Back in 2014, I was a budding screenwriter trying to find his way in Hollywood, and even more importantly, on the page. So I donated to a Kickstarter for something called the "Writer Emergency Pack." The deck of cards was created by screenwriter, author, app developer, and Scriptnotes podcaster John August.
Those cards proved to be very helpful for me in my time of need. Their basic principle is that they feature prompts to break you out of a funk or hard place. They make you recalculate your plan of attack by forcing you to think about your story in a brand-new way.
Well, it's been eight years since those cards came out, and it's time for an update. John August contacted us and offered to send us the new Writer Emergency Pack XL, a new set of cards that are larger, more expansive, and have all new prompts and ideas to challenge you to do your best writing.
As NFS' resident screenwriting nerd, I jumped at the chance to test these cards out as I developed new ideas.
Let's see how they did...
The Writer Emergency Pack XL—Here's What We Think!
As I mentioned earlier, I was a fan of the original pack, and I admit I was skeptical about why I would need an upgrade. After all, the original pack still serves me well. However, when I opened the package, I was very surprised.
When they say "XL," they mean it. The cards are much larger, and as someone who transitioned into his mid-30s since the last pack dropped, I have to admit I appreciated the larger cards and the larger font on them. They were easier to read, and there were more of them—a full deck of 52 illustrated cards. The Kickstarter says they're 30% larger than the old pack. And way more convenient.
You can check out "The Evil Twin" card below for scale and how the description is laid out. As you can see, they're easy to read and have actionable tasks to help you snap into action and stop staring at the blank screen.
The Evil TwinCredit: Kickstarter
The Evil Twin descriptionCredit: Kickstarter
Testing Out Some Other Cards
One thing you cannot underestimate is the writer's desire to procrastinate. No matter who I talk to, I find creative people worldwide love a reason not to write, and an excuse to take some time to myself. One unpublicized great thing about these cards is that I was able to take a step back from the page and play a few cards to shake myself out of those act two blues.
A little background. In my work in progress, I'm at the beginning of act two. I was struggling with how the characters would deal with the initial call to adventure, and how that would change the world I had established in act one. After we get into act two, we learn that a character we thought was a liar has been telling the truth the whole time. So, where do I go from there?
The first card I drew from the deck was called "CHANGE RELATIONSHIPS," and it urged me to think about how your characters are related in the present, and if there's a chance to dig into how they are related in the past as well. Were they brothers? Lovers? Neighbors? Then in a series of prompts, it offered ideas of imaginary scenes that may reveal more character. Like what if these two people were on a date? Or what if they were in the same family?
What's funny is, in my movie, the lead is a retired actor, and the co-lead is his assistant. This card helped me make the decision that our protagonist should have a scene where he tells his boss he actually lost his virginity during one of his boss' famous old movies. This sharing of details based on present and past helped me unlock so much more depth in that relationship.
Needless to say, I knew I needed to keep going with the cards.
The next one I drew was "THE STRANGER," described as a mystery in human form. That card presented me with the idea of introducing a new character, a stranger who came asking questions. Who would they be, and where would they be from? It challenged me to brainstorm some newcomers who would push my leads out of their comfort zone. Would there be reasons to trust them for our leads? What would have to happen for that to make dramatic sense?
There are 52 cards, and I won't go through all of them, but I can tell you that after reading them, I fell in love with the deck. The old cards forced you to match two different cards to get a prompt. Since these have them printed front and back, it was way easier. And the wide array of cards immediately felt like they could apply to any genre or any style of writer who wanted to use them.
The best thing about them is that I found myself eager to write after flipping cards. Something that my everyday distraction tools don't usually foster. I was pumped to get back into my document today and test out strangers and past family ties. And I think my story was better for it.
Would I Buy Them?
In short, I would buy them. Not only am I always looking for outside-the-box ideas to shake me out of tropes and conventions, but I loved using the cards with some of my writer friends. I'm working on a pilot with a buddy, and we played for almost 90 minutes with the cards, pulling random ones from the deck and seeing if they could help us go to new places. They did. And we also just had fun reading and challenging each other.
Very few products out there are made by actual writers, to help other writers. It shows in this project. They made me feel supported and confident, even when the cursor blinked on the blank page.
I also think the mission of "buy one, give one to a school with a writing program," is one of the most essential things in the world. I've done a lot of volunteer work in Los Angeles, helping teach screenwriting to kids in school. It promotes reading, creativity, and cognitive function. Anything to make sure some of these decks make it into school matters to me. I would have treasured these when I was a kid daydreaming and building my own worlds. So I am glad others are getting that opportunity now.
All in all, if you're looking for a fun, creative, and challenging way to break story, character, and plot, buy these cards. They're made by writers for writers, and that shines brightest. This deck felt curated to the problems and brain jams we all have, with actionable ways to help facilitate your best work.
I have a feeling they'll be on my desk, within arm's reach for a long time, unless one of my friends steals them.