Among the greatest challenges facing writers is coming up and developing a fantastic story idea. The problem isn’t that writers have a shortage of ideas, just that many of them are not fantastic, as currently formulated in their head. They sense that and so sometimes face a mini-episode of writer’s block.
Being proactive, they turn to writing prompts – a single word, a phrase, a situation, or a picture – to spur their imagination, to inspire them. Often, writers find that while these prompts result in a lot of creative output, they still don’t result in a story that is publishable.
Why that is seems confusing. Our teachers from elementary through high school, maybe even in college, gave out writing prompts that almost always led to a flurry of words and a feeling of success. Sometimes our teachers’ positive response to what was written spurred us to write with even more vigor.
Recently while looking back at my own school-generated juvenalia for story ideas, I found it was unusable, not because it was bad (okay, it was bad though rescuable) but because it was based on pointless writing prompts – While digging in your backyard, you find a large box. What’s in the box? or You’re the first person to step foot on Mars. What do you see or experience?
Such prompts almost never lead to an actual story, as the prompt does not focus on what a story is about: resolving a conflict.
Conflict is the heart of every story
When telling a story, you’ve got to have conflict in it. If there’s no conflict, you have a wooden story that starts nowhere, leads nowhere, and ends nowhere. As E.M. Forster noted, “‘The king died, then the queen died’ is a plot. ‘The king died, then the queen died of grief’ is a story.”
Forster’s quotation is apt because a good plot is about at least one character under adversity. Conflict typically arises from the characters’ perceptions, needs and wants. As each character has an urgent personal agenda, your plot really is a synthesis of its individual characters’ efforts to achieve their agendas. Hence, Odysseus must get home but the gods don’t want him to. Hamlet must be absolutely certain his uncle killed the king but self-doubt gets in his way. Luke Skywalker must save a princess but stormtroopers are after him. Those are stories.
The aforementioned writing prompts easily could have led to stories if only they were restructured so that they focused on conflict. For example, While digging in your backyard, you find a small box containing your mother’s diary, which reveals the dad who raised you really isn’t your father. How do you go about determining the truth? How does this alter your perception of your parents? How do you find peace with your parents and yourself at this news? Or Your ship crashes on Mars so that you have no way to return home. How do you survive until a rescue can be mounted?
A variety of writing prompts based on conflict are available at this blog. Peruse through them, pick one that you find interesting, and start writing. Good luck!
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.