A Few Thoughts on Writing Prompts

What makes a good writing prompt? Anything that gets your thoughts flowing and starts you writing. 

Some writing prompts might sound ridiculous to you, but will spark a fabulous idea for someone else. Likewise, a writer friend might discard a prompt as boring or silly that you consider story-writing gold. Prompts are not meant to be full-fledged stories all unto themselves. They serve as a catalyst for the creative juices. Therefore, any prompt can turn into a wonderful short story or novel if it happens to click for your writer’s brain.

Yesterday I provided a list of websites that offer writing prompts, but today I’d like to talk a little bit about how to come up with some of your own. Most writers have no trouble generating ideas, but it never hurts to have a few more tricks in your tool box.

  • Mad-libs style: Pick three or four great words — a few nouns, maybe a fabulous verb — and write a story around them. The more offbeat and disparate your vocabulary picks, the more fun you can have linking them together.
  • Travel and monuments: Go through old vacation photos and postcards, or search for location shots online. Use the images as the basis for your story. Why is this a vacation destination? What’s the story behind the bridge or tower or castle that’s now a tourist attraction? Who might visit the spot a thousand years from now? Will it even be there? Who are the locals and what are their lives like?
  • Works of art: Set your story inside a famous (or not-so-famous) painting. Can you do this with an abstract?
  • Song titles: Write a story based on the title of a favorite song. Ignore the lyrics of the song entirely.
  • The best laid plans: Some of the best stories come from situations where things fail to go according to plan. Think up a bunch of scenarios where deviation from the norm can lead to catastrophe, adventure, realization… What if?
  • Start with extreme settings and go from there: An out-of-the ordinary setting or surroundings can force your characters to do all sorts of interesting things. Trap someone on a narrow ledge or over the side of a cliff. Create a serious drought or a three-day blizzard. Maroon a ship on an uninhabited (or not) island.

Keep in mind that different prompts lead to different lengths of story. The more complicated the set-up, the more likely you will write a novella or novel (or series!) instead of a short story. That said, prompts might lead to your writing just once scene that can eventually grow into a longer work. There are no rules here. Prompts should inspire you to write. You can work out the rest of the details once you’ve filled your blank pages.

Good luck, and happy writing!