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!