3 Great Places for Writing Prompts (Plus A Tool To Serve Them Up On Shuffle)

by Mac

Every writer knows what it’s like to stare down a blank page, but the experience is even worse when your mind is also feeling like a featureless void. For me, writing prompts have been a great way to create that little spark that can become a full-on conflagration of a story. I am, however, extremely particular when it comes to using prompts. The usual prompt generators that produce random words, or the ones that provide a character, setting, and conflict, just don’t do it for me. I like a nice, evocative single line, something that seems like it’s been plucked from a deeper story and world: one gives you the opportunity to do that building for yourself, to imagine everything else that leads to that line.

Here I’m going to share with you a few of my favorite sources for prompts along those lines, and I’ll also throw in the method I’ve chosen to hoard my collection of prompts, and serve up a random one for when I’m ready to write.

1. Deep Water Writing Prompts

By far my favorite source of writing prompts, Deep Water Prompts offers up some seriously terrific starts for your story. They’ve also got an impressive back catalog (there are over 1000 prompts available as of this writing), so you can dig back into the archives to find all sorts of riches. Many prompts are available in image form for the Pinterest addicts in the crowd, and those image prompts also include a text caption for folks using screen readers, which is a nice accessibility feature. You’re also welcome to use their prompts in stories you intend to submit for publication, and they take reader-submitted prompts as well, if you’ve got a nice juicy one you’d like to share.

Deep Water Prompt: My guardian angel spoke an ancient, rasping tongue. This complicated communication between us.

Example prompts:

  • One of the birds in the cage was my brother.
  • They took away her divination tools, but she could still read vague possibilities in the earthworms.
  • There was a thin, slimy looking tail sticking out from under the couch.
  • They painted her in shades of crimson for the ceremony, until every inch of skin blazed like a dying ember.
  • The password was a dangerous secret. Any dangerous secret. If you didn’t have one, you weren’t allowed in.
  • He offered to build her a castle, or a garden, or a ship, but she declined. What she really wanted was a maze.
  • I saw father put a curse on the fence around our house, but this could not keep them out forever.
  • We went to the council in our finest clothes, to request permission for our baby to be born.
  • The cave forests went on for miles, dark as the deepest ocean floor.
  • He had a golden tongue. A present, he said, from his patron god.

2. Saturday Story Prompts by Martha Bechtel

I only just stumbled upon this blog, but their collection of Saturday Story Prompts are seriously great. Many of the offerings have a specifically scifi slant, if that’s what you’re looking for, and each Saturday post includes five different prompts, so if you’re playing along each week you have plenty to choose from. Each week, one of the prompts is also offered as an image, (As an added bonus, if you’re an artist or crafter, Martha also posts tutorials and tips on all sorts of craft subjects.) It’s well worth adding to your

If you find it more convenient, you can also purchase ebooks of entire years’ worth of Saturday Writing Prompts from Martha via Amazon. These prompts are offered on a Creative Commons attribution license, which means you’re required to provide credit for the prompt, but you’re also free to sell stories containing the prompts.

Saturday Story Prompt: Two horses are needed for a divination: one white, one black. And no tribe rides out into the desert without them to foresee the way.

Example prompts:

  • Overnight the dragons have made a mess of the pens, leaving behind scorched earth, claw marks, and what’s left of his sheep.
  • He wakes to the sound of screams and the heavy smell of smoke and charred garbage. Someone’s set the city’s rivers on fire.
  • Ship-born children are required by law to spend every third year planet-side. It’s an ancient ruling spawned from the need to get some gravity back in our bones, but now I think they just want to keep us used to blue skies and allergies.
  • The foal has four white legs, harbingers of the worst kinds of luck, and they remove it from the stable as soon as it can stand.
  • The planet’s flora has an explosive growth rate, meant to combat the constant appetites of the megafauna. Unfortunately the colony didn’t notice until they’d chased off the herds around the settlement.
  • It still takes almost a year to reach Mars, but now there are plenty of stops along the way. They’ve turned the trip into a cruise of sorts, with faux-landfall adventures at each station, spaced a few weeks apart.

3. WritingExercises.co.uk

This is one of those automated generators I mentioned not really caring for, but this one’s my personal exception. The site offers all sorts of prompt generators: random dialogue, setting, title, words, exercises, just about anything you could possibly want. My personal favorite is the Random First Line. They’re mostly a little less specific and evocative than the prompt sites listed above, but they’re also purposely vague and open-ended (some of them are even incomplete sentences), which leaves you a lot of room in how you want to proceed with the rest of it. Because they’re fairly vague, you can also use them for any genre of writing, and you can take the story in any direction you like. The same prompt can be read as completely ominous, or the gentle opening of a wholesome romance.

The collection of prompts isn’t huge (in a few minutes of clicking the ol’ button you’ll turn up plenty of repeats), but it’s enough to get you going. And if you get bored you can always move on to the What If? generator, the title generator, or whatever else might strike your fancy.

Example prompts:

  • He had kept their mother alive in their thoughts. Too alive, perhaps.
  • There was nothing left of the money except
  • There was a strange wailing sound coming from the next room
  • The house wasn’t the same to her any more
  • She felt for the lock in the dark
  • He had an hour to get home. If he didn’t make it,
  • He had waited twenty years to return it

Bonus Prompt Source: This Blog!

Since initially posting this article, I’ve added prompts to this blog! You can find them served up randomly on the writing prompts page. I also post them once a week on my Tumblr. Here are a few example prompts:

  • It became increasingly unclear, over time, whether he was wielding the weapon or it was wielding him.
  • The snare was elaborate and obvious, so naturally they walked right into it.
  • The faerie-traps grew where they liked, needing no care or encouragement, and kept themselves well-fed.
  • In the old days, scrying required blood. Or everyone thought it did. Now, she uses a nice stir fry sauce; when the ritual’s done, she’ll add some vegetables and have it for dinner.
  • Landfall always took some adjustment, but this time it was something entirely different from acclimation: it was change.
  • They kept their wishes in bird cages, dangling outside their windows. They almost couldn’t bear to hear the wishes sing, but it seemed even worse to let them go.

One Way To Hoard Your Prompts

I like to collect prompts that I find inspiring, so I can refer back to them later. But I didn’t have a good way to keep them all in one place. Prompts offered as images (like the examples above) I could save to Pinterest, but then what to do with the ones that were text-only? And how could I serve them up in a way that works best for me? I finally sat down and devoted some time to the problem.

Screenshot of Cram.com flashcard, with text "Half her herb garden was for cooking. The other half would kill you. Sometimes she used both in the same dish."

(prompt from marismckay.com.

What I needed was pretty specific: something that could serve up prompts one at a time, in random order, and something I could access both on my laptop (for easy copying and pasting of prompts) and also on my phone (so I could pick a prompt even when I was writing somewhere without wifi, or add new prompts without my laptop on hand). And I needed something that would accommodate images, as some of my prompts are simply pictures that I found compelling.

I considered and discarded tons of different options. I tried adapting Javascript found online (that was a resounding failure, since I know precisely nothing about Javascript), I looked at about a million different apps, and I finally settled on a pretty simple flashcard creator called Cram. It does everything I need it to do, and best of all, the mobile app is very easy to use, both for serving up cards on shuffle, and for adding new ones.

It’s still not the most ideal solution; the website’s method for adding new flashcards I find really clunky, so now that I’ve put in the 100+ prompts I’d already collected, I basically use the mobile app for everything. And obviously it’s built with a bunch of features that I don’t need or use, since it’s designed for a whole different use. But it’s a pretty simple system that’s working out well for me so far. I use the front of each flashcard to put the prompt, and then on the back I note where I found it, or the photographer’s information, if it’s a photo I’ve saved as a prompt. A swipe will show the back of the card, and hitting the red X will advance to the next random selection. (It also in flashcard terms means I got the answer wrong, which is helping me develop a more impervious attitude toward failure.)

I’d also like to note that I always set my prompt collection flashcards to private rather than public, and you should, too. Saving something like prompts or photos for your own reference is a very different thing from making a big public collection of stuff that isn’t yours, potentially diverting traffic and supporters from the people who created those nice prompts for you in the first place.

Cram’s been working great for me so far, but I’d love to know: how do you collect your writing prompts?

(Featured photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash)

3 Great Sources for Writing Prompts: Find the spark you need to get your story started, plus one recommended tool to help you hoard your favorite prompts and serve them up on shuffle

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4 comments

Martha Bechtel August 4, 2018 - 11:10 am

Thank you so much for the link! I try to make sure each week’s Saturday Story Prompts have at least one science fiction, one fantasy, and one dialog prompt… but my Muses do love a good space adventure! 😉

Using Cram is a great idea, I’ll have to try that! I’ve taken to adding a ‘random number’ column on the Google Sheets I use to archive my prompts and then using whichever one sorts to the top. I use a random dice roll to pick the genre and universe for break-the-block drabbling.

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Mac August 5, 2018 - 12:56 am

Thank YOU for the great prompts! I love the variety of them; there’s always at least one that hooks me each week. I just found you a week or so ago and probably spent way too much time going back through every prompt post and adding my favorites to my hoard. 😀

I like the numbered column idea, that’s a really simple solution to a problem I probably overcomplicated. I did actually find this template where they use a sheet to generate the random content, which I thought was pretty cool:
http://www.controlaltachieve.com/2016/04/writing-prompt-generator.html
I just couldn’t figure out how to make it work the way I wanted it to… I’m deeply and profoundly allergic to spreadsheets so even really simple things with them I just completely screw up. Might be worth looking at if you have an interest in spreadsheet-driven prompting. 😀

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Alli Farkas August 4, 2018 - 4:07 pm

I never knew such a thing as “writing prompts” existed. I can see how they would be helpful. Quite clever, actually. Maybe someday someone will invent “artist prompts” LOL!

Reply
Mac August 5, 2018 - 12:13 am

Oh, those totally exist already! There are a ton of things like challenges and whatnot for artists, and tools that will serve up reference images also (so you can do timed quick sketches and that sort of thing). But there are also just straight-up prompts, like here: http://artprompts.org/

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