A confession: I really like scrolling through writing prompts. I find it fascinating and entertaining to read these little one or two-sentence snippets of story starters, and I’m always hoping I’ll find one that sparks some brilliant, intoxicating surge of creativity, some whirlwind of production from which I’ll emerge with a fully written first draft of something all story-shaped and impressive.
A second confession: This never actually happens.
I like looking at writing prompts. But I’ll be the first to admit that, until recently, I had no real idea how to turn a writing prompt into an actual story.
How do you go from a prompt like Someone at a grocery store runs into a problem and actually make a story out of it? How do you take A ghost haunts a classroom or a dog that can talk joins local politics or a man wakes up to a tattoo he’s never had before — a set of numbers counting down and actually turn it into a full-blown story?
It’s actually really difficult to take someone else’s idea and make it your own! Most of my stories crop up entirely in my own head, so taking inspiration from an outside source can be befuddling and unfamiliar!
Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’ve been intrigued by a writing prompt but had no idea what to do next with it. Or maybe you have an assignment for a creative writing class and have no idea how to start. Never fear! I’ve compiled some tips and tricks that should help you turn those prompts into full-blown projects.
Start with questions, and then figure out the answers.
Let’s take one of the prompts we threw out above:
a man wakes up to a tattoo he’s never had before — a set of numbers counting down
Pretty intriguing, right? But just because we think the prompt sounds interesting, doesn’t mean a story instantly plops itself into our head. So, let’s figure out where we need to start.
What are some questions that this prompt creates?
Try to think of as many questions as you can that relate to whatever prompt you’re trying to flesh out:
- Who is this man? How old is he, what does he look like, where does he live?
- Where is his tattoo? On his arm? His leg? His inner wrist? Slapped across his forehead?
- How big of a number is this tattoo? Is it counting down really fast, every second, or does the countdown relate to something he does — steps he takes, questions he asks, doors he opens, or some other action he’s not sure of that the tattoo seems to be tallying?
- What happens when the tattoo hits zero?
Look at what we’ve already got here! Just by writing down as many questions as we can think of relating to this prompt, we’ve already got key elements of the story swirling around our head. So, next up:
Let’s flesh out possible answers to those questions.
- Let’s say the man is named George, he’s forty-two years old, Italian, with dark curly hair and a muscular frame. He’s waking up with a hangover, feeling irritable, and when he notices the marking on his arm, he at first thinks one of his kids has drawn something on him in his sleep.
- So, now I’ve decided the tattoo is on his arm. Underside, near the crease of his elbow.
- How big of a number? Hmmm … let’s say it’s 100. And it’s not counting down by the second, but by actions. Right now, let’s say that when he thinks the tattoo was drawn on him by his kids, the number ticks down to 99. So maybe it’s everytime he gets something wrong, he loses a number. Like, he only has so many false assumptions to make.
- NO IDEA YET, BUT THIS IS GETTING FUN, ISN’T IT?
Continue to flesh out the world of your prompt by considering:
- Possible characters who might inhabit the story. Your main character, of course. Does he have a spouse? Children? A boss at work none too happy with his shirking all responsibilities in order to pursue the mystery of this tattoo?
- Possible conflicts related to those characters. We’ve already uncovered one possible avenue of conflict: the main character shirking off work in order to figure out his tattoo. Try to list as many potential conflicts, problems, complications, disasters, and possible misunderstandings you can think of — feeling your way through the story’s potential will help you get inspired!
Some story-shaped ideas should be snapping, crackling, and popping at this point, but if you’re still stirring your spoon around, waiting for the story-stew to boil, try adding these ingredients:
- Snippets of dialogue: Take one of those potential conflicts and test out a couple dialogue exchanges. Have fun with this! Watch your characters bounce off each other. Test out arguments, misunderstandings, funny scenes, emotional ones. Eventually, your characters will take on voices of their own and you’ll start to understand how they might work off each other.
- Sensory Images: Consider the sights, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes that might inhabit this world.
- Descriptions of the setting: It’s easier to figure out what happens in a scene once you have a good sense of where it happens. It’s difficult to maneuver characters around a room that’s just a fuzzy white blankness in the back of your head!
- Potential opening lines: This is the point where you just have to quit dipping your toe in the water and just jump in. Give yourself three or four tries at an opening line, no matter how absurd or corny or stupid they sound. Write down three or four options, and then make yourself continue each possible opening for another sentence or two. Eventually, one of them might really take off!
Look at everything we’ve got already! We’ve got potential characters, we’ve got dialogue, we’ve got imagery and conflicts galore! You’ve got something very nearly story shaped!!
Here are some great websites for story prompts to explore:
Writing Prompts: A beautiful tumblr full of writing prompts, including those that incorporate pictures or videos. My favorite resource!
Writer Prompts: Dialogue-based prompts!
AU Prompts: Masterlists of Lists – The great thing about AU (Alternate Universe) fanfiction prompts is that they can totally be used for original fiction!
Prompts on Paper: Another dialogue-based collection of prompts!
365 Creative Writing Prompts: A year’s worth of daily prompts.
Happy Writing 🙂