Declare War on Writer’s Block! : Trends and New Ideas for Short Story Prompts

“A mad scientist approaches you with an offer—he will heighten one of your senses, but it will make one of your other senses duller. It isn’t optional; he’s going to perform the surgery anyway, but you get to choose which two senses. Write this scene.”

This prompt is part of a long list courtesy of Brian A. Klems, online editor of WritersDigest.com. Is this something you would base a short story on? Does it give you some original ideas for new material? When I read it, I spent more time wondering about how the mad scientist would manage to corner the character in a life-threatening situation than considering where this story might go. It reads almost like the log line for one of those Sci-Fi original movies you see at 2 am and wonder who else could possibly be watching it. That said there are some other prompts on Klem’s list that I do find to be provocative.

To complement Sam T.’s recent post on fiction strategies, Allegra P. and I have been looking at prompts online to gain inspiration for our own. Most of the prompts we have encountered are focused on one of two critical aspects of any story: the premise or the inciting incident. What I find interesting is that so many prompts aren’t concerned with character. We can have the most novel concept or dramatic situation, but if the reader can’t identify with a unique and relatable protagonist, then the story is probably going to flop. We developed the following list of original prompts, Allegra focusing on premise while I focused on character and inciting incident. We have organized these prompts into three categories. Let us know what you think and if you have any you would like to contribute!

Premise-based

  • Create a set of rules based on published short stories you’ve read and enjoyed, then write a story using these rules. For example, your story could contain at least five metaphors, focus on a mundane event, assume a first person point of view, take place in rural Nebraska, and establish the death of the protagonist’s parents.
  • What if the roles of animals and humans were swapped? How would the world function? Would humans still be able to have conscious thoughts? Would they act like animals or be more like slaves?
  • There’s a storm trooper on a motorcycle. Choose between a Harley Davidson Softail or a Kawasaki Ninja; or is he/she riding both at once? What happens next?
  • Write a story starting with this line: “Peter Bridges wanders into the convenience store at the corner of Fifth and Broadway when he is approached by Chad, a burly, balding man with a leather choker around his meaty neck.”
  • Write a letter (from yourself) to one of your characters, and write his or her response.
  • What would happen to the political sphere if members of Congress were required to wear the logos of financial supporters on their lapels?
Character-based
  • Your character experiences symptoms of an undiagnosed psychological/cognitive disorder in his or her everyday life. This condition can be traced to a series of traumatic events that occurred at some point in the distant past. The kicker: these events must be traumatic only for the character, meaning that they would be drab or otherwise insignificant for any other person ie. child abuse, car wrecks, run-away brides, scarring war experiences, and the like are prohibited.
  • Your character is always carrying a keepsake on his or her person as a source of stability or comfort. It is up to you to decide whether this keepsake comes from childhood or the more recent past, but the item must be perishable or otherwise prone to decomposition. Food items obviously apply, but it could also be a token crafted from a fragile substance or perhaps a message on tattered paper.
  • Your character has an unhealthy obsession with a celebrity (real or fictitious) and makes frequent efforts to experience both the positive and negative aspects of his or her lifestyle. Does this entail a conscious effort to spend money superfluously? To abuse illegal substances and make public apologies with or without an audience? To choose a false sexual orientation and/or spouse in keeping with that of the celebrity? What does this fixation say about your character, and how do these choices add up to an accurate or inaccurate mock-lifestyle?
Inciting Incident-based
  • I had to include this prompt from Creative Writing Now just because it gave me such a good laugh. I would seriously like to write this one myself: “At a Chinese restaurant, your character opens his fortune cookie and reads the following message: ‘Your life is in danger. Say nothing to anyone. You must leave the city immediately and never return. Repeat: say nothing.’…” What happens next?
  • Your character is the do-it-yourself type. While digging up the yard one afternoon to fix a water main break or other subterranean issue, he or she unearths the remains of someone’s deceased pet and feels guilty for disturbing the grave site. Does your character know whose pet this was? How does he or she react?
  • Your character has been relying on an organization, institution, or social group as a source of comfort and stability for some time. (Think sports fan or AA participant, but ideally a less common relationship.) What happens when that entity dissolves or undergoes a significant, irrevocable change? How does your character respond? Does this person attempt to replace this aspect of life entirely or recover it in some way?

If you’re looking for new short story content, hopefully these prompts can help you get the ball rolling even if you choose not to respond to them directly. Anyone have additional prompts they would like to contribute or observations about the ones we often see online or elsewhere?