I’m curious as to how many writers use prompts to get started on a project. Of those who do, how do they find their prompts? Online? From collections of prompts? Do they keep a list of ones they come up with themselves? And are they using prompts just for writing exercises, or do they use them to write complete stories?
For me, inspiration can come from anywhere. Most of my story ideas come from my dreams, but there are times when I feel like trying something different and I turn to writing prompts. One thing that I’ve been doing for years is keep a list of potential story titles. I add to it when I hear an interesting phrase or combination of words, and every so often I pull it up and look it over to see if anything strikes a spark.
I also have a little book of writing prompts that a friend gave me years ago. It’s a little thing, maybe two inches square, and every page has a one-sentence prompt. As a writing exercise, I’ll open it to a random page, read what’s there, then see what I can do with it. Most of these exercises amount to what I’d consider gibberish, but still, it’s a fun way to exercise my creativity.
I’ve also used a website to provide me with prompts. Languageisavirus.com is a fantastic resource for all sorts of creative exercises with words. They have prompt generators, games, and exercises. But be careful here because it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole and spend far too much time exploring and playing.
Over the years, I think a dozen or so of my completed short stories have come from prompts, either ones I found online or from my list of story titles. And of those, about half started as simply writing exercises, playing around with an idea, and seeing where it takes me. No planning, no forethought, just me taking a couple of words and free writing.
Of course, some would say that using a prompt is cheating, that it’s taking an idea from somewhere else so it’s not ‘original thinking’. My counter-argument is that there are no original ideas. Every story that can be told has been told. The challenge for the writer is to come up with new ways to tell these stories.
A perfect example is the standard love story. Two people meet, fall in love, their relationship is challenged, then things work out in the end. Standard fare, right? This has been told too many times to count, but each time it’s told it has been done a different way.
The main idea – the meeting, the difficulties, the resolution – is the story prompt. From there, a writer can do whatever they want with it: Boy meets girl. Boy meets boy. Human meets alien. Dog meets cat. While the main thread is the same one that’d been told over and over, the details can change in countless ways. That’s the magic of story prompts.
If you haven’t used story prompts in the past, I suggest you give it a try. Don’t overthink it, just let your fingers fly and see what happens. You may end up with your next great story, or you might end up with crap. Either way, you wrote. And in the end, that’s what matters.