Writing

10 Creative Writing Prompts for Story Ideas

Written by MasterClass

Feb 1, 2019 • 10 min read

Whether you’re trying to start a new story, or struggling with writer’s block in the middle of one, ideas may seem difficult to come by. To discover your next novel or short story idea, exercise your creative writing muscle with this list of creative writing prompts and story starters that will mine your life experiences, passions, and imagination for inspiration.

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1. Make 3 Lists

One of the best ways to brainstorm creative writing ideas is by making lists, then seeing how different items on those lists clash or combine. Here are three lists to get you started.

  • Ten true events: These events needn’t be “big” or “important”: just things that happened to you or someone you know, or items you read about in the news.
  • Ten characters: These could be characters you’ve already worked with, people you’ve seen but never spoken to, family members, high school teachers, or even historical figures that fascinate you.
  • Ten story shells: These are simple stories that can serve as building blocks for your own idea. Examples include fairy tales, myths, even family stories that were passed down to you. No need to write about them in detail: simply list a few words that sum up the story.

Now, take one item from each list—one event, one character, and one existing story shell—and use them to brainstorm a new story. What happens when you drop a character of your own into a classic folktale? How would Abraham Lincoln deal with a personal event you experienced personally?

2. Explore Your Interests

Here’s another list-making writing idea: Make a list of all the subjects or activities that you’re drawn to you right now. It doesn’t matter if you just thought of them today. Freewrite on each topic until you fill a single page.

What’s exciting or intriguing to you about this subject? Is it something you’ve always wanted, or something you’re afraid of? Why? Repeat this creative writing exercise for each subject. Then, review your free writing, and look for recurring themes or dramatic situations.

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3. Write (Or Rewrite) Your Opening Line

Your opening line is often one of the most important lines in your entire novel or short story. A great first line doesn’t just grab the reader’s attention: it distills the writer’s theme, main character, or premise. Just as an opening line captures something essential about an existing story, it can also help you discover the seed of a great story.

To jumpstart your creativity, try writing seven opening lines that serve as “doors” for future stories or novels. Take a few notes about why each would make a good entryway for a reader.

If you’re in the middle of a novel or short story, overcome your writer’s block by writing seven new opening lines that could serve as alternate doors for your existing manuscript. Then, test each opening line against the following criteria:

  • Does it create a mystery to pull your reader in?
  • Does it contain concrete significant detail?
  • Does it convey the voice of your narrator?

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4. Play With Structure and Genre

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Entering an existing story at different places and in different styles can help you find a fresh take on your premise. Consider the following examples, which manipulate structure and genre to take “Little Red Riding Hood” to new places.

  • Start in the middle: “It was dark inside the wolf. The grandmother who had been gobbled whole couldn’t say a word, because it was quite stifling and full of old chicken parts and plastic bags that the wolf had eaten by mistake.”
  • Start with a flashback: “Every time the grandmother remembered what an awful time she had had inside the wolf.”
  • Use time jumps: “Little was Little Red Riding Hood to know that in two weeks’ time, she would be looking back on one of the most definitive events of her life.”
  • Write it as a detective novel: “There on the floor lay either one corpse, that of the wolf, or two, because in some versions the grandmother doesn’t come out of it so well. What had caused this double murder?”

5. Use Dialogue to Find Your Story

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Dialogue can be an effective tool for discovering story and characters. Here are a few creative writing ideas for using dialogue as a jumping off point.

  • Eavesdrop in public spaces. Go to a public place where people tend to converse, like a cafe, bar, or subway. Spend 10 minutes eavesdropping on a conversation. Record everything those people say, and how they say it, as specifically as you can. Later, transcribe this conversation into a word processing document as faithfully as you can. What conclusions can you draw from what you heard? Who has more power? Who wants what? Who was listening more closely? Then, in a new document, select that parts of the conversation that most interests you, and use it as the seed of your new story. (As a bonus, documenting real-life conversations can also help you develop your dialogue writing skills.)
  • Create conflict with dialogue. Write one page of dialogue between two or more people about a controversial topic (e.g. where to eat dinner, purses for men, the old Chevy that’s been following them for a mile). Make them disagree. Once you’ve finished the conversation, go back over it and add in descriptive sentences throughout until you feel that it’s balanced. This type of dialogue can form the basis of conflict, which is a useful tool for keeping readers engaged throughout your narrative.

6. Use Setting to Find Your Story

Like dialogue, setting can serve as a major inspiration for your story. Here are a few story prompts to help you choose, research, and invent locations that will serve as the foundation of your story.

  • Creating setting from imagination. Select three ordinary or extraordinary locations, then write a paragraph describing each one. Examples of settings include a train station, the top of a skyscraper, a busy restaurant, or a junkyard for old ships. Try to write from the point of view of a particular character you might find in that setting, and let the details emerge from the character’s sensory experience or action. Mix predictable details with those that will surprise the reader.
  • Visit a new place. Go to a location you’ve never visited before (either from a setting you’ve already chosen, or a place nearby that you find interesting). When you first arrive, spend some time absorbing it through your senses only—no writing yet. Pay attention to the things that strike you most. Afterwards, do some journaling about the place. Remember to include the sensory details—what it looked, felt, smelled, and sounded like.
  • Creating a setting from memory. Conjure a memory from your childhood, one that has stayed with you over the years. Take a few notes about anything you remember. Where did it take place? Who was there? What did it feel like to be you at that moment in time? Now, de-people the scene, and describe only the setting using concrete, significant details that rely on every sense: touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight. For an added challenge, perform the same exercise as above, but this time prohibit yourself from using any visual details. This will focus and sharpen the other sensory images in the memory, revealing unexpected insights.

7. Describe an Object

Spend 15 minutes describing an object that everyone takes for granted. Pretend you are writing to someone in the far future (or, perhaps, an extraterrestrial) who has never encountered this item before. What’s the most specific thing you can say about that object? What’s something you never noticed about it until you described it to someone who has never seen one?

8. Flesh Out Your Characters

A story is nothing without characters—in fact, great characters will often take your novel or short story to wonderfully unexpected places. Here are some creative writing prompts to help you build characters.

  • Write your heroes. Make a list of your real-life heroes and list the qualities they possess. What challenges did they face that made them heroic? Which qualities did they exhibit to face those challenges? In looking at this list, do you see any common themes emerging? Which character tugs most at your heart? Write a page describing one of your heroes.
  • Write a difficult character. The best characters make difficult, and often controversial, choices. Pick one of the characters below. Write a short narrative from their point of view, justifying their actions to someone they care about. Don’t edit too much: just free write and let the character speak. Characters: A hit man who just killed a young girl. A corporate executive who just cheated on his or her spouse. A prison guard who nearly beat an inmate to death. A teenage boy who went on a shooting rampage. A police officer who shot a woman in her backyard. A villain’s backstabbing best friend.
  • Use real people for character inspiration. Go to a public place where you can freely observe other people. Choose a stranger and imagine a few character details for them. What’s their name? What mood are they in? Why are they there? Write a one-page monologue from their point of view that reveals what they’re thinking. Show their thoughts, but also show the world around them and how they interact with it. Try to develop an inner monologue that is at odds with the world around them or with the way they appear to be.

9. Create Suspense

Suspense is what keeps your readers engaged and reading your book.

Choose a mundane moment from any of the writing you’ve done so far. For example, pick a scene where your protagonist is walking, eating or having a quiet discussion. If you don’t have a scene like this yet, select a topic from the list below:

  • A spider crawling up his web
  • A child coming out of school
  • Two people sitting in a car at a stop light
  • A teenager lying in bed at night
  • A group of men going into a stadium
  • A woman eating alone in a restaurant

Write a paragraph (no more than a page) turning your mundane scene into a suspenseful moment. You only have one paragraph and one page, so if there’s something your reader needs to know in order for things to make sense, find clever ways to blend that information into the narrative.

Learn more about suspense in our comprehensive guide here.

10. Play With Time

Finally, bending, stretching, and distorting time can help you discover interesting perspectives and deal with writer’s block. The following writing tips will help you play with the concept of time in your creative writing.

  • Take a narrative time leap. This exercise allows you to practice narrative time leaps and explore the consequences of “long time” (a mode of fictional time that covers a lot of ground—decades or more). Select an event you’ve written about in a story, exercise, or work in progress. Now, fast forward one of the characters 30 years into the future, and have them recount that event in retrospect. How did the past 30 years alter the event in their mind? How did the event alter their life? What factors changed their perspective over time? Did the fast-forward change your perspective and you new ideas?
  • Write a letter to the future. Write a letter to someone in the future. This could be a person you haven’t met, your ideal reader, your future spouse, or own child or grandchild. What do you say to someone who isn’t here, but will be in the future?

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Margaret Atwood, who is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass on the art of writing, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale provides insight into how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.

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