Writing prompts – How to build a story from them

During the past several weeks, followers of this blog probably have noticed the posting of conflict-oriented writing prompts. That is, the prompt focuses a conflict from which a story can be built, such as: 

The main character dealing with personal guilt for a bad, injurious choice he once made, finds a victim of a crime that parallels his. The discovery of this victim makes his guilt so unbearable that he must atone for it to set his world right. How does he go about coping with his guilt and making it right so he can live with himself?


Our main character doesn’t want to help someone he has responsibility for but at the same time feels guilt over these feelings. How does he cope with the person who needs help, and how does he resolve his issues of guilt?

The first step to building a story from these writing prompts is to select one from the list. Pick the prompt that inspires your creativity, that starts your imagination running in all kinds of directions about how such a story might be written. Let’s suppose, for the sake of example, that the first of the two prompts above is the one that works best for you.

The next step is to give your a prompt a setting, that is a place and time for the conflict to unfold. After all, the ways our main character attempts to solve his problem always occur within the context of the setting. Perhaps the setting for our conflict is the 2010s in a city that is at least mid-sized, specifically the United States. The opening of the story might be the finding of a dead child, left in a garbage bag in his run-down apartment complex’s trash container, when he takes out his garbage one morning.

After establishing the setting, devise ways the main character might solve the prompt’s central problem, in this case coping with his guilt and making it right so he can live with himself.

To do that, you might spend some time determining what the main character feels guilty about. Perhaps a decade before he was a sergeant in the Army, serving in Afghanistan, and one of the village’s mothers came to him for help because the local chieftain was physically and sexually abusing her son. He is ordered not to get involved in local affairs, however, and a few days later fellow soldiers find the boy’s dead, broken body left in the village refuse dump. Our main character feels that his inaction led to the boy’s death.

So how does he atone for his guilt? Perhaps, after seeing the current murdered child’s mother on the news and after an interviewing police detective tells him not to get involved any further, he decides to solve the crime. Along the way, he realizes he’s out of his realm and that perhaps, if he cannot solve the crime, he must bury his guilt again. Maybe he seeks solace in someone – say a family member or a priest. There are thousands of ways to take the story, and you’ll need to go the direction that best fits what you’re familiar with and the message you want to convey (For example, solving the crime means you have a mystery or an action-adventure tale; confessing to a priest might carry a spiritual theme). Regardless of which path is taken, you now have a loose outline of the story.

From there, fill in the details of the outline, start writing, or create dossier of your characters. No matter your preferred method, you’re on your way to writing a story rather than an unusable (albeit delightful to pen) passage that results from your standard fare writing prompt, such as What is the weather like at someplace you wish you could be or write about a ship that can take you place you’ve never been before.