Writers’ Toolbox: Prompt Writing to Get Your Story Started

“You have to start somewhere to get somewhere good.”

I often hear people say they can’t imagine writing because they don’t know how to think up stories.

When I started attending speculative fiction conventions again in 2012, I participated in Allen Wold’s introductory workshop, and it set me on fire. Figuratively.

Allen’s approach is simple: Each participant starts a new story and writes for 15 minutes. Let’s say that’s around 100 words. A paragraph. Enough to introduce a character, a setting, some action, and a hook.

Each participant reads their draft aloud, and the “editorial board” of 3-4 convention guests comments on what they like, what they see as problematic, and any advice or encouragement they think of for this brief intro.

Each participant goes back into the con, and at some point, revises their intro into a second draft.

The following day, the group reconvenes, and each participant reads their second draft. The editorial board comments again. Even if each piece still has a long way to go toward completion, it is enormously rewarding to see tangible evidence of such a significant improvement over the first draft.

I’ve participated in this workshop several times, on both sides of the table. Several of my stories have been developed from these initial efforts. And I have learned valuable lessons about my own writing from the editorial board’s comments about every participant’s writing.

How did this inspire me? I love beginnings. I love their potential and promise. Prompt writing is one of my favorite methods of finding new story ideas. I founded my blog, Writers’ Spark.com, with the idea of taking a prompt and writing a relatively brief introduction to a new story. I did this every day without fail for 18 months. That’s a lot of story ideas!

I previously wrote about the power of stream-of-consciousness writing. This combines very well with prompt writing. For instance, in my previous post, I described how the prompt “water” led to a memory of a waterfall picnic that became a major scene in my first novel WIP.

On my blog, I provide some resources for prompts, such as the news or art, or random word choices.

The key is not to overthink *choosing* the prompt itself. When I was religiously prompt-writing every day, that became a significant challenge. But for an occasional exercise or tool to kickstart a story idea, it should be something that comes quickly to mind.

Here’s a brief example:

Prompt: snoring dog

(the idea comes from the dog sleeping in the chair next to me)

Five days from the last outpost, and we hadn’t run across another person since the moose hunter who carried me across the Minnesota. He made Cooper swim–said his horse would spook carrying a damn dog. Cooper didn’t mind swimming, but he doesn’t like the cold water, and he got his revenge shaking a spray of water all over the hunter when we reached the shore. I choked on a laugh and figured we better part ways.

The sun was setting when we reached a clearing in the endless forest. A cabin tucked on the far side, with no lights or chimney smoke. I squatted next to Cooper and warmed my hands in his fur while we watched in silence. A trio of bats swept back and forth across the clearing, until a horned owl launched out from the trees to our left. Its silent wings must have lit up the bats’ sonars, because they fled into the far darkening forest.

I stood, and Cooper sniffed his way around the edge of the clearing, ignoring bats and owls that were neither predator nor prey to him. We walked around the cabin but saw no sign of life. The door lock was a simple puzzle; I unlatched it in the twilight without having to break it. Inside was neat and bare. Logs in the fireplace, and I pinched a quick spark in the air to light them. Well pump in the kitchen primed quickly, and I found a bowl in the cupboard to fill with water for Cooper. He slurped it down, then curled up next to the fire and promptly fell asleep. His rumbling snore reassured me that there was no danger near.

Now I need to find the inspiration and tools to finish the damn stories.

Comments 1

  • Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera pretty much came from a short prompt. He was challenged to write Pokemon meets the Roman Legion, and he made it amazing.

    I love writing prompts. It’s really the reason I love writing for themed submissions. It makes you think in completely different ways, and really pushes you to better yourself as a writer. My favorite so far has been the Were Anthology from Zombies Need Brains a few years ago. They just wanted stories that featured Non Wolf Weres. I thought of a squirrel as a joke, and immediately realized they would be amazing infiltrators. The story I ended up writing has been one of my favorites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.