Emergency Procedures

  1. Focus on the moment in your story that’s causing you grief.
  2. Draw a card at random. No cheating.
  3. Read it, along with the detailed suggestions on the back.

The card you choose may not seem to apply to your situation. Don’t panic.

Let the artwork, title and suggestions trigger new ideas. Most of these ideas will be terrible. That’s okay!

The goal of the pack is to get you asking what if? Wrong turns are useful if they get you headed somewhere interesting.

The Cards

Cause And Effect

How can the next few events result from your hero’s actions?

Fight the Giant

Your hero will have to face their adversary at some point. Why not right now?

Talk It Out

If your hero and the antagonist had an honest discussion, what would they say to each other?

Not My Job

Give your hero new responsibilities, including a chance to prove themselves.


Imagine your story as told by an omniscient narrator. What would Morgan Freeman say?

Every Villain is a Hero

Your antagonist probably thinks they’re the good guy. Imagine the story from their perspective.

Move Ahead Three Spaces

What would happen if you skipped over the next few scenes/days/years?

Stop Talking

Actions speak louder than words. If your characters couldn’t talk, what would they do?

Change Relationships

Consider other ways your characters could be related, both now and in the past.

Standard Procedures

Is your hero writing the rules or breaking them?

Puny Humans

Sometimes it really is the end of the world. How would your story change if the stakes were cataclysmic?

Stack Of Needles

Too much can be worse than too little. Overwhelm your hero with more than they can handle.

Kill The Hero

If your hero died right now, what would happen next? Who would keep up the mission?


A change of scenery can do wonders. Take your hero somewhere new.

Secret Society

Your hero has stumbled upon a dark conspiracy — or perhaps they’ve been part of it all along.

Start The Clock

Deadlines force characters to make choices. How can it be now or never?


Up close, everything looks different. Zoom in to focus on a moment, a detail or an emotion.

Switch Genres

Consider how your story might play out if it were in a completely different genre.

That Was Lucky

Let your hero succeed through pure dumb luck. Just make sure the pendulum swings both ways.

What Would Indy Do?

The best heroes surprise us by taking actions we never saw coming.


Someone is not who they seem. Is it your hero?

Zombie Attack

What would your hero do if confronted by a mindless, unstoppable horde?

Lose The Cavalry

Let your hero face the challenge alone.

That’s Not The Dragon

You thought that was the enemy? Nope. The real danger lies ahead.

Every Blessing Is A Curse

Find ways to turn your hero’s success against them.

A House Is Not A Home

It’s what inside that matters.


Sometimes your best friend is the one you make yourself.

Handcuffs Of Fate

They may not like it, but now they’re a team.

Belly Of The Whale

You made it inside! Now how do you get out?

Evil Twin

Do you know which one you are?

Devious Whispers

It’s a good time for bad advice.

Beast Mode

Unlock your hero’s wild side.


Too much is never enough.


Sometimes the best person for the job is someone else.

Time Travel

Looking for a change? There’s no time like the present.

The Stranger

A mystery in human form.

Sword In The Stone

A chance to prove your worth,or even change the world.

Mysterious Package

Special delivery!

Fly Paper

Sticky and sweet.


Is it guiding you to shore, or warning you to stay away?


What goes around comes around.


Mistakes happen.

Looking Glass

Everything’s different on the other side.

Shrink Ray

A small change can lead to big problems—and new perspectives.

Hug The Crocodile

If you can’t beat them, love them.

Off The Rails

We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re getting there fast.

It’s A Trap!

Don’t take the bait.

In Plain Sight

The best place to hide is out in the open.

Perfect Balance

Difficult for other people—but they’re not other people.

Tiny Door

Knock knock. Who’s there? And where did they come from?


Is this salvation, or a mirage?

Writing Exercise

Looking to limber up your writing brain? Try this quick exercise!

Cards Against Normality

A game for 3 to 6 players

Group Activity

Writer Emergency Pack is found in thousands of classrooms and writers’ groups. Here’s one fun way to use it.

About This Deck

01 – Cause And Effect

Everything happens for a reason. Usually, that reason should be your hero. Look for ways they can take the reins of the story.

There’s nothing wrong with a “passive” hero as long as their passivity alters the course of the story. (By their doing nothing, something changes.)

Consider reversing the cause and effect. What if your hero robs a bank because they’re a fugitive? What if your doctor causes rather than cures the epidemic?

Try This

  • Talk through your story, replacing every “and then” with “because.” What would need to change?
  • Imagine your story being told in reverse, Memento-style. How could your setups become payoffs?
  • The biggest effects come from irrevocable choices. List three decisions your hero couldn’t take back.

^ Back

02 – Fight the Giant

We usually think of showdowns coming at the end of the story, but early battles allow for new complications.

A crushing defeat gives your hero something to prove. Do they doubt themselves? Will their allies stand with them?

A surprising victory could turn an enemy into an ally, or spawn an even more powerful Big Bad—perhaps the mother or brother of the defeated.

Try This

  • List three ways the enemy could bring the fight to the hero right now.
  • If your hero has a plan, how can they be forced to accelerate it? Perhaps they learn new information, or a window of opportunity is closing.
  • Coincidence happens. Brainstorm three ways your hero and antagonist could find themselves in the same location unexpectedly.

^ Back

03 – Talk It Out

Perhaps your hero and the antagonist are not so far apart—or maybe it’s much worse than either of them realized. A conversation will make it clear.

Sometimes it’s a stranger that your hero opens up to, revealing truths they themselves didn’t comprehend.

This conversation may never make it into the story, but it can reveal what’s driving your characters in the moment. It may also give you useful dialogue.

So don’t hold back. Let them get everything off their chests.

Try This

  • List three locations or situations in which your hero and their adversary could talk at length.
  • Brainstorm three characters your hero could confide in.
  • Imagine a conversation between your hero and their younger self. What advice would they give?
  • If your antagonist is non-human (e.g., a storm, an island, the alien in Alien) imagine it as a person. How does it speak? How would it describe what it wants?

^ Back

04 – Not My Job

Let your hero become the boss, or the new janitor. It doesn’t have to be a profession. Give them a baby to take care of—or a baby elephant. New obligations mean new options, both for the hero and the story.

Like judo, you’re looking for ways to play your hero’s strengths against them. Make the lone wolf lead the mission. Make the captain shovel coal.

Or maybe your hero used to have this job, but left it behind. What would bring them back?

Try This

  • List three interesting jobs in your world, then brainstorm how your hero might fill them.
  • Imagine your hero is drafting a résumé. What would they list for career goals?
  • If your hero were to pretend to have another occupation, what might it be?

^ Back

05 – Narrator

If your story had a narrator, what would they tell us? Would they simply provide backstory, or connect the dots along the way? Would they be a character in the story itself—perhaps framing events that happened in the past—or exist outside the plot?

Narrators tell us what’s important, and often state the lesson of the story. Even if you don’t use a narrator, knowing what one might say can reveal unexplored themes.

Try This

  • Tell your story out loud with your best storyteller voice. Try to use a lot of “althoughs” and “meanwhiles.”
  • What if your narrator is lying, or otherwise unreliable? Consider ways you could misdirect the reader.
  • List three characters who could narrate the story. How would it change with each of them?
  • Imagine your story narrated by a famous actress, a famous rapper or a cartoon character.

^ Back

06 – Every Villain is a Hero

What is the villain trying to do? Beyond the hero, what other obstacles are in their way?

Don’t stop at the villain’s motivation (e.g., revenge, greed, survival). Rather, look for what the journey is. We might only see a small part of it from the hero’s perspective, but knowing the whole arc gives us more to push against.

Let your villain struggle and win a few times along the way. After all, they don’t know they’re the bad guy.

Try This

  • Plot out what would happen if your hero never showed up. What would the villain/antagonist do? Would a different hero rise up?
  • What is your villain’s greatest fear? Who do they love? Can either of these cause them to take action in your story?
  • Brainstorm three moments in which your villain could be surprisingly heroic.

^ Back

07 – Move Ahead Three Spaces

Jumping forward gives you a chance to re-center your characters in the story, and show the effects of their actions. Like a curtain between acts, it lets you change styles and settings and seasons.

Readers can often fill in what they missed, particularly when the overall patterns are clear. We don’t need to see every week at Hogwarts, because we know how schools work.

If skipping scenes makes little impact on your story, that’s a clear sign you need to get rid of them.

Try This

  • Look for ways to combine scenes and locations. If your hero needs to have an argument and then go hiking, can the argument happen on the hike?
  • List three events the reader might anticipate will happen in your story, such as Regionals, prom or the hero’s wedding. Could you skip ahead to one of them?
  • Think about transitions: Is there a natural way to make it clear that time has passed (e.g., Christmas trees, sunrise, graduation)?

^ Back

08 – Stop Talking

Dialogue is great, but sometimes your characters need to shut up and do something. Look for ways to take away their ability to speak, and force them to find other ways to communicate.

There are countless ways to make normal speech impossible, from stealth to equipment failure to foreign languages.

Silence can also be a choice. Maybe your hero isn’t saying anything because they’re simply done talking.

Try This

  • Imagine this moment in a silent film. How would you know what’s going on?
  • If your hero could only say five words, what would they be?
  • Could the story beats happen in a montage rather than full scenes? What would those moments be?

^ Back

09 – Change Relationships

What if the hero and villain were brothers? Lovers? Neighbors? Childhood friends?

Every two characters in your story have a relationship, even if it’s as strangers. But the most interesting relationship might not be the most obvious one, so consider many possibilities.

While you’re at it, try moving the clock. Is your central couple newlywed or nearly-divorced? Could they meet for the first time in your story, or be celebrating twenty years?

Always ask yourself: How could this relationship cause more challenges for the hero?

Try This

  • Picture your hero on a date with each of the major characters in the story. Where would they go? What would the end of the night be like?
  • If all the major characters in your story were part of a single family, who would have what role? What would the arguments be?
  • Pick two supporting characters and imagine them as dogs or cats. How would the story change?

^ Back

10 – Standard Procedures

One character’s crisis is another character’s ordinary day at the office.

What would happen if this situation happened all the time? Is your hero a help or a hindrance?

Heroes often find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, but sometimes they can apply skills from their normal lives. If your hero can fix a truck, can they fix a tank? If they can lead their son’s baseball team to victory, can they lead a band of survivors out of the Peruvian jungle?

The best heroes often end up breaking rules they’ve made.

Try This

  • Write a checklist of rules and procedures for this situation. Now look for ways they can become obstacles for your hero.
  • Make a list of skills from your hero’s ordinary life. How could they be adapted to fit this challenge?
  • Research how this situation (or place, or job) is handled in the real world. Who is in charge? Look for protocols and gatekeepers.

^ Back

11 – Puny Humans

Looking at how your hero might respond to a major cataclysm—asteroid, plague, tsunami, robot uprising—can offer insights into their actions at more human-level jeopardy. So start
blowing things up. Knock down some national monuments. Smash, crash and see what you get.

What’s important to your hero? Who would they save? Where would they go? And once there, would they lead the resistance, or keep their head down?

How would a cataclysm change your hero’s interaction with the antagonist? Would they still be on opposing sides?

Try This

  • A comet will smash into the Earth in 24 hours. What would your hero do?
  • Imagine your story in a post-apocalyptic world. What would change? What might stay the same?
  • What if your hero was the invader? Reimagine the story if they were the conqueror rather than the conquered.

^ Back

12 – Stack of Needles

Whatever your hero needs, give them way too much of it. Give the detective six thousand clues. Give the sad sack forty dates.

How heroes handle success can be as illuminating as how they handle failure. Are they gracious? Vindictive? Can they make the transition from rebel to king?

Irony shines a spotlight on the struggle of life. You may be dying of thirst, but with a few bad decisions, you can drown in the desert.

Try This

  • List three things the hero needs or wants. For each, what might be the consequence of getting too much?
  • An actual stack of needles is no match for a strong magnet. What tools could your hero employ?
  • Consider jealousy. How would your hero react if other characters suddenly had their wishes fulfilled?

^ Back

13 – Kill The Hero

It’s almost never a good idea to kill your hero in the middle of your story. But sometimes it’s a great idea. Might this be one of those times?

If your hero died right now, who would take over their function? What would their opponents do next? What would their friends and family do? Imagining the hero dead is a great way to find out how indispensable they are.

Alternately, if everyone wrongly believed your hero was dead, what would your hero suddenly be free to do?

Try This

  • Write a eulogy for your hero from another character’s point of view. Could that character say any of those things while the hero is alive?
  • Jot down your character’s last will and testament. Who would get their stuff? Would they want to be buried, and where? What would their tombstone read?
  • Consider options short of literal death: prison, coma, exile, alien stasis. Anything that takes your hero out of action can work.

^ Back

14 – Travel

When your hero hits the road, their normal routines don’t apply. They’re interacting with new environments and new characters. They’re literally out of their comfort zone, and that’s almost always a good thing.

A new setting also gives you the chance to change the texture of your world, from weather to language to wardrobe. Take your Viking to Australia. Take your Wookiee to Dagobah.

A new location should bring new challenges. Your hero is the same character, but without their usual comforts and allies.

Try This

  • List three reasons your hero might need to leave town right now.
  • Brainstorm four settings that would be challenging for your hero to navigate.
  • If your hero could call home, who would they call? What would they say?
  • In the past, did your hero travel someplace particularly important to them? Is there a reason to go back now?

^ Back

15 – Secret Society

Secret societies aren’t just for thrillers. From Alcoholics Anonymous to Girl Scouts, every group has goals, rituals and inside knowledge.

Is your hero trying to get in—or get out?

Whether it’s an ancient fraternity, a midnight bowling league or that house down the street with the strange noises, secret societies provide your hero a chance to enter a hidden world, or escape a nightmare.

Try This

  • Who runs the group? Is your hero vying for leadership, or are they a threat in some other way?
  • How do group members identify each other? List some gestures, clothing or other signals they might use. If your hero tried to fake it, what could go wrong?
  • List rituals or practices that are special to the group.
  • Is the group trying to expand, or remain exclusive? What might they do to protect their secrets?

^ Back

16 – Start The Clock

Time is the essence of urgency. Consider basketball: Anyone can make ten free-throws in an hour. Ten baskets in a minute—that’s difficult. And you always want to make things difficult for your hero.

A ticking clock is rarely an actual clock. Instead, it’s often phrased as “before”—before the bride says “I do” or before the Nazis cross that bridge.

Heroes usually know they’re on the clock, but sometimes it’s more suspenseful when they don’t. If the audience knows there is a ticking bomb under the restaurant table, every moment waiting for the check is terrifying.

Try This

  • From each major character’s perspective, establish a deadline or ultimatum. Phrase it like this: If the hero doesn’t do (blank) by (blank), then the consequence is (blank).
  • Heroes won’t always beat the clock. Work through what might happen if they fail.

^ Back

17 – Magnify

When you look closely at a moment or idea, you discover truths and textures that might otherwise go unnoticed. (Chickens are basically velociraptors. Velcro is nothing but tiny hooks.)

Your hero may be holding the metaphorical magnifying glass or perhaps they’re the one being examined. How would they act if they knew they were under scrutiny?

A powerful lens can even focus light so intensely it burns.

Try This

  • What is your hero feeling right now? What are some tiny actions that might reveal it?
  • Extend the moment. What if a given event took a day rather than a minute? What if it took a year?
  • Imagine your hero is incredibly nearsighted. How would your story change if they could only see things an inch from their nose?

^ Back

18 – Switch Genres

What would your story be like as a western? Or a thriller? Or a comedy?

What would your hero do differently? What would the reader expect in this kind of story? Switching genres can help you brainstorm plot turns and alternate choices your hero could make.

Remember that characters often don’t knowwhat genre they’re in. Characters in a horrormovie may think they’re in a comedy, and act that way until the chainsaws come out.

Try This

  • Pick a wildly different genre, and talk through your hero’s plot if it were set in that world.
  • Choose another time frame (e.g., Middle Ages, the 1970s) and reimagine your story taking place then. What would change? What would stay the same?
  • Insert a hero from a different genre. Put a pirate in your romantic comedy. Bring a rowdy bachelor to your historical drama.

^ Back

19 – That Was Lucky

There’s nothing wrong with your hero catching a lucky break.

In both fiction and life, sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time. It’s often the premise—the meet-cute, the lottery ticket, the ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. But good luck only counts if there really was a chance things could have gone badly.

So if you’re flipping a coin, make sure it really has two sides, with real consequences. And let your villain get lucky, too.

Try This

  • Brainstorm three moments where events could go either way for your hero. What would the rewards or consequences be?
  • Does your hero have any rituals or superstitions? If so, how can they be revealed in the story?
  • Does your hero enjoy taking chances? Look for ways to challenge both the gambler and the scaredy-cat.

^ Back

20 – What Would Indy Do?

Some heroes surprise us by taking bold actions. They bring guns to sword fights. They chase tanks on horseback. They cut the rope bridge.

Imagine the stakes are life-or-death. How would your hero get that memo from a locked office if the building were collapsing? What would the condo co-op meeting be like if it were happening on a falling blimp?

Don’t let expectation box your hero in. Give them a whip, and get cracking.

Try This

  • Who are your hero’s Henry, Sallah and Marion? Brainstorm three relationships from your hero’s past, and how they could impact your story.
  • Remember the poisoned dates. List four things in your hero’s world that might be poisoned (literally or metaphorically). How might your hero discover them?
  • Find your Satipo. Is there an ally who can betray your hero?
  • Everyone has a snake. What is your hero’s greatest phobia?

^ Back

21 – Imposter

Everyone wears masks, but some characters go much further, pretending to be someone they’re not.

Many deceptions are spontaneous and unplanned (pretending to like jazz), while others require extensive training (a deep-cover spy). Sometimes characters forget who they really are.

The life of an impostor is dangerous—everymoment carries the risk of the ruse collapsing. What are the consequences of being discovered? Who gains from the lie being revealed?

Try This

  • Imagine your hero’s life is a deception. Who are they really, and why are they pretending to be this character?
  • List three jobs your hero would be terrible at, then write a scene in which they fake her way through one of them.
  • It’s easy to pretend to be someone else online. Brainstorm three ways your hero could be catfished or otherwise deceived.

^ Back

22 – Zombie Attack

“Zombies” don’t have to be the walking dead. From soccer hooligans to snotty seniors to social media swarms, there are mobs in every genre. Unlike individual adversaries, crowds can’t be confronted or reasoned with. Your hero may need to flee or take shelter—perhaps with other survivors.

Whether real or metaphorical, all zombies have weaknesses, and it’s up to your hero to figure out what those are. Perhaps there’s even a cure. But finding it won’t be easy.

Try This

  • Brainstorm some experts your hero could consult. If this happened before, how did they survive?
  • Does the horde have a leader? Is there any way your hero could take over that spot?
  • Make it personal. Let someone the hero loves join the mob.
  • Zombies want brains. What does your crowd want? If the attackers got it, would they disperse or grow stronger?

^ Back

23 – Lose The Cavalry

If your hero can easily call for help, the stakes won’t be as high. So take away their lifeline. No parents, no mentors, no 911.

Or set up the expectation that help is on the way, but then prevent it. Perhaps the reinforcements are stuck in a blizzard. The police show up at the wrong address. The replacement wedding dress is destroyed by ferrets.

Force your hero to figure this out for themselves.

Try This

  • List three ways a person could get help in this situation, then list ways to prevent it.
  • Maybe your hero is the cavalry. How could they fail to come to the aid of an ally? What are the consequences?
  • Go ahead and send the cavalry—but at a cost. Perhaps the rescuers are worse than the original enemies.

^ Back

24 – That’s Not The Dragon

The best villains often hide behind henchmen and facades. Your hero might believe they have defeated the enemy, only to discover they’re stronger than ever. Or perhaps, like The Wizard of Oz, there’s someone pulling levers behind the

Look for reversals. Can the supposed enemy be turned into an ally? Has your hero been an unwitting tool of a greater evil? Was the whole thing a trap, or just a delay?

Even fake dragons have teeth. Let the bite count.

Try This

  • Bait the trap. List three things that could be used to lure your hero to danger.
  • Picture the puppet master. Who could be pulling the strings? What would they gain by remaining hidden? How could your hero discover them?
  • Heroes can have puppets, too. Brainstorm deceptions your hero could use to confuse or delay the enemy.

^ Back

25 – Every Blessing Is A Curse

From monkey paws to pet cemeteries, fables have taught us that gifts rarely come without a price. But this doesn’t need to be a moral lesson; almost any improvement in the hero’s life can

Look for ways to turn your hero’s achievements against them. The new love interest can become a stalker. The new house can be a deathtrap. The new job can literally be murder.

Try This

  • List three things your hero wants. How could each of them lead to ruin?
  • Curses are hard to break, often requiring perilous journeys and exotic rituals. Brainstorm challenging ways for your hero to remove the affliction.
  • Some curses are blessings in disguise. List three ways a bad event could end up helping your hero.

^ Back

26 – A House Is Not A Home

On the surface, everything seems normal. But look a little closer, and you realize this is an illusion.

Is your hero’s ordinary life a lie? And if so, are they an unwitting dupe (the naive daughter) or complicit in the fabrication (the sleeper spy)?

What does “home” mean to your hero? Is it a sanctuary or a prison? Is it a location or a relationship? Most heroes are either running to or from home.

Try This

  • Imagine one of your hero’s allies is lying. What is the lie, and how could the hero discover it?
  • Empty houses burn faster. How can you destroy your hero’s initial setting or situation, preventing them from returning?
  • Perhaps your hero finds a midstory safe haven—a place (or relationship) of relative security. Brainstorm three dark secrets they could discover about it.

^ Back

27 – Sandman

From magical snowmen to menacing robots, there are countless tales of creatures given life in unexpected ways. They can become true allies, dangerous monsters—or both.

Sandmen are often organizations rather than individuals. Think of a bee colony, or the Borg in Star Trek. Composed of millions of pieces, they’re amorphous and hard to defeat.

A sandman can also represent a natural force such as a blinding storm, or any persistent irritant that wears down your hero over time.

Try This

  • How could your hero create an ally? What would they be made of?
  • Consider how your hero’s tactics would change if they were battling countless tiny enemies instead of one big bad.
  • Sand slips through your fingers. What item or achievement might slip away from your hero?

^ Back

28 – Handcuffs Of Fate

Sometimes rivals are bound together, forcingthem to cooperate. Perhaps it’s because of shared custody, a common goal or literal handcuffs.

It’s a recipe for comedy, but has just as much dramatic potential. How will your hero adapt? What would they learn? What would they sacrifice to break free?

In other cases, the hero is alone and the handcuffs are what’s keeping them from pursuing their ambitions. Do they find a key, or discover another way to get loose?

Try This

  • List three characters your hero would dreadspending time with, and why.
  • Consider how your hero might end up partneredwith a rival. Who or what would slap the “cuffs”on them?
  • Some heroes crave connection. How could your hero arrange to be stuck with a specific character?

^ Back

29 – Belly Of The Whale

Heroes can end up trapped in unexpected environments, either through their own fault or simple bad luck. What matters most is what they do next.

Forced to focus on escape, will your hero set aside their other goals? Can the experience teach them something valuable to use on their journey?

The belly can also represent hunger and “trusting your gut.” What biological forces drive your hero?

Try This

  • Brainstorm three situations in which yourhero could become trapped—either literally or figuratively.
  • Ambergris is a highly-prized ingredient in perfumes, but it begins as whale vomit. What object of overlooked value could your hero discover while trapped?
  • Is your hero alone? Or did they discover someone else already trapped inside?

^ Back

30 – Evil Twin

Heroes often find themselves facing opponents who are their mirror images. Surface similarities can mask deep differences in their moral codes.

Evil twins have more fun. They take risks and speak their minds, unburdened by conscience.

In some cases, the good twin and the evil twin are the same person. Does something trigger an abrupt change in the character’s personality?

Or perhaps the evil twin isn’t a person, but an idea. Vengeance can be the dark version of justice. Greed is ambition without limits.

Try This

  • Imagine the villain version of your hero. How would they act? Are there aspects of that character you could bring to your hero?
  • Brainstorm ways your hero could prove they’re not the “bad twin.”
  • A villain might say, “We’re not that different, you and I.” How would your hero respond?

^ Back

31 – Devious Whispers

Many heroes have a voice they turn to when they’re uncertain what to do. It could be a kindly mentor, a trusted friend, or some inner code that keeps them pointed in the right direction.

The wrong voice at the right time can lead heroes astray. A persuasive false ally can trick characters into bad decisions.

Sometimes, devious whispers are a form of selfsabotage. After all, being heroic requires courage. Some part of your hero may resist that.

Try This

  • Who could convince your hero to act against their goals? What would they say?
  • What would your hero do if a trusted ally betrayed them?
  • The medium matters. How would your hero respond to a deceptive phone call, text message or anonymous note?

^ Back

32 – Beast Mode

From The Hulk to Mr. Hyde, some heroes transform into monstrous creatures. But the shift doesn’t have to be physical. Beast Mode is an attitude more than anything.

Look for ways your hero can break free from expectations and tackle seemingly impossible tasks.

Would your hero be frightened of their beastly actions, or find unexpected joy in letting loose? Could their transformation hurt someone they care about?

Try This

  • Brainstorm three beasts—real or imagined— who your hero could become. What aspects of these creatures could the hero demonstrate in everyday life?
  • Transformations often have triggers, like werewolves and the full moon. What could trigger your hero?
  • Could your hero still achieve their goal if they transform back too soon?

^ Back

33 – Overloaded

Many heroes find themselves overwhelmed, attempting to do too much with too little time or energy. Simple tasks can stack up to become an endurance test.

In comedy, characters struggle to keep up appearances. In drama, characters watch as their plans crash down around them.

An organization or a system can also be overloaded. An army may need to fight on too many fronts. A computer server can be
swarmed. Rush hour traffic can turn freeways into parking lots.

Try This

  • List three additional challenges your hero could face. What would cause them to “unplug?”
  • Overloading can be the solution rather than the problem. How could your hero overwhelm their opponent?
  • What would happen if your hero burned out? How would they recover? Who would take over?

^ Back

34 – Swap

What if two characters switched places, either by choice or necessity? They might swap jobs, responsibilities, or roles within a family.

A swap lets your hero see the world from a different perspective. Their existing skills may apply, or they may have to learn something new. Most importantly, they’re learning what it’s like to be someone else.

Perhaps the swap isn’t about people, but things. Characters might end up with the wrong phone, the wrong car or the wrong ticket to Mars.

Try This

  • What are three misconceptions each character has about the other person? How would switching places reveal the truth?
  • Swapping roles often means gaining or losing status. How would your hero respond to a change in standing?

^ Back

35 – Time Travel

From A Christmas Carol to The Terminator, stories often teach heroes about the present day by showing them the past or the future.

Time travel offers heroes a chance to correct past mistakes, or see the consequences of their choices. But it’s often a risky journey, with unexpected twists.

Realistic stories can use flashbacks, time jumps and predictions of the future to give us a sense of the world beyond Right Now.

Try This

  • If your hero could send a postcard to their past self, telling them to make one change, what would it be?
  • What would your hero change if they saw that their plan was definitely going to fail?
  • Brainstorm a new character who mirrors the hero’s future self, and the dangers of the path they’re on.

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36 – The Stranger

Strangers invite questions. Where did they come from? Why are they here? Most importantly, can they be trusted?

The stranger can become an ally, an antagonist, or the inspiration for a hero to start their own journey. No matter what, they represent a change.

Perhaps your hero is the stranger, a newcomer learning the customs and norms of the community. Do they want to fit in, or stand out? Are they looking to stay, or just passing through?

Try This

  • Brainstorm three newcomers who could arrive. What makes them distinct from the other characters you’ve created?
  • What might convince your hero to trust a stranger?
  • Write two secrets your hero might reveal to a stranger they wouldn’t tell a close friend.

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37 – Sword In The Stone

From the twelve labors of Hercules to Ellen Ripley’s power loader, heroes often face tests to prove their worth. Public trials demonstrate their determination and specific talents.

Some tests are private, with the hero trying to achieve a specific milestone, or master a given skill. Cowboys break unruly stallions. Skateboarders finally land that trick.

Often, there’s a reward for passing the test. King Arthur gets Excalibur. But earning that prize may come with a catch, or bring new enemies.

Try This

  • List three tests or challenges your hero might face to prove their worth.
  • How might success change your hero?
  • Are there characters in your story who have tried and failed this test?

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38 – Mysterious Package

Mysterious packages are often what set heroes off on an adventure, but work equally well as midpoint clues and complications. A grainy photograph, a distorted recording, or a
cryptically worded letter can send the story in a new direction.

Often what makes packages mysterious is the labeling—or the lack of it. What details might make your hero think it’s important or dangerous?

Try This

  • Not all packages come through the post office. What’s an unusual method of sending this object or message to your hero?
  • List three things your hero needs to finish their journey. Could any of these objects be unfamiliar or confusing at first?
  • Mail gets misdelivered. What would your hero do if they realized a special package was meant for someone else?

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39 – Fly Paper

This sweet, sticky strip lures flies in, then holds them in place as they struggle to break free.

Similarly, many heroes find themselves stuck. Perhaps a villain knows the perfect bait, or your hero is caught in a loop of harmful or addictive behaviors. Can they escape by themselves, or will they need help?

Fly paper can be a tool for the hero as well. How can they lure in the villain, turning temptation into a trap?

Try This

  • What’s irresistible to your hero? How could pursuing it delay or sidetrack their journey?
  • What are three of your hero’s behaviors that get them into trouble?
  • Who knows your hero’s greatest temptations? How could they use this information?

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40 – Lighthouse

Lighthouses help sailors navigate in the dark, avoiding treacherous rocks. Our heroes face similar challenges, finding their path through unfamiliar territory. What’s lighting their way?

Lighthouses can represent safety, surveillance, duty, or isolation. They’re often a warning: stay back, because there’s hidden danger.

From mentors to watchdogs to the Eye of Sauron, lighthouses come in many forms and characters. Could your hero serve as a lighthouse to others?

Try This

  • What kind of “storm” would be too powerful for your hero to keep moving forward in their journey?
  • Who watches these lands? Devise a “lighthouse keeper” your hero could encounter.
  • What happens if the “light” goes out? What skills does your hero have that might help them get it re-lit?

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41 – Boomerang

Like a boomerang, the choices heroes make can circle back, often in unexpected ways. Is now the time for an earlier decision come back and pay off?

Supporting characters and subplots also function as boomerangs, returning to the story after an absence. What’s changed since they left?

Boomerangs were originally weapons. What weapons does your hero wield, and how much can they rely on them working?

Try This

  • Look for a moment where your hero attacks another character. What are three ways this action could circle back and cause the hero harm?
  • Is there something your hero has said that another character could echo back, and in doing so change the meaning?
  • Which character from your hero’s past would be most surprising if they suddenly showed up?

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42 – Oops

Whether through cockiness, clumsiness, or simple bad luck, mistakes happen. Embrace them!

Let your hero grab the wrong bag during the heist. Have a lab tech accidentally tear their clean suit. Show the parachute malfunctioning.

Mistakes can lead to discovery. Is your hero convinced they screwed up, only to find they stumbled onto something positive? Perhaps the tiny failure reveals a much bigger problem.

Try This

  • List three aspects of your hero’s routine, system, or scheme. For each one, devise a way for it to fail.
  • What could cause your hero—or their trusted ally—to suddenly drop the ball?
  • Was it really a mistake—or was it sabotage? Consider whether this “oops” was actually part of a rival’s plan.

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43 – Looking Glass

From Wonderland to Narnia, fantasy worlds are often entered through magic portals. But the same dynamic works in real-world stories. Heroes cross a threshold from observer to participant, fan to player, analyst to spy.

The world on the other side of the mirror is familiar but reversed. Allies become enemies, and nowhere feels safe.

Mirrors also force characters to face who they truly are.

Try This

  • Describe the mirror-image of your hero’s daily routine.
  • List three sports or activities your hero might watch but would never play. How could you get them on the field?
  • When your hero looks in a mirror, do they like what they see? What would they change?

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44 – Shrink Ray

From Atom to Ant-Man, comics feature heroes who can physically shrink. Consider ways to shrink your hero’s social stature, making them feel small.

Fire them from their job. Steal their car. Record their humiliation in a viral video.

At this new scale, ordinary things can become dangerous—or useful.

You’re not just changing your hero’s perspective, you’re forcing them to adapt to a new world.

Try This

  • If your hero could shrink anything in their life, what would they target and why?
  • Consider “the fly on the wall.” If your hero were so tiny as to be invisible, what conversations might they overhear?
  • Who can see your diminished hero? How can your hero get their attention, and maybe their assistance?

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45 – Hug The Crocodile

Villains need love too! What would happen if your hero tried defeating their rival with kindness? Would they make a new friend, or might the gesture backfire and create an even greater foe?

Sometimes your hero is the crocodile, mean and solitary. How would your hero react to an overwhelming display of affection?

What if your hero’s “crocodile” is an embarrassing flaw? Can they learn to embrace this part of themselves?

Try This

  • In the classic fable, Androcles removes a thorn from a lion’s paw. What injury does your villain have, and how could your hero fix it?
  • List three things the hero and villain agree on. Would this common ground surprise them?
  • How does your hero show affection? Is it through words, touch, or something else?

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46 – Off The Rails

Every hero follows a path. It could be a yellow brick road, a compass heading, or simply where the river takes them.

But if they’re “on rails” they’re not making tough decisions. Force them to think about where they’re going and how they’ll get there.

Getting derailed can be frightening for the hero, making them feel out of control or lost. But it could also be exhilarating, giving them their first taste of freedom.

Try This

  • Where is your hero trying to go? List four roadblocks that could stop them.
  • Floor it. If your hero had to move twice as fast, where would they cut corners? How dangerous would it be?
  • On a normal day, what keeps your hero on track? What happens if you take that thing away?

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47 – It’s A Trap!

Characters set traps to surprise their opponents. From Old West ambushes to Home Alone staircases, a well-designed trap can suddenly change everything.

Heroes can set traps or be the victims. Either way, traps take planning.

Traps aren’t always tangible. Your defense attorney’s brilliant questioning can trap a witness on the stand. That amazing job offer might find your hero working for the villain.

Try This

  • Every trap has bait. List three things your hero finds irresistible.
  • What if your hero recognizes it’s a trap? How could they disarm it, avoid it, or use it to their advantage?
  • Traps rely on timing. What’s the most surprising moment to reveal the trap? What if it goes off early—or late?

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48 – In Plain Sight

Heroes often have blind spots that keep them from noticing what’s right in front of them. It might be the clue they need to solve the case, a rival’s secret motives, or that their true love was beside them all along.

Sometimes the best place to hide something is out in the open. Look for ways to turn the hero’s biases against them. If they’re expecting a monster, can it look like a kindly grandmother? If they’re searching for a diamond, can it be the
geometric shape rather than a gemstone?

Try This

  • Reveal a crucial object or clue in a moment when the hero—and the reader—is too distracted to notice.
  • Wardrobe often reveals how characters want to be seen—or ignored. Describe what your hero is wearing.
  • List three things your hero has hanging on their wall, and three things hidden away out of sight. What if they were reversed?

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49 – Perfect Balance

From ER doctors to short-order cooks, heroes often juggle dozens of tasks while balancing competing priorities. Whether through panic or mastery, they’re keeping up. Still, one false step and everything could come crashing down.

Balance can be literal—tightropes and narrow beams—or emotional. Does your hero get stressed out, or maintain a zen-like calm? What would change that?

Some heroes are perfectionists, while others aim for “good enough.” Does your hero care how others judge their performance?

Try This

  • Let your hero show off. What’s the most impressive talent they could display?
  • Drop some banana peels. List three unforeseen problems that trip up your hero.
  • What habits or rituals does your hero have when preparing for a challenge?

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50 – Tiny Door

Heroes often discover entrances to hidden worlds. It might be a magical portal at the back of a cupboard, or an invitation to a mysterious party. Either way, the hero faces a choice: do they enter?

Simply getting in might involve transformation. Alice had to drink a potion to fit through a Wonderland door. Your hero might have to assume a new identity, or leave old friends behind. And once they’re inside, can they get back out?

Doors work both ways. Perhaps rather than your hero entering a new world, something is crossing into theirs. Is it dangerous, exciting, or both?

Try This

  • What keys are on your hero’s keychain? What would your hero do if they lost them?
  • What might your hero discover if they got down on their knees and searched?
  • Secret doors hide treasures. List the three items your hero values most.

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52 – Oasis

A surprise source of water can mean life for someone lost in the desert, but this isn’t the only type of oasis. Any unexpected place that lets your hero heal, regroup, or take shelter can do the trick.

Sometimes an oasis turns out to be a mirage. The hero’s exhaustion may be fueling their imagination, or it could be something more sinister. Is this oasis a trap, a dead end, or the ruins of a long-gone refuge?

Try This

  • Where is the least likely place for your hero to stumble into a sanctuary?
  • Who can the hero meet at the oasis, and what are their motives?
  • What one thing would give your hero the most comfort? Could that trick them into believing in a mirage?

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Writing Exercise

  1. Pick a well-known story, such as a movie or fairy tale.
  2. Choose a card at random and read the suggestions.
  3. Brainstorm how to apply this idea to the story. Go nuts.
  4. Start writing! It could be a scene or a synopsis. The point is to get some words down.

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Cards Against Normality

Each player draws three cards. (At the start of each round, you should have three.) The oldest player is the first Storyteller.

Each round, the Storyteller begins telling a story. It can be a familiar tale, an anecdote from real life or something made up.

When the Storyteller is finished, other players have 15 seconds to choose one of their cards. Moving clockwise, players reveal their chosen card and retell the original story based on that card’s theme, describing their version in as much detail as required.

After hearing all of the versions, the group chooses their favorite. The role of Storyteller switches to the next player clockwise.

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Group Activity

  1. As a group, choose a premise thatincludes a hero and a general situation. For example, “A mountain climber discovers a mysterious cave.”
  2. Hand out one card to each player or team.
  3. Players have a set amount of time — perhaps five minutes — to figure out a rough story that uses the premise and their card.
  4. Players present their rough stories to the group.

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About This Deck

John August and Chris Csont

Ryan Nelson and Dustin Bocks

David Friesen and J. Longo

Megana Rao and Nima Yousefi

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