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5 Writing Prompts to Jumpstart Your Short Story Ideas

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

Writer’s block gets the best of every author. But with a little inspiration, your next great short story might just pop into your head. Sometimes all you need is a creative writing prompt—an idea to jumpstart your brain and spur you on to write a short story.



Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short StoryJoyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story

Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.

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What Is a Writing Prompt?

In creative writing, a prompt is a short text that gives an author a starting point for a story. From a one-line description to a short passage that sets a scene or describes characters, a prompt is meant to inspire a writer with the basic theme or topic for a story.

5 Prompts for Writing Short Stories

A short story is generally between 1,000 and 5,000 words long, but that can seem daunting when you’re struggling to get the first sentence out. Prompts are fiction writing story starters that can help a writer arrive at the basic premise of a new story and open the creative floodgates. Here are five writing prompts to inspire short story ideas:

  1. Expand on your own story. Comb through your own life experience and think of the first time you felt you fell in love. Did that person end up being your soulmate? Now, your best friend is throwing a dinner party, and she invited that old love interest. You’re not sure how you feel about seeing him again after all these years, especially after the last time you saw each other. What’s going to happen? It doesn’t have to be a love story.
  2. Explore a fantastical genre like sci-fi. Your main character is a young boy, about ten years old. He’s watching his five-year-old brother while his mother runs to the store. Outside the window, the sky goes black. Then the power goes out. A strange object lights up the sky, growing brighter as it gets closer.
  3. Write a character inspired by someone you know. What if a loved one that you haven’t seen in years suddenly shows up unannounced in the middle of the night. How does the story unfold? Why are they there?
  4. Place your characters in a dire situation. Six days in the car together has started to rip open old wounds for a family of five. They arrive at the Grand Canyon ready to get some space from each other. The sky is blue and the weather looks perfect for a hike. As they descend into the Canyon, one family member makes a fateful decision, and the wrong turn. As the temperature drops, the family races against the lowering sun to retrace their steps but will this fractured family be able to work together to survive?
  5. Concoct a contained thriller. As Edgar Allen Poe has proven, the short story is the perfect medium for a quick thriller. When two old friends from high school reconnect for the first time in a decade, they renew their vow of silence to conceal a crime they committed as kids. But when one of them has a change of heart and decides to come clean, the other turns to desperate measures to keep them quiet.
Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story
Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story
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Want to Learn More About Writing?

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 Joyce Carol Oates, the author of some 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. In Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass on the art of the short story, the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor reveals how to extract ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft one sentence at a time.

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