50 fiction prompts for curious writers

The fiction writing prompts I find most motivating – the ones that inspire original scenarios, themes, and connections – take the form of questions.

The 50 prompt themes below include many more than 50 questions, organized by subtopic so you can scan for what’s pertinent to your current need, and numbered not because they’re prioritized, but so they can be referred to more easily.

—————

Theme Prompts

Themes emerge when you explore WHY. A motif or thread running through a story can connect the whole in a meaningful way. Themes that mean something to you are more likely to add depth and multiple layers of meaning to your story.

  1. What do you collect? What draws you to what you collect? How could you include that collection in the story as a thematic element?
  2. What’s a fascination you feel strongly about, positively or negatively? What character could embody that as a theme, or how could your fascination appear as a thread running through the entire story?
  3. What do you automatically notice? What do the people you’re close to notice? What do your characters notice? Why?
  4. What have you always wished you had or could do? What would this thing or achievement or ability give you? How could you express that yearning as a theme in your story?
  5. What area of a bookstore do you tend to go to first or gravitate toward? What draws you to it? What subcategories of it do you find most alluring?
  6. What do you wish you knew? If you could be an expert in anything, no matter how far-fetched, what would it be? What character could have that expertise or how could elements of that expertise flow through the story as a motif?
  7. What challenges do you struggle with? Is there a challenge that’s been ongoing or recurring in your own life? How could the way that challenge appears or reappears in your life give you clues about using themes in your story?
  8. What mistake do you see others making, particularly people you’re close to? What mistake do people make again and again that bugs you? If that recurring mistake is a theme, what facets of it could you explore in your story?
  9. What do you dread or fear? What’s that fear’s history in your life? How did it start? What has your attitude toward it been? What triggers or soothes that fear? What might make it go away for good?
  10. If you indulge in sexual or sensual fantasies, what are the recurring themes? Why do those factors attract you? Is there a generalized value or motif winding through your imaginings that you could explore as a story motif?

Character Prompts

Characters emerge when you explore WHO. Fictional characters bring a story to life by acting in ways that explore the story’s themes. To develop characters that captivate readers, focus on motivation. Make who they are drive what they do.

  1. What type of person would embody or rebel against your theme? What combination of traits would attract a character to that theme? What traits would make a character struggle with that theme? How could one character embody elements of both the attraction and the struggle?
  2. What type of character (real or imagined) fascinates you? What do they struggle with or yearn for? What situations bring out the qualities that fascinate you about them? What situations dampen those qualities? What life circumstances developed their fascinating qualities?
  3. What fascinates your characters? Why? What does their fascination prompt them to think or do? How do they behave when they’re engaged with their fascination? What aspects of the main characters’ fascinations create trouble for them? How do they avoid or intensify that trouble?
  4. Who do you need a character to be in order to be motivated to do the action the plot calls for? What kind of person with what kind of traits would be most affected by the direction you want the plot to go?
  5. Who in your life has most triggered your anger? What was the trigger? How did you express your anger? What was the other person’s perspective? (Replace “anger” with any other emotion and answer the same questions.)
  6. For each character in your story, which of their personality traits conflicts with or causes problems for other characters? What do those conflicts look and feel like? How do others react?
  7. For each character, what are the three most important traits they have that pertain to the role they play in the story? How do those traits affect and interact with the traits of other characters? How do their traits and the expression of those traits change over the course of the story?
  8. What life circumstances were most important in contributing to the development of each character’s main traits – the traits that have the most to do with their role in the story?
  9. Do you or does someone close to you have a challenging physical or mental condition or disability? How do you or how does that person relate to the challenge? What role does it play in their life? If it’s someone you know, how do you relate to their challenge and what role does their challenge play in your life? What wish do you have about the situation? How could a character in your story embody that wish as motivation, whether they’re dealing with the same challenge or not?
  10. Who do you wish you were more like, and why? How could a character (or characters) embody, explore, and fulfill that wish?

Plot Prompts

Plot emerges when you explore HOW. The action of a story follows a route (or routes, if you include subplots). Mapping the ways your characters follow and/or avoid their own fascinations and deal with the crossroads they confront develops the plot, whether you present that journey to the reader in a linear fashion or not.

  1. What changes do your main characters go through that fascinate you? Where do they start out? How are they different by the end? What had to happen internally for them to make those changes?
  2. What succession of smaller changes does each main character go through to eventually embody the big change they reach (or don’t reach) by the end? What are the transition steps?
  3. What are some internal setbacks your characters weather which have a teaching or a hard-won lesson at the core? How do they tend to deal with setbacks? What circumstances would make them deal with setbacks differently?
  4. What experiments can you conduct on your characters to find the external circumstances that will cause the internal changes of their psychological journey? For each internal change leap, what situation could spark or force that change? What situations have sparked similar changes in you or people you know?
  5. If you could take a series of candid photos of your main characters at the exact moments of their biggest, most trajectory-altering realizations, how would they look? What would their facial expressions be? What would their body language show?
  6. What would the character do immediately after each of those photographed moments? Would they resist the realization or accept it? Would they act on it? If so, how and when?
  7. If results come from beliefs, what events need to happen in order to change the characters’ beliefs so they get different results? What do they think about their beliefs? What circumstances would prompt a change to those thoughts or feelings?
  8. How much does the setting of the story affect and influence the goals of the characters? What actions do your characters take in response to the settings they find themselves in? How do the inherent limitations and opportunities of the settings influence the action of the story?
  9. What fiction genres do you most enjoy reading? When you consider the way those stories are plotted – how the action proceeds – what most attracts you? How specifically can you define the plotting elements that most attract or fascinate you?
  10. What is the soundtrack to your story – even if you don’t know much about the story yet? Why does that music evoke the feeling of your story? How specific can you get about why the music or songs of the story’s soundtrack evoke the story’s essence for you?

Setting Prompts

Settings emerge when you explore WHERE. Story settings provide opportunities for deepening and developing themes and characters, by adding another layer of information. Setting can have as much or as little influence on the story as you like. Being conscious about its effect brings more of the story under your control.

  1. For each of five places that have captivated you (positively or negatively), what did you most notice about them? What qualities did you most like and dislike about those places? What types of places did you think of? What do they have in common? How do they differ?
  2. What type of environment do you find most challenging, whether you’ve actually been in that environment or not? How specific can you be about what challenges you about it? How could you explore those challenging qualities in a different setting? How would different characters deal with those challenging qualities?
  3. If the setting of your story was a character, what would its journey through the story look like? What if an element of the setting’s journey occurs in the realm of perception, in how the setting is perceived by characters (or the reader)?
  4. What fascinates you more: exploring one setting in depth or exploring a range of different settings? How deep or how wide do you want to go?
  5. What are the most commonly noticed characteristics of the kind of setting your story takes place in? What are some of that kind of setting’s lesser-known, unusual, or surprising characteristics? How could you include those in your story?
  6. What’s the weather like? In which season or seasons does the story take place? How do your characters respond to the setting’s weather and seasons? How does the society of your story (if there is one) – neighborhood, town, city, region, etc. – respond to the setting or settings?
  7. Do flora or fauna play a role in your story? What characters might have a positive passion or a negative regard for plants or animals? What outdoor qualities fascinate or frustrate your characters? Are there individual plants or animals that play a role in the story or that are important to the story’s characters?
  8. What satisfactions and frustrations do the story’s characters have with the interior settings of the story (if any)? What interior settings would negatively affect their goals? What interior settings would positively affect their goals?
  9. What is the social setting of the story? How big of a social unit is involved in the story (one person alone, a couple, a family, a town, the world)? What are the social unit’s assumptions and beliefs? How do the story’s characters individually and collectively respond to the story’s social unit or units?
  10. What other settings influence or appear in your story? Political? Religious? Psychological? Scientific? Technological? Historical? Mythical? Imaginary? Within the story, what are the assumptions and beliefs found in those settings? What role do those settings play in the story?

Ending Prompts

Endings emerge when you explore DEATH, whether anyone dies or not. For your story to live on its own as an entity, it needs to end. Whether things wrap up neatly or are left hanging, there will be a last page.

  1. What experiences do you have with death? What different types of death have occurred and do occur in your life? Family or friends or pets who have died? Loves lost? Dreams killed? Weeds pulled from the garden? What do each of those deaths tell you about how to end?
  2. Who have you loved who’s died? What have you loved that’s died? What stories do you tell about those deaths and about your relationship with the person or thing that died? How do you end those stories?
  3. What are your favourite stories to tell in conversation – the ones that get a laugh or cause a tear to fall – the ones you’ve told repeatedly to different listeners? How do you end those stories?
  4. Who have you known or do you know who tells great stories? What about those stories makes you consider them great? How do they end? With punch line humour? Thoughtful revelation? Surprise twist? Mystery revealed? Mystery deepened?
  5. When you read stories others have written, what type of ending is guaranteed to annoy you? How specific can you get about why it annoys you?
  6. When you read stories others have written, what type of ending is guaranteed to please you? How specific can you get about why it pleases you?
  7. If your story’s theme were a character, what ending would it want for itself?
  8. Who or what in your story – characters, settings, themes, subthemes – seems eager to get in a last word before the story ends? Will you let them? Would the story be served best by giving them that last say or by withholding it?
  9. Setting aside for a moment the specifics of the story as you’ve written it so far, what ending would you most like your story to have? How can you work backward from that ending to dovetail it with what you’ve already written, or with a shifted version of your story?
  10. Are you willing to end your story? Are you willing to let it go? If not, what needs to be dealt with or addressed so that you become willing, even if what you need to do has more to do with your life or your inner world than with the story itself? How can you incorporate your own feelings about ending the story into the story itself?

————— 

Related reading: dirty tricks for writers, writing and stitching

3 comments to 50 fiction prompts for curious writers