Sunday, July 16, 2006

Fire it Up

I love writing prompts. They're writer mind kindling, always starting something with that built-in "what if." The right prompt will jumpstart an idea out of nowhere, and there really are no limits to how far you can take one.

Case in point: long ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, a friend asked me, "If you could be anyone, in any time period, and do anything, what would you do?"

It probably is the oldest writing prompt in the world, but I got a lot of mileage out of it. I started by writing a personal parody/short story about an ER doctor in the future who is forced at gunpoint to deliver a killer alien's vicious quintuplets, which became my short story Border FreeClinic. That story evolved into StarDoc, which became my first published SF novel. StarDoc evolved into a SF novel series of six books and counting, two spin-off parallel novels, and a same-universe standalone. And I'm not done yet.

During my ambles through the book store, I picked up a copy of the chunky little book Writer's Digest has been advertising on their prompt page: The Writer's Book of Matches: 1,001 Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction. I tend to be very leery of WD advertisers, but this one actually delivers what it promises.

The brain child of the twisted minds at Fresh Boiled Peanuts, the book is packed with great starters, ideas on how to use them, and a fun, user-friendly format. It's also not genre-specific or targeted, so it will appeal to any type of fiction writer.

Three sample prompts from the book:

You come home from a business trip and realize you have the wrong suitcase.

A man opens his mailbox to find an envelope containing a set of instructions.

"Whatever you do, don't turn on the light. Please."

My only complaint is that at $19.99 US/$27.99 Canadian/£12.99 UK the book is a bit pricey, especially for writers on a tight budget. I recommend you find a copy at your local bookstore, if possible, and have a look first. You'll get a better idea of the contents and if you think they're worth that much to you.

Or you can take a shot at getting a free copy of the book right now: in comments to this post, give us a writing prompt* by midnight EST on Monday, July 17, 2006. I'll draw three names from everyone who participates and send the winners a copy of The Writer's Book of Matches. Giveaway open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.

*Your prompt can be a random line of dialogue, a situation, or anything else that you think up, or a great prompt you've found elsewhere.


  1. Anonymous12:31 AM

    "But, Mom, the dog bit me first."

  2. When he put the cigar out in his palm, I finally understood the expression regarding your mouth writing checks your body can't cash.

  3. Anonymous12:45 AM

    "Describe your character's hands."

    I loved this one. I got a lot out of it for one of my short stories, in which the main character grew up and works in the family's exotic petshop--and it's a scifi. Her hands are so bitten, scratched, and overall scarred it's like a story in itself.


  4. Anonymous12:52 AM

    A pink unicorn pops into existence in your bedroom. A poorly-painted yard gnome is strapped to its back. The unicorn looks about for a moment and then mutters with a cockney accent, "Oh bother, not again."

  5. Anonymous1:01 AM

    With the turn of the lock, the darkness in her soul awakened.

  6. When I was in school, for English composition we used to be given one-word titles and asked to write an essay on that topic (fiction or non-fiction). To this day, I still use that method to give my creativity a jolt. I wrote one on "Superstition" and another, my favourite, "Music".

  7. The old cat snored peacefully, not knowing...

  8. The package is open; decide who lives.

  9. Bunnies do not milk giraffes Jerome.

  10. Anonymous2:55 AM

    Lewis and Clark went on their expedition fully expecting to find woolly mammoths, and in fact one of the Native Americans they encountered insisted his father had killed one two years ago and they were still eating the jerky.

  11. You enter your garage, sit in your car and discover a set of keys in the ignition.
    Not only are they someone else's keys, you realise the car isn't yours. Same model, same colour, someone else's junk in the dash.
    Take it away ...

  12. “You think you got problems?” the head in Ben’s suitcase sneered.

  13. The telephone rings. When you answer, you realize the voice on the other end belongs to a dear friend who died two years ago.

  14. Anonymous5:58 AM

    It's 7.30pm. You've had a bad day at work. You put your keys in your front door and they don't fit. You look up and it isn't your door. It isn't even your house. Its where your house should be, but it isn't yours.

  15. A cool competition, S. Here are a few.

    With the crumbs of the fortune cookie still tumbling from my hand, I read the hand written note: "Today is a good day to for you to die".

    Or, "What? You humans think this dimension is the only one?" The elf smirked.

    What about: "Officer? What do you mean, exactly please, that I don't exist?"

  16. I read once that Ray Bradbury started off by writing down a bunch of titles that interested him and, over the years, coming up with stories to match. (The title Dandelion Wine, surely, must have come first.) Here are some titles (along with a plot prompt to get started with):

    Cover the Streets in Darkness (Mysterious clouds roll in and bizarre things start happening in the ensuing shadows)
    Whence Came the Leprechaun (Something odd about that midget in Timmy's fourth grade class)
    Wet Shoelaces (One man begins to suspect a supernatural plot against him when each time he steps out of a car, it's into a puddle)
    Further Down the Road (Cross-country road trip turns frantic when all highway billboards point to locations that always end up being 10 more miles away)
    Time Merchants (What if you could buy more time in the day to get more things done? What price would you pay?)
    Millicent Steven's Fantastic Pet (Her neighbors can't seem to figure out what kind of animal it is, but since she got it, Millicent's garden has never looked so good. And has her house gotten taller?)

  17. Anonymous7:28 AM

    "When he came home from work that night, his family was gone and a dead stranger lay on the floor."

  18. Anonymous7:31 AM

    I put a chocolate eclair in the microwave yesterday after I realised that in fact I could have my cake and heat it.

  19. Oho. I threw myself into bed and found a coiled snake under my pillow. Yes, you should always look before you sleep.

  20. Looking at the words printed on a large cardboard film folder at work and "seeing" different words than the actual name printed on the folder.

    I saw, "The Fourth Gate."

    The actual name written on the film folder? "Thriftway Gift Cards."

    That sparked an idea that's been percolating ever since. What the #@$! is The Fourth Gate?

  21. Joe tightened the belt and turned to his companions. "Ready?"

    [My friend and I had a joke about starting every book with some variation of a character asking another charaction "Ready?".]

  22. You are in midair.

    You are, thankfully, wearing a parachute.

    You have no idea how you got there, or even what your name is.

  23. Anonymous9:54 AM

    "Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats’ feet over broken glass"
    -- T.S. Eliot, from

    The entire poem is thought-provoking, but the last line especially. Rats' feet over broken glass. Hmmm...


  24. Anonymous9:54 AM

    My best one is very simple: Right now, what is the worst thing that could happen to you? 'You' being either me (and sometimes my honest answers are unexpected), or a proto-character in my head. I think this is one PBW uses as well.

    The second: You are in the bath, working shampoo into your hair, when a small shark rises between your knees and sheepishly asks for directions to the Pacific Ocean. What next? It helps me to come up with ridiculous scenarios, breaking the deadlock if I've gotten to close to something and can't see wood for trees.

  25. She only got angry when her boyfriend didn't recognize her. She figured that he, of all people, would have had most reason to remember.

  26. Odd things in Grandma's button box...

  27. Two that worked really well for me.

    1. More than 50 forgeries have been discovered in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Write about one of them.

    2. Every year, people sign up to be witnesses at executions. Write about one of them.

  28. Larissa, that's not the opening for the autobiography of the last year of your life, is it?

    Simon, now you're writing about MY life. Fortunately, we got the snake out before I actually was in the state to sleep on my side of the bed, but knowing he'd been there didn't make it easy to sleep there.

    Here's one that came to me a week or so ago during a discussion:

    There they were. Dead in a ditch. Oops.

  29. Anonymous3:29 PM

    Smith spun the chamber of the revolver. The barrel chilled his lips.

    ... Though I've never finished anything yet, killing people* helps me get started.

    *Characters. Of course I mean characters. :-)


  30. The phone rang all day, but she wasn't at home to answer it.

  31. Anonymous4:01 PM

    "But it's not MY fault the wizard turned green!"

    I don't remember where I saw that but I've always loved it.

  32. Anonymous4:26 PM

    "Oh, no," thought Bernadette, "she's here."

  33. "What the hell was that?" is one of my favorites. Another is to pick my favorite character in the story and kill him or her.
    But the all-time best writing prompt came from my boss when I was a copywriter. Picture a guy who looks like Porky Pig, in a grey suit with a head of very curly hair. He'd say, "You wanna keep eating? Write it. I'm going to the can."

  34. I like Ray Bradbury's list method: write a list of nouns (his were the ravine, the baby, etc.), pick one, and write a story about it.

  35. You go to visit a loved one at a nursing home and the person in the next bed warns you to...

    You pick up a newspaper and see your picture next to the obituary of...

    You're scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef, when you spot...

    No one would believe you saw the ghost the spin cycle.

  36. Today is the day you learn what you have always suspected--your parents are really aliens!

  37. that wasn't supposed to be there

  38. You're satisfied with your life, but one day you receive a letter that changes everything. What does it say?

  39. At the age of 40, you get your first tattoo. You want to commemorate _____...

  40. Anonymous11:25 PM

    I've always loved this one.

    "I suppose it all began when I forgot to turn off the moon."

    __A Song for Herrmann__ by Paul Carter

  41. You go to visit a loved one at a nursing home and the person in the next bed warns you to...

    I misread that as 'warms to you' and a whole lot of unwanted and disturbing story material came to mind.

  42. Anonymous2:49 AM

    Midnight. The exact time when one day switches to the next. I'm writing this at 12:38am on Monday the seventeenth. Does this mean I'm too late? What if I'm too late? What repurcussions will this have on my writing career (flegling as it is)? If I'm still responding in time and don't win, does this mean that I'm the typical random drawing loser or does this mean that PBW doesn't think enough of my response to include me in the drawing? Perhaps she's sending out a crack team of assassins to interrupt my ramblings. If you don't see a response by me in the next thirty days, it might be safer to assume the latter than any of the former. God save my soul. *~)

  43. I awoke to a gun barrel in my face. A rough voice said, "You're coming with us."

  44. The urge to rifle through a stranger's belongings shouldn't have been that difficult to resist. But it was. The suitcase sat there on the edge of the motel bed, taunting me, practically begging me to open it up and peruse the life of a random stranger.


    I've found and to be idea gold mines. Sometimes just a character description or a name will spark a story idea.

  45. Wow. Blogger chewed up those links rather thoroughly. Sorry about that. The generators I was linking were Seventh Sanctum and Serendipity.

  46. Anonymous12:48 PM

    She hurried down the steps, not sure why he had chosen her for the mission. She had ten minutes to...

  47. Anonymous1:35 PM

    You are standing in a room with one person and no lights, and you hear, "Who are you? What do you want?"

  48. Anonymous1:44 PM

    "Why is there a naked man covered in Vaseline in my back yard?"

  49. Anonymous3:03 PM

    "The unexpected return of a person who displays unusual character attributes or abilities never seen before.


    A wish comes true but not in the way the wisher expected or wanted, and there's no cancelation clause."

    These are the prompts from Day 1 of the 7-in-7 contest, held annually in the CompuServe SF Lit forum. The idea is to write seven short stories in seven days, using (if you want) the prompts posted each day.

  50. "I should have remembered what Granny said", I thought, as I .....

  51. Anonymous4:00 PM

    All that being a hero's apprentice means is that I see adventure from the ground, walking through mud, while others ride on high.

  52. Anonymous4:15 PM

    After your wedding, at the reception, your new Mother-in-law pulls you aside to divulge a family secret.

    -Michael Snell

  53. Anonymous5:38 PM

    A woman is sitting alone at a table in a coffee shop. Her friend enters with a large envelope tucked under her arm.

    "It came?" The first woman says.
    "It came," says her friend.

  54. Anonymous7:03 PM

    "Flood?" said the man on the other end of the line.
    "No," I said, "with a 'b'."

  55. You are hiking to the top of a mountain, over an hour from the parking lot. A man is running back down the trail and yells, "Did you meet anyone? Somebody stole my backpack and it has my car keys in it!"

    This actually happened. I've often wondered what the rest of the story was, in actual fact...

  56. Anonymous8:33 PM

    You must not forget the suspenders!

    (. . . Why not?)

  57. Choose one of your characters. If your character got his deepest wish, what would it be and what would the consequences of him getting it be? :)