The Perfect Prompt: Why Some Spur Inspiration and Others Fall Flat

I don’t know that doing the weekly Flash Fiction Fridays here on the blog has taught me much about myself as a writer other than I’m terrible at consistency and it takes an inordinate amount of effort to keep it going. (No worries, this isn’t an announcement that I’m done, just a little good natured kvetching)

But it has taught me a few things about creativity and wordplay and process. And in recent weeks it’s gotten me thinking more particularly about writing prompts.

Yes, one end of my kitchen table it generally devoted to my clutter.

My love of The Storymatic is no secret. It’s super fun to draw forth a card and see what today’s fiction will be about. Which prompt will get to me most? Is it the character? The situation? An object? And there is almost always a little thrill as I feel the scene taking shape in my head.

But sometimes, as evidenced in my post FFF: I Made it All Up, the prompts don’t do a thing for me. And mostly I’ve chocked that up to me not being in the right headspace, worrying about things domestic, or feeling physically off on a given day. But the mental response to the prompts for FFF: Storm Slayer was so intense it surprised me. And a theory started to form from the musings of the past few months.

What makes a good prompt and what makes a bad one? I have a couple of ideas.

First, what I’m about to say will always be relative to the writer, just as all reading experiences will be relative to the reader. We bring our own history and baggage to any given piece. This is true of prompts as well. Some will connect with one writer and not another no matter how well thought out.

But I think two key attributes can make the difference between a prompt that inspires and one that falls flat: resonance and specificity.

Some characters or objects come with a deep resonance. Take the prompts that spawned Storm Slayer: violin and pirate.

Every violin has an inherent history. It is made from a living being, something that was planted and grew until its body became the material that was cut and treated and shaped into the instrument that would eventually be placed in someone’s hands. And that’s just the beginning. What music will it play? What abuses will it suffer that will change its tone? It has a context and a background of its own, as well as the potential for more.

And no one just becomes a pirate. There’s no career trajectory for something like that. Any person who winds up swabbing a deck or cruising the internet hunting for digital loot has a story that has nothing to do with your story. And like the violin, a potential for more. No pirate lives the life of a constant 9-5er. And if they are, how are they pulling that off?!? You see what I mean?

All of that context is what I call resonance. It strikes a chord within the writer, engendering new questions, rubbing up against years of cultural saturation. This is what provokes emotion, what sparks an idea, what becomes a scene.

But this resonance wouldn’t be possible without the specificity. The more concrete and specific a prompt is, the more likely it is to resonate. No one will respond intensely or enthusiastically to a prompt like, “Write whatever you want about a duck.” Could you do it? Sure. Would it be your best work ever, the most interesting, the most fun? Maybe (I don’t know how you feel about ducks), but chances are it’s just too broad, too bland, too boring to get you really engaged.

I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s new book Beyond Order (not a sponsor, no affiliation, yada yada yada), and in it he discusses how the rules of a game are what make the game. If we didn’t have the fixed constraints of game play, there wouldn’t be any incentive to play. “Do whatever you want,” is not a good rule. How do you even know if you’ve won?

Specific, concrete prompts are the arbitrary limits that make writing fun, that make a bit of fiction interesting. Did you take a thought-provoking notion and make it more so? Did you make a serious concept funny? An amusing character dower? Did you use the fence posts that boxed you in to produce a maze or just another fence?

Why do you think so many authors and editors have penned books on plot structures? We crave an articulated knowledge of what the rules of the writing game are, so we can judge whether or not we’ve been successful, and whether or not others will perceive us as having performed well (not to mention whether or not it will sell, if that’s what you’re after). It can be a bit anti-intuitive, but the more the rules constrain us, the more we have the freedom to create. The rules are there to be interpreted, bent, even broken to serve the story.

I recently subscribed to a daily prompt email list. It has prompts like “Neglect. Write about a time you felt neglected and how you responded.” If you are looking to dig up your own emotional demons for use in some way later on, that might be helpful. But the resulting writing will be mostly for you (unless memoir is your thing). And neglect is a super abstract concept, one most humans do have some resonance with, granted, but it’s not specific enough to produce good fiction on its own.

What about question style prompts? What if…? If you could…? These can work. But then again the specificity and resonance matter. If presented with such a prompt you can give it an extra layer by asking, “Who is asking or answering this question?” Whole novels have manifested in my head purely by my posing a question to the universe and finding the character who answers back deeply fascinating.

So if you run up against a writing prompt that is just not doing anything for you, it might be you, but it might not be. It might be a bland, boring, overdone prompt that isn’t resonant or specific enough to warrant your time and attention. And if you apply a little specificity of your own, you might turn it into something more compelling than it was on its own.

What have some of your favorite prompts been, from this blog or anywhere else? When have you felt like you responded to a prompt or idea successfully?

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