Hidden Messages – a writing prompt for May 24, 2017

Today’s prompt was, er, prompted by a brief literary feud that flared up recently.

A TV critic took issue with the latest episodes of the BBC’s Sherlock, complaining that our hero was more James Bond than Conan Doyle’s Holmes. The episode’s writer wrote a response in verse, then the critic wrote back with his own poem. BUT, in the last couple of lines of the poem, he pointed out that he had embedded a hidden message in his words (the second letter of the first word of every line spelled it out).

I was so tickled that I’m stealing the idea (which he stole from Conan Doyle, so I don’t feel bad).

The Prompt

Write a story with a hidden message

Tips

  • You could make the first letter of every sentence spell out a message.
  • You could make the first/second/third/last word of every sentence add up to a secret message.
  • You should probably start by writing out your secret message and then figuring out the rest of the words in your story, so it fits!
  • This will force you to break all the normal rules of your process of storytelling. Don’t be afraid. Be bold. At the very least you’ll learn something about your process!

Go!

A Refusal – a writing prompt

Continuing our week of prompts aimed at creating rich backstory for novelists and short story writers alike, today we create an alternate story for your protagonist.

The Prompt

There is a moment in every story where a protagonist has to make a choice: to take up the challenge of the story or to turn away. Everything else flows from that.

Today, write a story in which your protagonist makes the other choice. 

Tips

  • This will, of course, result in a shorter story than otherwise.
  • It will still have fallout. (Think: It’s A Wonderful Life, Sliding Doors etc.)
  • Examine that fallout in a story.

Don’t forget to leave a comment, or do your Victory Dance in the community.

[Writing Prompt] Medieval Mayhem

Sticking with this month’s theme of writing for publication, today I bring you another prompt associated with a themed issue. This time it’s from Splickety Magazine…

Sticking with this month’s theme of writing for publication, today I bring you another prompt associated with a themed issue.

Splickety Magazine Logo Continue reading “[Writing Prompt] Medieval Mayhem”

[Writing Prompt] Sleight of Hand

Yesterday I reviewed Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez, a story that doesn’t seem to be able to make its mind up whether it wants to be about the renovation of an old steam train, or about a fiesty old man in a Pennsylvania mountain town. It’s a wonderful example of a quiet climax: no car chases or bullets flying, but a satisfying story climax nonetheless. Continue reading “[Writing Prompt] Sleight of Hand”

[Writing Prompt] Turn A Trope Upside Down

Writing Prompt LogoIn James Blish’s Surface Tension (which I reviewed recently), the author took the idea of space travel and did something a bit different with it: instead of humans arriving on a new planet and terraforming it to suit themselves, they genetically-engineer versions of humanity that would thrive on the planet.

Now that’s what I call ‘subverting reader expectations’. But it’s still a satisfying story that sticks to the rules of an off-planet adventure story (lots of ‘wonder’ and new environments, inter-personal conflict, conflict with the environment, bad guys, a struggle to unite the ‘good’ forces and to survive. Even a little romance.)

The Prompt

Write a story that subverts reader expectations but still works in genre Continue reading “[Writing Prompt] Turn A Trope Upside Down”

[Writing Prompt] Interrogate A Character

InterviewToday’s writing prompt is ripped straight from my 6th Grader’s homework folder, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant. 

I’m steeped in (as well as 6th Grade homework) Lisa Cron’s fabulous latest book Story Geniusin which she makes the compelling point that you cannot begin to tell your character’s story until you know about their past.

It’s a delightfully obvious (and surprisingly overlooked) observation that ought to be front and center in every writing class. So here we go.

The Prompt

Interview a character from one of your stories. Find out as much as you can about their past and what formed the character they possess on Page One of their story. Continue reading “[Writing Prompt] Interrogate A Character”

[Writing Prompt] Steal A First Line

The Prompt

Steal the first line of your favorite book and write a totally different story

Tips

  • Don’t agonize about your ‘favorite’ book. Just go to the shelf and pick one.
  • Type out the first line and then think of ways you can take that introduction in completely different directions.
  • Read Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Lady Astronaut of Mars, for an example of how you might do this. Or listen to the audio collection it comes from.
  • Consider writing a tiny, flash-fiction story that you can start and finish today.
  • If you’re brave enough, post your story in the comments.

Go!

[Writing Prompt] Regrets, I’ve Had A Few

With Our Eyes Wide Open...This week’s writing prompt is completely stolen from the first story in the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories (edited by Junot Diaz)

In the story, a man visits his elderly parents. A chance remark reminds him of an incident in his childhood where he was clearly in the wrong, and someone else suffered.

Without being heavy handed, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie allows her character to reminisce, taking us through a bright moment in a child’s life, before showing the act the man would later regret. There is very little commentary, just lush scene-painting and evocation.

The Prompt

Write a story inspired by one of your regrets

Tips

  • Write this story using a nugget from your own past: an act or words of which you were later ashamed.
  • Alternatively, combine a story you heard from someone else with the emotions you felt when you did something wrong.
  • Don’t use this as a vehicle to feel sorry for yourself, now. Rather, use your experiences to conjure up for the reader the feelings, the physical experience of your shame.
  • Don’t write this autobiographically (unless you really love memoir). Give your feelings to another character.
  • Consider giving the feelings of shame to a character who is very unlike you, and see how they would react to facing the consequences of their own actions.
  • Try to not consciously teach the reader a lesson. Instead, explore the experience and let them draw their own conclusions.
  • Try to evoke the experience of doing something you know to be wrong, getting caught, or getting away with it but regretting it anyway, in ways that a reader might recognize from their own experience (that’s why I suggest focusing on the physical reactions).
  • If the point of storytelling is to connect with other readers, sometimes its our worst experiences that give us the vivid emotional memories that allow us create a vivid story.

[Writing Prompt] It’s Time For Holiday Stories

It’s Write On Wednesday Day! (That’s really clumsy. I’m going to have to never do that again!)

Thanksgiving dinner decor
Photo by Karin Dalziel


The Nov/Dec/Jan holiday season is fast approaching. I know you don’t want to think about it, but if you’re interested in putting out a short story for the holidays, this is actually kind of last minute.

Publications have long lead times for date-specific stories, so if your holiday stories aren’t already written, now’s the time. Magazines and online pubs LOVE themed stories (Christmas stories; New Year issues; Thanksgiving horror stories!).

Or perhaps you’d like to create a story for friends and family to say thanks for all their support (or: na-na-na-na-na-na-you-see-I-wasnt-lying-around-watching-daytime-TV-all-year).

The Prompt

Write a story tied to a Nov/Dec/Jan holiday

Tips

  • You can use this to flesh out characters from a longer work in progress.
  • You can include characters from your real life.
  • You can use this as a calling card/thank you note/Christmas letter if you send holiday greetings cards
  • Mine your own memories, but don’t feel you have to write memoir. Take an incident from one of your family holidays and recast it on a steampunk airship or a city made of living bone towers or at the Tudor court.
  • Don’t feel it has to be a narrative story. One of the delights of the short story form is that it can be much more than that. Consider writing a list of holiday gifts your character has to buy, complete with passive-aggressive commentary; or a series of increasingly frantic tweets from the Thanksgiving dinner table…
  • Create a compelling character and set them in a ridiculous situation, or a ridiculous character and put them in a banal situation.

Have fun with this. Amuse yourself. Remember, nobody ever has to see this story, so you can be as cruel or as kind as you like!

[Writing Prompt] Tell A Friend

This month’s theme, here at StoryADay is “Accountability”.

(If you haven’t yet declared your goals for the month, leave a comment in this month’s SWAGr post and tell us what you’re going to do with your writing for the rest of this month)

Today’s writing prompt includes a  built-in accountability trigger.
Phone

 The Prompt

Contact a friend, right now, and tell them that you’re going to write a short story in the next 24 hours. Tell them you’ll send it to them,  or at least check in when you’re finished. Then, write 500-750 words about a character you think that friend will love (or love to hate)

Tips

  • Keeping the story super-short gives you a better chance of finishing it
  • Focusing on your friend (someone you know well) helps you winnow the choices. What will THEY enjoy? (Too much choice is paralyzing. Eliminate every possible character or situation that wouldn’t interest this particular friend. Then start writing)
  • Remember that a short story revolves around a single moment in which something changes for your character.
    • The moment can have happened just before the story starts (in which case you’re dealing with the aftermath and the character’s choices about how to deal with it)
    • The moment can happen at the end, when we know enough about your character to be able to predict how they’ll react (or at least enjoy wondering)
    • The moment can happen in the middle, in which case you get a chance to show us the before and the after.
  • With such a short story you don’t have much room for backstory. Write it as bare as you can. You can punch it up with details and dual meanings, as you re-read and re-write it.
  • OR write a longer piece, if that’s what works for you. Just be sure to GET TO THE END OF THE STORY. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be finished. (“You can fix just about any problem in revision, but you can’t revise a blank page.“)

 

[Writing Prompt] Seek Beauty

Following this month’s theme of Refilling The Well, I’ve thrown some pretty unusual writing prompts at you, including Don’t Write Anything and Rip Off Another Writer.

In that vein, I’m bowing down to Julia Cameron today, and borrowing her concept of Artist’s Dates, popularized in her book The Artist’s Way.

The Prompt

Seek out something beautiful/inspiring today.

Tips

  • You don’t have to write a story inspired by the thing you find. Just seek it out. View the world with curiosity and try to find something that makes you go ‘wow’.
  • You might want to take a trip to an art gallery or a movie theater, or you might simply want to lie under a tree and look up at the sky through the leaves.
  • You might want to listen to live or recorded music. Or watch your baby for half an hour while she sleeps.
  • Breathe. Soak it in. Notice all the details of the Thing and of your reaction to it.
  • Wallow.
  • Then go back to life, refreshed.

Go!

[Writing Prompt] Inspired By…

This week, make sure you’re reading some writing you really love; writing that inspires you. It’ll help with all your writing, and especially with this writing prompt.

The Prompt

Write a story inspired by, or in-the-style-of a piece of writing you love

Tips

  • Don’t try to impress me. Pick something you really, really love (something that gets you excited) whether or not you think anyone else would respect it. If you love it, pick it (in the immortal words of this century’s new bard: “And love is love is love is love is love is love is love“)
  • Analyze the heck out of a piece of writing you love, and recreate it with new characters and a new setting. Or just pick a character/author you love and write a loving fanfic tribute.
  • Don’t worry about making it good. Just try to recapture, for your potential reader, the emotions you felt when reading the piece that inspired you.
  • It doesn’t have to be a short story. Write anything. Perform something. Just get creative. Focus on the excitement of creating something.

Go!