There are a wide variety of writing prompts scattered around the ‘net, from single words to pictures worth thousands. This post covers the different ways to use my very favorite type: the prose prompt!
A What Now?
Prose prompts are one or more sentences of an unfinished story. This type of prompt is meant to invoke a setting, emotion, or plot idea that the writer can expand upon.
They are more restrictive than single-word prompts, but that extra layer of context will sometimes make it easier to get your Muses in gear.
These prompts can be used in a wide variety of ways and I’ll cover the most common ones below and then provide some example responses.
The best part about these types of prompts is that they are wide open to remixing, so there’s really no wrong way to go about it!
Like, Literally Dude!
The easiest way to use a prose prompt is the start of a scene.
This can be verbatim use or a slight rewrite to fit your own style, but you simply continue the story from where the prompt ended. Much like the ‘finish this sentence’ prompt, this method is only concerned with what happens next.
Don’t worry if the prompt drops you into the middle of a fight or a conversation. Pick up from that point and move forward, you can write the missing bits later if the plot bunnies strike. The purpose of the prompt is to jumpstart the creative process, not replace it!
I use a randomly selected prompt this way as a warm-up exercise since it’s very limiting on where the story can go.
Prompt: You could see the lights of the city from miles away, tiny glimmers of civilization scattered among the weeds.
Genre Neutral response: You could see the lights of the city from miles away, tiny glimmers of civilization scattered among the weeds. I wasn’t used to the flatlands and their endless horizons yet and it was creepy in ways I couldn’t quite put words to. My hometown was all well-forested hills– you were lucky if you could see around the next bend in the road, much less fifty miles.
Fantasy response: Even here at the edge of the forest the lights of the city still called out to him, tiny glimmers of civilization scattered among the weeds. For a moment the pull of home was stronger than the curse and he stood there, entangled in the memories of everything he’d lost.
The next way to use the prompt is to spark an idea based on the concept presented and not the actual words.
This allows you more freedom than the first method while still limiting things enough that you aren’t fighting to find a topic. Part of getting past Writer’s Block is the hurdle of ‘what do I want to write about?’ when there are an infinite number of answers.
I use this method when I’m trying to start a new story from a prompt that I’ve chosen ahead of time. This rarely works well for me when the prompt is randomly drawn.
Prompt: History 131 was much more interesting when your teacher was an Immortal.
Concept: Teachers who are immortal would be more entertaining when teaching history classes because they had lived through the events.
Science Fiction response: The ancient interface was caked with dust, but it slowly warmed to the touch as the city awoke from hibernation. If their luck held and the AI was intact, they’d finally have a teacher with first-hand knowledge of the war.
Urban Fantasy/Magical Realism response: Professor Daniels was one of the first immortals she’d met that made no attempt to hide his curse. It was actually a selling point of the doctoral program that the university had managed to attract non-humans into the faculty, but sitting down to a lecture from one was so much more fascinating than she could have hoped.
Multiverse Genre Shift, GOGOGO!
Say you’ve gone hunting for a prompt in the Saturday Story Prompt archives and your random pick is something in a genre you don’t write (or want to try).
For many prompts, it’s easy to change genres by invoking Clarke’s Third Law or it’s inverse, but sometimes you have to stretch a little further to get the shift to work.
It’s a little more work than just using the basic concept, but it can generate some fun and unusual twists!
High Fantasy prompt: Choosing a magical companion animal wasn’t something one undertook lightly, after all choosing the wrong pet could absolutely ruin your chances of getting an invitation to the ball.
Concept: The choice of a partner, pet or tool can have a significant social impact.
Science Fiction response: Battlesuits ranged from thin catsuits mean for covert missions to heavy exoskeletons more akin to tanks than mobile infantry. In theory, we could pilot any suit, but it didn’t take long for the team to settle into a pattern of favorites. Rotational agents were forced into piloting our discards, so we weren’t a popular assignment.
Genre Neutral response: First impressions meant everything in this world. Come across too rich and they’d avoid you for fear of causing offense, too poor and you weren’t worth their time. He had to walk the thin line of costuming and mannerisms that made him the perfect target for the hunt.
Urban Fantasy response: They’d be expecting her to use something small and discreet, so she enthralled flocks of pigeons instead. The senior council called her crazy– well now was time to earn that insult. Hundreds of birds poured into the office building, more than any sane mind could control at once, and she flicked from bird to bird as she pulled them inside
The Six Million Dollar Prompt
We can rebuild him! Err– it!
What if the prompt is a 100% miss and there’s nothing about it you can use? The genre is wrong, the setting is wrong, the premise doesn’t fit your story at all… Then it’s time to look at things a bit sideways.
Instead of setting a timer and writing to the prompt, set a timer and write about the prompt. Free association bingo! ?
Writing prompts can give you story ideas or they can loosen up your creativity. In this case, it’s all about practicing looking at things a little sideways. You generally won’t end up with prose, but the list of ideas you come up with might spark a story themselves.
This method of using the prompts is the hardest. Sometimes it’s better to just skip it and move on, but it can be fun to find just the right angle where they become useful!
Example prompt: If anyone deserved to be followed around by a neon purple springbok, it was Charles.
Concepts: We’ve got a few things to work with here: a person named Charles, the idea that someone deserves bad luck or embarrassment, and a crazy colored version of a real-life animal. For broader ideas you could use: methods of revenge, poor clothing choices, things that might attract magical animals, hallucinations, etc.
Real-world response: Charles was the sort of name that boring parents gave to boring children in the vain hope of emulating kings. He threw out the resume without reading further– he was building an empire and there was only room for one king here.
Genre Neutral response: Insanity was the best revenge and she took her time driving him to the edge time and time again before she’d had enough of the game and pushed him all the way over.
High Fantasy response: Magic was chaotic and unpredictable even after years of study and training. There were no ‘wild’ magicians outside the tower walls because they rarely survived their first accidental incantations.
Where to Find Prose Writing Prompts
Now that you’ve gotten a taste of the awesome chaos that can come from using prose prompts… where can you find them?
But I’m not the only one who does prose story prompts, so here’s a few other fun archives for you to browse: