Theme Memes: Start With The End

When I conference with writers, they often say they’re having trouble coming up with a satisfying ending. Instead of talking to them about their plot, I ask them to tell me about their intended impact: when their audience reaches the end, what do they want them to be feeling and thinking? Some writers are immediately stumped because they were so focused on plot, they hadn’t considered this question. Others quickly identify their intended impact, but confess that they’re unable to imagine any other ending besides the unsatisfying one that they’ve already written.

Maker:S,Date:2017-8-20,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-YThere’s no doubt about it, endings are hard. A satisfying ending requires us to steer our imagined world towards its inevitable future from the moment the story begins. It reminds me of a question that’s often asked in interviews: where do you see yourself in five years? We groan when we hear that because we know from experience that predicting the future’s not easy! Difficult as it may be, it’s exactly what we need to do when we write stories.

So what happens if we start our story at the end, instead of the beginning? Experiment by choosing our desired impact first, and build our story backwards from there? That’s exactly what this meme guided writing is here to do.

If you’d like to print out the Theme Memes for individual or group use, you can access the full set in this Google Folder. (The cards are 320 x 240 pixels so you can print them wallet-sized nine to a page – the perfect size for baseball card sleeves!) Or, if you’re an individual seeking the luck of the draw, know that the slideshow below is set to randomize, which means it’ll begin with a different Theme Meme each time you load the page.

So, let’s start with an ending!

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THEME MEMES: START WITH ‘THE END’

Genres: Fiction, Playwriting, Theatre (Improvisation)

Creative Process: Idea Generation, Story Arc, Plot, Complications

Age Level: 13+

     FOR INDIVIDUALS:

     Part I – Choose Your Ending. You can choose a Theme Meme by a random draw, or you can look through the deck and pick the meme that excites you the most. This meme is now involved in the ending of a story that you are about to create.

     Part II – Now, Go Back to the Beginning. Using your meme as your central point of inspiration, answer the following prompts in order:

  1. Describe Your Protagonist: Use one sentence to describe an original character who has this meme’s ending in their future.
  2. Chapter/Scene 1: What event starts the beginning of this character’s story? Summarize this plot point in 1 – 3 sentences.
  3. Chapter/Scene 2: What obstacle is introduced that relates your character and their ending? Summarize this plot point 1 – 3 sentences.
  4. Chapter/Scene 3: What happens to make this problem worse? Summarize this plot point 1 – 3 sentences.
  5. Now PAUSE! It’s time to select a second meme at random (If you are doing this exercise digitally, you can do that by refreshing this page). Use this second meme to answer the next prompt.
  6. Chapter/Scene 4: Does the message on your second card make things better or worse? Describe how in a 1 – 3 sentence plot summary.
  7. Chapter/Scene 5: How does the character reach the ending on your initial card? Summarize this plot point 1 – 3 sentences.

Voilà! You have a complete story outline that you can expand or change as you see fit. Now that you’re back to the end, if your original ending doesn’t feel quite right you can return to the Theme Memes and choose a new one.

Bonus Activity – Meme a Work-In-Progress: If you’re having trouble imagining an ending for your work-in-progress, pull five Theme Memes from the deck. Tie each meme to your story by brainstorming five different endings – one for each of the cards that you pulled. If some of the cards make completely outlandish endings that you’d never use, that’s okay! The simple act of brainstorming will help you jog your creativity and find your way to an ending that feels just right.

     FOR GROUPS:

     Part I – The Group Warm-Up. Introduce the cards as possible endings to stories yet to be imagined. Shuffle the deck, and have a participant pick one card at random. After the card is read aloud, give the following prompt: Use one sentence to describe an original character who has this card’s ending in their future. Ask several participants to volunteer answers, to demonstrate that each card inspires endless possibilities. Repeat this round a second time with a new card selected at random. Then, for the third round, draw a new card and add a second prompt into the mix: Use one sentence to describe an original character who has this card’s ending in their future. Next, use one sentence to summarize an event that introduces the character at the beginning of their story.

     Part II – Individual Creation. Lay all of the Theme Memes face up on a table. Each participant should browse the options and choose one theme card to serve as the ending for a story they are about to invent, taking that card back to their seats. When everyone is ready, lead participants through the following guided writing exercise one step at a time:

  1. Describe Your Protagonist: Use one sentence to describe an original character who has this card’s ending in their future.
  2. Chapter/Scene 1: What event starts the beginning of this character’s story? Summarize this plot point in 1 – 3 sentences.
  3. Chapter/Scene 2: What obstacle is introduced that relates your character and their ending? Summarize this plot point 1 – 3 sentences.
  4. Chapter/Scene 3: What happens to make this problem worse? Summarize this plot point 1 – 3 sentences.
  5. By this point of the exercise, the remaining cards should be face down on the table. Ask each participant to select a second card at random (without looking at it) and take it back to their seats.
  6. Chapter/Scene 4: Does the message on your second card make things better or worse? Describe how in a 1 – 3 sentence plot summary.
  7. Chapter/Scene 5: How does the character reach the ending on your initial card? Summarize this plot point 1 – 3 sentences.
Maker:S,Date:2017-8-20,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-Y

I’m using this Theme Meme for my own work-in-progress!

By the end of this guided writing exercise, participants will have a complete story outline that they can expand or change as they see fit. For ease of facilitation, here is a convenient handout with the above prompts listed in order.

Bonus Card Draw: If you feel your participants are itching for more options, turn the Theme Cards face up again after Step 5. Give participants this option for their final Chapter/Scene: they can keep their original ending, or they can trade it for a new Theme Card of their choosing and use that to write a new ending.

FOR THEATREImprovisations. Theme Memes are also great for character explorations, which means they’re fabulous improv tools, too!

Option #1 – Scene Starters. Shuffle the cards and have participants choose a Theme Meme at random. Ask participants to brainstorm two characters, a setting, and a conflict to create an improvisation based on the card.

Option #2 – Character Secret.  Have two volunteers improvise a scene between two characters, establishing setting, relationship, and conflict. Choose a Theme Meme to give one of the characters as a secret, and explore how that alters the scene. Replay using different Theme Memes each round.

If you enjoy journaling, or you’re gathering material for your memoir, you can also use Theme Memes to explore topics and circumstances that you haven’t considered before.

If you don’t like the memes you see here, don’t worry! There’s a whole world of quote memes that are just a Google search away. Feel free to suggest quotes that would make a juicy Theme Meme or post about your experience with this activity in the comments. Remember, whenever I post an activity, prompt, or a guided writing exercise (like this one) in the Support For Writers section of my site, I will always write a blog post about the activity as well. That way, if you follow my blog you’ll always know when new exercises become available.

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