My experience with prompts comes from the Flash Fiction Thunderdome on Something Awful. A few years ago, myself and the other two Thunderdome founders looked at the story writing contests and flash fiction threads, all of which petered out due to lack of interest, and figured out to make a contest that didn’t suck. Part of it had to do with the prompts. Other contests had weakass prompts like, “the story must have a character named so-and-so and include a mattress.” How the hell is that supposed to inspire anyone? At best, someone comes up with a story, 100% on their own, and awkwardly tries to wedge in the stupid requirements to fit the contest. That shit is idiotic, and yet it pervades writing contests all over the web.
If you want to prompt someone to write a story rather than a weak scenario, then get to the heart of storytelling: motivation and conflict. Behind motivation and conflict are two questions: how and why. What, who, and where don’t matter as much. Even how isn’t as important as why. I’ve found the best prompts set a scenario and ask the writer to fill in the blanks about how and why it came to be.
The first prompt for Thunderdome was, “A man agonizes over his potatoes.” The key word was “agonizes.” It brought instant conflict into the idea. Why is the man agonizing over potatoes? The answers people came up with ranged all over the place (as well as the definition of “potatoes”), but damn near every entry was a gripping tale of agony. The potato part was just a gimmick to flag “this contest is going to be silly,” making it more accessible to the kind of writer who frets over serious writing to the point of never getting anything done, but will whip up something ridiculous without fear because it’s fun. We were flooded with entries, and the contest is still going strong to this day.
The primary point of a prompt is to get people writing. A crappy prompt can do that if all the person needs is a nudge. If you want your prompt to generate stories, and consistently readable ones at that, it needs to point the writer in the right direction.
This is crappy prompt: Imagine someone standing behind you.
I dunno, a man with a gun? A clown? A humanoid pig? Who cares.
Here’s how to make your prompt suck more: Imagine your mother is standing behind you.
Ok, but how does that inspire anyone to write a story unless they have deep-seated mommy issues ready to purge?
Here’s how you make your prompt totally suck: Your mother is standing behind you. She must have red hair and her name is Sandy.
Now it’s just getting stupid. Why the fuck must someone’s mother have red hair? How does that help anyone come up with a story? All you’ve done is put your writers in a straight-jacket, one they must contort themselves to get out of. Also, if you’re judging the stories for a contest, you’re going to be damned sick of reading the name Sandy after three entries.
Here’s how to make your prompt suck Satan’s asshole: You find your mother Sandy standing behind you. Her hair is red and she loves the smell of meat.
Now you’re just asking for reams and reams of creepy shit. I hope you like incest murder porn.
Here’s how to make that prompt not suck: You’re upset to find your mother standing behind you.
Did she catch you doing something horrible? Is she supposed to be dead? There’s tons of reasons you can make up for this prompt. If you think the first prompt is more open, you probably put too much emphasis on ideas. The same premise can generate completely original stories from different people, because no two minds are alike. Have faith in that. The last prompt also has a built-in frame you can hang a story on. I guarantee the first prompt will bag you a ton of rambling wank—I’ve seen it happen over and over. The last one will bag you stories, and even if they suck, you’ll have more to work with come critique time. Yes, you’ve constrained the reaction to “upset,” but artists work better with constraints, so long as those constraints aren’t unnecessary bullshit.
A good prompt doesn’t have to spell the emotional conflict out. You can also hint at a conflict and let the writer fill in the blanks. A prompt like: “Someone is standing on a bridge, about to jump. Tell us what happens next and/or why,” carries enough implicit conflict for any writer to hang a story on. The “and/or why” leaves it open enough for the writer to focus on external or internal conflict, depending on whether they want to focus more on plot or character.
Motivation generates conflict. Conflict generates story. Treat these two elements like the piston driving your story engine, and the rest will reliably chug along behind. If you’re writing prompts for a class, a writers group, or a story contest, make sure the conflict is built in. Doing conceptual prompts, like genre-benders or crazy gimmicks, may seem more fun, but without a conflict the only people who will shine in those are the people who already know how to write a decent story. Weaker writers will flail behind, and they’re going to be devastated come critique time. Throw them a bone, and it’ll be more fun for everyone involved.
For further reading, this article prompted me to write this post. Though it focuses on teaching creative writing to grade-schoolers, it has advice to benefit writers of all ages.by