Writing

Ten Creative Writing Prompts for Story Ideas

Written by MasterClass

Feb 1, 2019 • 9 min read

Story ideas may seem difficult to come by. To help your novel or short story, exercise your creative writing muscle with this list of prompts that will mine your life experiences, your passions, and your imagination for inspiration.

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1. Brainstorm Story Ideas

Below are a some basic writing ideas that work as story starters.

  • Ten events that might spark a story. They don’t have to be big: these could be things that happened to you or someone you know, or items you read about in the news.
  • Ten characters. These might be characters you’ve already worked with, people you’ve seen but never spoken to, your family members, high school teachers, or perhaps historical figures that fascinate you.
  • Ten story building blocks. folktales, fairy tales, myths, or maybe family stories that were passed down to you. No need to detail them; just 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 begin a new story. What happens when you drop a character of your own invention into a very old folktale? How does your personal event permit you to play with the foundational folktale?

2. Explore Your Interests

Make a list of all the subjects that magnetize you right now. It doesn’t matter if you just thought of them today. Freewrite on each topic until you fill a single page. If you find this difficult, scan news headlines and list all the stories that grab your interest. Repeat this exercise for each subject. Then, review your freewriting and look for recurring themes.

3. Rewrite the Opening Lines

The opening lines are some of the most important lines in your entire novel. The below prompt will help you craft the perfect opening line over and over again.

Write seven opening lines that might become “doors” for future stories or novels. Take a few notes about why each would make a good entryway for a reader.

If you’re already at work on a novel, do the same exercise as above, but instead write seven new first sentences and paragraphs that might be alternate doors for your existing manuscript.

Then test each against the following criteria:

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

Be open to the possibility that your true opening is yet to be written.

4. Play With Structure

Practice the following creative exercise to experiment with structure. Different entry points into a classic story can provide a fresh take.

Below are structural possibilities by telling “Little Red Riding Hood” from several different starting points. Try them out, then apply them to another fairy tale of your choosing.

  • 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 a detective novel structure: “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?”
  • 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.

5. Work on Realistic Dialogue

The below writing prompts will help you write realistic dialogue.

Eavesdrop in public spaces

Go to a public place where people tend to talk to one another—like a cafe, bar, or public transportation—and spend 10 minutes eavesdropping on a conversation. Record everything they 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? Did someone interrupt the other or ignore them?

In a new document, select the part of the conversation that most interested you— whether it was a few lines, or a particularly charged interruption—and use it as the seed of a fictional scene. Here, you are free to cut filler; condense meaning and change the words; and add gesture, silence, and subtext to reveal these characters and what they want to the reader. After answering these questions, did a story about these strangers begin to form in your imagination? If so, write it!

Create conflict with dialogue

Pick one of the topics below and write one page of dialogue between any two or more people on the subject. Make them disagree.

  • The mysterious sound outside the window.
  • The old Chevy that’s been following their car for half a mile now
  • Purses for men
  • Airplane turbulence
  • The barn that looks empty from the outside

Once you’ve finished the dialogue, 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. Bring Settings to Life

The below writing prompts will help you choose, research, and invent locations.

Creating locations from imagination

Below is a list of locations. Select three—or make up three of your own—and write a paragraph describing each one. 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.

  • A train station
  • An oil spill on the ocean
  • The top of a skyscraper
  • A busy restaurant
  • A wildlife preserve
  • An office
  • A junkyard for old ships
  • A sniper’s lair

Researching locations to relay what you see and feel

Visit a location you’ve never been to before— either an actual place from a setting you’ve chosen or simply a place near you that you find interesting. When you first arrive at the location, don’t record or photograph or write anything down, just spend some time absorbing it through your senses. Pay attention to the things that strike you most.

Go home later and write a description of the place. Remember to include the sensory details—what it felt and 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 free-form notes about anything you remember. Where did it take place? Who was there? What did it feel like to be you then?

Now, de-people the scene, and describe just the setting using concrete, significant details. Work to include vivid 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 constraint will focus and sharpen the other sensory images in the memory. If you choose to fold visual imagery back in, the setting will be more richly textured for having invoked all the other, lesser-written senses.

7. Describe Objects

Spend 15 minutes describing an object that everyone takes for granted. Pretend you are writing to a future reader who has never encountered this object, animal, or machine 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 Characters

The below writing prompts will help you form characters.

Creating a main character

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.

Writing a difficult character

Below are six characters. Pick one and write a short narrative from the point of view of that character as he or she seeks to justify their actions. Pretend that they are explaining themselves to someone they care about. Don’t edit too much, just free write and let the character speak.

  • A hit man who has just killed a young girl
  • A corporate executive who has just cheated on his or her spouse
  • A prison guard who has nearly beat an inmate to death
  • A teenage boy who has gone on a shooting rampage
  • A police officer who has shot a woman in her backyard
  • A villain’s backstabbing best friend

Creating character details

Go to a public place where you can observe other people. Choose one person 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, interior monologue for them that reveals what they’re thinking. Show their thoughts, but also show the world around them and how they interact with that world. 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 characters are walking or eating or having a quiet discussion. If you don’t have a scene like this yet, select a topic from the list below.

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.

  • 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

10. Play With Time

The following exercises will help you play with the concept of time in your writing.

Working with narrative leaps

This exercise allows you to practice narrative time leaps and to explore the consequences of “long time” (a mode of fictional time that covers a lot of ground—decades or more) on events.

  1. Select an event you’ve written about in a story, exercise, or longer work in progress.
  2. Now fast-forward one of the characters involved 30 years into the future, and have them recount that event in retrospect.

How did the intervening 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 understanding of the event, too?

Writing a letter to the the future

Write a letter to someone in the future: this could be a person you haven’t met, your ideal reader, perhaps your own child or grandchild. What do you say to someone who isn’t here, but will be in the future?