unknowingly.
  2. Promises can oftentimes be inconvenient.
  3. Does someone call in a favor when the protagonist is already down on their luck?
  4. Or maybe someone made a pact with the devil.

There‘s already something useful here. I‘m going to rule out point number three. You‘re here to watch me fumble through writing about romance, and that‘s a quick way out of the scene. But just because I‘m not going to take that option, it doesn‘t mean that you can‘t.

So, looking at option one, there‘s some use here. People in love say things they don‘t think about. “I‘ll never leave your side,” or “I swear I‘ll change.”

That second statement feels like it would lead to conflict. But maybe Schteve is being honest, and he‘s speaking to Angela‘s concerns. Perhaps it‘s the thing she needed to hear at that time. But it‘s a promise, and she‘s going to hold him to it.

“I‘ll never leave your side” is a complete exaggeration, and people in movies and such say it all the time. If Angela is nervous about commitment, or maybe it‘s Schteve, it could be a point of internal conflict that disrupts the scene. If that‘s what the other person is wanting to hear, it might connect with them. In fact, it‘s possible that you just uncovered something about Schteve that you hadn‘t realized. As it turns out, he‘s an eternal romantic and a fan of classic movies. He feels like Angela needs that in her life.

“Promises are often inconvenient.”

They certainly can be. And in this case, the easiest thing is to file that away in the back of your mind for later. You could take the comment “I‘ll never leave your side” and turn it into the crux of conflict later. Maybe she did leave his side, and something happened. Will she ever forgive herself?

But you can also play up the internal concern that comes with promising something. Maybe Schteve did promise to change, and he realizes that to make a change, he has to take drastic measures. Maybe he has to leave his job as a henchman, or switch political parties. You could write his feelings about having to make good on it. But he seems to love Angela enough to follow-through.

If Schteve is a liar or just out to deceive Angela, you could show that here, too.

“Or maybe someone made a pact with the devil.”

It‘s probably not Lucifer, unless you‘re writing the sequel to Bedazzled. But it‘s possible that Angela just loves to play the ponies, and she‘s here because her loan shark let her live this one last time. You‘ve already written the scene, so something like that is most likely already established. But it could be a bit more subtle.

If there‘s a fantastical theme in play, there could be a fairy that she asks for help. But the help of a fairy comes with small consequences. I don‘t suspect that this angle is going to help much with that scene, but it‘s your scene.

Writing Prompt

Beyond the first paragraph, we have a suggestion for a writing prompt. In this case, it reads, “Your protagonist has made a promise knowing they have no ability to keep it, in exchange for something they need.”

If we‘re writing for Hollywood, the application is direct here. Schteve didn‘t like Angela at all, she‘s way too quiet and introverted for his tastes. But he needed her grandmother‘s endorsement at work, so he‘s dating her. In a sentence, Schteve has become a jerk. But somehow this works in romantic comedies in Hollywood for whatever reason.

Story Flavor Text

“I promise you that you‘ll regret trusting me.” – Melton

There‘s a bit here that could play into your scene as well. Most people would never say something like this, even though they may think it. If Schteve is the jerk in the romantic comedy who makes the hero look better, that quote seals the deal.

I‘m brainstorming here, but perhaps this is about Angela. Schteve is playing her emotions for that promotion at work, but she knows. Her grandmother sent Schteve her way because Angela is like Dexter, and kills bad people.

Well, that got dark.

If you‘ve established this as a true romantic scene, that last bit is way out of line. You‘re most likely to find use in the lighter suggestions.

Now, it‘s obvious that I haven‘t given you the exact words to write. And that‘s okay. You‘re the writer. But the hope is that with a single word and some supporting text, you can find the inspiration to strengthen your work and make your life easier. So, go make those crazy kids hold hands.

Thanks to Adrian for the suggested scene!