Pick a Prompt, Any Prompt

Hi! How’s the year going so far? (Can you believe we’re only three weeks in??) I had an end-of-the-year editing goal that I barely made and I haven’t felt up to diving into another longform project just yet. But that’s just fine, because one of my writing goals for the year is to write some short stories too. So I sat down last week to start on a short story… and drew a complete blank.

Nothing. I had nothing! I edited a short story that I wrote years ago, just to try and get the creative juices flowing again, and still brought up a nice hefty chunk of nothing. I drafted up about a month’s worth of blog posts that I won’t need until like March, but those juices still weren’t flowing. Still. Nothing.


So I did what I always do when I can’t come up with a good idea on my own—I started pestering other people to do the thinking for me.

Unfortunately, none of those (so far) have really resonated with me enough to get going, but at least all this fruitless head-scratching got me thinking about writing prompts. What makes a good writing prompt? Is there a single, fool-proof formula, or does it vary? If so, what would it vary by? By person? By genre? By random?

*dons deerstalker cap*

After hours of scouring the internet, reading lists, and bothering people, it seems that there is no infallible form for a good prompt (which shouldn’t be surprising because this is probably true of like any creative work whatsoever). While there are some time-honored classics, such as what-if questions, they don’t automatically snap you out of slump every time, and you can have a perfectly serviceable writing prompt that is some off-the-wall form you’ve never seen before.

Some prompts pose a question directly to the writer. Some address the narrator in the story instead. Some read like a back-of-book blurb, full of setting details and hints about the characters. Some are short and to the point, a single sentence or even fragment to get you going. Some set up an interesting scene, while others focus on an interesting character.

All good prompts leave a lot of room to run, though, allowing the writer plenty of gaps to fill. Rather than being a finite box that needs filling, a good prompt is a starting point on a journey.

So just for funsies, and maybe as a starting point for something great, here are just a few writing prompts to try out (or not). Any that have parenthesis at the end of them are someone else’s genius, not mine.

Write a story about changing light in one hundred words or less.

Open a book you’ve never read and read the first page. Using the same characters and set up, write how the scene shakes out.

CRANE TRUCK! (Thanks, nearly-three-year-old Derek!)

What if criminals were forced to undergo brain surgery to cut out their criminal inclinations?

Your clothes attack you. What do you do? (Thanks, eight-year-old Daniel!)

After years of avoiding encroaching humans, a wood elf’s home is finally chopped down and taken away. She can only grab a few items before she must wipe away her presence and flee. What does she do next?

Once upon a time, there was a canary who got captured and used in a coal mine and he’s trying to escape. (Thanks, ten-year-old Aaron!)

A runner is doing a brutal ultramarathon across a portion of the Sahara Desert. But a sandstorm kicks up and covers the course markers. A band of rival runners must work together to survive and find a way to signal for help.

You step out into the hall of your home and confront a mummy! But it’s a baby mummy, no taller than your knee. What does it do? What do you do? (Thanks, Anna!)

First line: “The first sign that something was wrong was that the ship was listing.” (Thanks, Robert!)

You find a smooth five-hundred-dollar bill on the ground and happily pick it up. You’re about to pocket it when the picture of William McKinley says, “Ow! Don’t crumple me up!” What happens next?

What if aliens came and made first contact with an elephant, thinking them the dominant species on earth? What would the elephant have to say about earth?

You set down a guitar and then an earthquake comes. The house rumbles and then a genie comes out. How will you talk? (Thanks, eight-year-old Will!)

Look at the last text you received yesterday. Write a mystery where that text is your character’s only clue about the disappearance of a wealthy socialite.

What if cordyceps fungi could infect humans? (Thanks, Robert!)

You inherit a rare bird chick from an eccentric aunt and are shocked to discover it’s a dodo. What do you do?

Writing Prompt: That gloriously awkward Cinderella moment. (Thanks, Anonymous!)

After falling into a vat of radioactive honey, you suddenly have the ability to communicate with bees.

First line: “It was the first time in twenty years that I had truly felt scared…” (Thanks, Robert!)

While digging in your garden, you discover and capture a pixie. It offers you one wish in exchange for its release. What do you wish for? How’s that go down?

I hope one of these prompts was able to spark an idea, or at least a chuckle. Here’s to hoping I get unstuck soon. Until next week, happy writing!

DIY Writing Prompt Generator

DiceYou’ve probably all known me long enough by now to know that I’m pretty much a dork on a multitude of levels. (For those of you who hadn’t picked up on that yet, check out any of these posts.) And so it was that, in the name of good dorky fun, I set out to create my own writing prompt generator! Whee!

So after kicking around the idea for a couple weeks, I had a list of a few features that I knew I wanted. I wanted it to have an element of randomness. I wanted it to deal with various parts of a story instead of just one. (So, it might prompt me on either setting or inciting action or characters, rather than just one of those things.) I also wanted it to be practically infinite- it wouldn’t be just cycling through the same handful of prompts every time. And despite all these things, I wanted it to be about as basic as I could make it. Because, as has been manifested many times in many ways, complicated things- mostly in the form of technology- frighten me. (For those of you who hadn’t picked up on that yet, check out any of these posts.)

And what could use randomness and be less complicated than a die? I considered using a d20, but didn’t want to do that much work (see point on basicness), so I stuck with the classic six-sided die. Everybody has a d6 laying around!

If you too would like to make your own random prompt generator, all you need is a die (or dice! You can do as many prompts as you want!), a writing utensil, a piece of paper, and your fantastic brain. And fantastic hands for writing with. And maybe a hard surface to write on as well. Anyway, you get the point. Dice, paper, pen.

Number one through six (or however many faces your die has). Then decide what elements you want your rolls to prompt you on. If you want this to be even simpler, you can do them all about characters, or settings, etc. I wanted to incorporate more than one element, so my list looked something like this:

  1. Object
  2. Inciting Action
  3. Setting
  4. Character
  5. Opening Line
  6. Inciting Action

(This really doesn’t have to be complicated. Skip this step entirely if you’d rather, and just write a bunch of random stuff. Because random!) After you know what topic you want each face of your die to represent, flesh it out a little further.

Think of a prompt regarding each element that is simple enough to make sense in just about every context with which you use it; is broad enough to be open to a variety of interpretations; and has the potential to be different each time it is applied. For example, here’s the generator I came up with:

  1. Walk into the adjoining room. What is the first physical thing you notice? Put this item in a story being used in a nonconventional way.
  2. Look at the newspaper/go to an online news outlet. What is the main headline? Without reading any more of the story, write a story based on this premise.
  3. Text the person you last texted and ask what their favorite show/book was as a kid. Write a story based in that world.
  4. Look out the closest window. What is the first moving thing you notice? Write a story from his/her/its point of view.
  5. Turn on the radio and listen for one complete sentence. Use that line as the first line of a story.
  6. Go into a nearby bathroom or closet. If you knew you would be attacked in one minute, what would you use to defend yourself? Write a story that starts with that preparation.

I guess #2 is kind of Inciting Action/Character/SomethingElseEntirely, depending on what the headline is. But you get the point! Each prompt is designed to have the potential to be different each time, thereby making it (almost?) infinite. But they’re also each simple enough to be broadly applicable (can be used in nearly any situation you would typically find yourself in- might not work as well if you’re camping or in the middle of a global robotic takeover), and widely interpretive (can be understood in a variety of ways, thus adding to the number of possible stories being generated).

So after working all that out, the only thing left to do was to field test it.

I rolled a four! So I turned around in my seat and the first moving thing that I saw was a… raven! Darned things are everywhere! (At least this one wasn’t killing half my flock and then not even eating any of their remains besides just one of the heads. Seriously, raven, that’s creepy.) So I set about writing a short story from the POV of a raven. And here is the totally-unedited-don’t-judge-me-it’s-a-first-draft result! (Yes, I wrote this just before posting, haha. But I like it! Maybe worth cleaning up?)

All in all, this was fun. I don’t know how often I’ll use my little generator, but I felt more creative just after having made the thing. Got the writing juices flowing! Yummy! And most of the time, that’s all I really need. So, good job, writing prompt generator. I’ll keep you.

Let me know in the comments if you whipped up your own writing prompt generator! I’d love to hear about your prompts, or any stories that came of it. Happy writing!