The random element prompting you

Or, there’s always a way around the block…

When it comes to solving a problem with creating – whether it’s how to start, or how to go on, many artists will consult a random, outside element to give them something fresh and new to chew on, or to crystallize the possibilities swirling around inside their mind.

For example, writing prompts. Often one word, image, phrase, or question, that’s meant to get your mind moving, and must be incorporated or solved. Once the project’s underway, writing prompts can become strategies instead.

An example of starting prompt by word:

Jake Owen’s Inktober (Yes, it was meant for drawing, not writing. Works either way!)

According to Hoyt’s Sunday Vignettes (yes, there’s a promo there, too. Prompt at the end, and you play in comments.)

For phrase:

“They Fight Crime!” Generator (From the trope of “He’s an X, she’s a Y, together they fight crime!”)

For images:

I don’t know a site that specifically presents an image daily for a writing prompt, but there are a couple sites I’ve seen people use:

Photomorgue: free photos, and you can type in a writing prompt word or just scroll through the random selection on the front page.

The book designer: Some authors go surf premade cover sites, find the cover that they want to write the story for, and write the story around the cover. (If you do this, you just might want to make sure you buy that cover, so it’s still available when you’re ready to publish!) This has a long history in the pulp magazines – more than a few stories for the pulps were written after the cover art had been commissioned, and the author had to come up with something related.

(physical option) Tell Me A Story cards: This is a deck of cards with a single fairytale image each. Designed as a kid’s game, they work for writing prompts, too. I know writers who’ve gone on to create their own extra cards to add.

For Strategies:

Oblique Strategies: Created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, this was a deck of cards that someone uploaded as a one-per-website-refresh that was meant to help songwriters and musicians.

(physical option) Writer Emergency Pack: this has options like “switch genres” or “standard procedures: what if this happened all the time? Is your hero writing the rules, or breaking them?”

Orson Scott Card’s “1,000 ideas in an hour”: while this is in the book Characters and Viewpoint, the basic gist is free on the link blog post (I recommend the book; it’s good. But later; see the strategy now.)

You could use all of these, or none of these. In the end, all that matters is that you get the story started, and then written, and then finished. What have you used for prompts or strategies, or idea generation?

26 thoughts on “The random element prompting you

  1. Thank you for this. I’ve been stuck for weeks and my writing time will diminish shortly. I need to make a lot of progress in the next three weeks and just looking at some pictures and prompts helped me to shake loose.

  2. Give up. Do something stupid like a mirror image universe. Like Spock with a beard. Make half your good guys into bad guys and throw them together. Great fun. It’ll get you writing . . . and in my case, with a bunch of parallel worlds I could even rationalize it.

    1. Do the exact opposite of what you thought would happen next. I have a work in progress — revisions now — where I had the heroine arrive at a market where she should have learned something. It was stuck. So I had a dragon — already introduced to the story, luckily — swoop over and drive everyone off.

      1. I like that! And isn’t it lucky you didn’t have to go back and slot the dragon into earlier parts of the story?

  3. I started reading Dwight Swain while working on an idea for one story, then generated and started work on a second in mid read. Very often the strategies he provided in a later chapter prompted solutions to problems I had reached with these two stories.

    For example, in story one, I long had an idea of what my main characters motivations would be, and of the end result. Reading Swain pointed out that I had no idea of any critical choice that character would make at the climax. Then, Swain’s subsequent discussion prompted my discovery of a solution. I think it helped that I’ve spent years trying to train my creativity and problem solving.

    I want to make a fairly comprehensive set of notes before I turn it back in.

    1. I’m currently reading Jordan Peterson, and there are phrases just crying out for a good story, like “you can’t be safe until you’re competent” and “what do you want, exactly?”

      I’m all “I want to keep reading!”, but my back brain is saying “Hey, I’m completely distracted by the problems inherent in Akrep trying to teach Raina to shoot (Because that’s exactly the sort of thing he’d believe, that you can’t be safe until you’re competent)… and there might be a watergun fight scene coming up, because clearing the house should end in whoops of laughter! Don’t you want to stop reading and write?”

  4. Best unsticking device I’ve found is to try to explain the problem to someone else. (Yes, I have some very longsuffering friends!)

    This worked when I was programming – not just for me, but for all my colleagues. You wander into the next office and say something like, “This program is suddenly crashing for no reason and all I changed was this one little… oh. Thank you!”

    Takes longer with stories, but still works. “See, they’re under attack in this apartment in the Arab quarter, and I can’t figure out why Thalia doesn’t just teleport everyone out of danger, and… oh. Thank you!”

      1. Although I have at least one friend who claims it doesn’t work with a rubber duck or a toaster or a dog or anything like that. You have to seriously try to explain the problem or it won’t work, and usually you don’t try as hard if whatever you’re explaining it to can’t possibly understand.

  5. Way back when, there was a writing forum I frequented that had a couple of moderators who, between them, had a fairly impressive collection of fantasy and sci-fi art (mostly old book covers) that they had collected over the years. They decided to put their collections to good use in writing game like the “Tell Me a Story” cards – any writer who wanted to play would ask for a card and be given a picture to use as inspiration for a story. At the time my goal was to be a science fiction writer and I was working on/struggling with writing a sci-fi novel, but for card story game I wrote fantasy.

    When I was stuck on something with my sci-fi story or if I had a lousy, stressful day at work, I’d write a quick, just-for-fun, “card story fantasy” as a way to relax. Most of those stories ended up being set in the same story universe, so before long I just skipped the card part and would write a just-for-fun story set in that universe. It was only a couple of years ago, I am somewhat embarrassed to say, that it occurred to me if I wanted to find my best path to success as an author that I should probably stick with writing stories that I have a lot of fun writing. Better late than never, I reckon!

    I still want to do something, someday, with my poor flawed sci-fi novel… probably scavenge it for another story once I get struck by a good writing prompt. Heh

  6. Rory’s Story Cubes. Another physical option.

    Also, you can use them to play games. I gave them as Christmas gifts one year and the families had a blast.

  7. Another game along those lines is one called “Dixit” which contains a whole bunch of cards with strange surrealist images on them. I always found those interesting prompts. The game looks like it’s pretty expensive on Amazon, unfortunately, but if you do a google image search, you can get some pictures of the cards.

  8. After reading a lot of old pulp magazines these past few years, I have to say that the practice of writing a story to match a pre-existing cover illustration had its downside. Too often, it’s obvious that the author did exactly that — the story reads like a few extraneous paragraphs were crowbarred in to justify the cover scene, or the cover scene is described in too much fulsome detail out of proportion to its relevance to the story. There was one story where the author actually mocked the cover scene as being ridiculous (in the story context, the real-world cover scene was described as a magazine or newspaper artist’s completely wrong conception of what was “really” going on, and the character’s made fun of it). An out of context illustration can inspire a story, I suppose, but it has to be handled right without making it obvious that’s what drove the story in the first place.

  9. It’s interesting how many writing-prompt systems could double as party games, or vise versa. If your in a REALLY twisted mood, you could even try Cards Against Humanity combinations.

  10. I went to They Fight Crime, and I want to know how the devious French-Canadian wearing extremely tight pants met the drug-addicted magician’s apprentice. And which insect’s uncanny powers does she possess?

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