Do writing prompts work? Yes, at least sometimes. They can help you warm up before writing, the way a baseball player will swing two bats or use a baseball doughnut. Or they can help you create an entire work, the way that a prompt about a special kind of wall led to my novel Semiosis.
But what kind of prompt is effective? All kinds. You can develop a story from many directions. Both simple and complex prompts work. And sometimes prompts fail, which doesn’t mean that you as a writer have failed. It just wasn’t a good match. If you plant that most noble of cacti, a saguero, in a lush rainforest, it won’t grow.
Here are some prompts emphasizing different story elements. Feel free to use them any way you wish, to change anything about them to make them more useful to you, and if they result in a story, even better!
Character: the “who” of a story
• This is the kind of man who feels naked walking down the street because everyone else is wearing the rules of their lives for all to see.
• This woman habitually lies, even in her diary entries – possibly for a good reason.
Plot: “what happens?”
• A little girl’s invisible friends go away, and she decides to find them.
• Advanced social media algorithms allow ranking of character – helpful, trollish, petty, responsible, etc. – and someone is consumed with achieving the highest ranking possible.
Style: “how” to tell the story
• A listicle story: This is the perfect escape plan, and it has twelve steps.
• A one-act stage play that breaks the fourth wall: A squadron of soldiers prepares for a suicide mission.
Setting: “when and where”
• A bride at the altar is hoping that someone will object.
• The ghosts of the victims of a terrible tragedy have agreed to meet at the site one year later … and a year has passed.
Genre: the “why” that sets up reader expectations. But as Samuel R. Delaney says in Shorter Views, “superb fiction must fulfill some of those expectations, and at the same time violate others.”
• In this fairy tale, a handsome prince is sent on a grueling quest by his evil fairy godmother, and little by little he comes to believe she did the right thing, so is she evil?
• This is a romance about a pair of actors hired to pretend to fall in love during a long pleasure cruise to entertain the passengers.