The Right Prompts

Recently, I attended the joyous funeral of my 94 year old grandmother, Lurye LaBrie, mother of ten kids all raised in the Midwest on a small farm in a tiny rural town populated by grain elevators, a town hall, and a juke-boxless tavern (not a bar, it was always called a “tavern”). I use the word joyous to describe the event because she had lived a long and prosperous life and the funeral was evidence of that–all ten children and their spouses were there, along with the twenty-nine grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren. Rather than being solemn occasion, it felt more like a celebration.

At the reception, I shared a piece of church-made sheet cake with my younger cousin, Allison, who was complaining about her college creative writing class. “We keep getting these prompts, and then we have to write a story from them.”

Thrilled at the sudden opportunity to talk about writing, I offered her some quick advice. “Well, I hope you never start a story with an alarm clock going off. “

The looked back at me blankly. “Why not?” I told her that you should begin the story with something going wrong; not just the start of an ordinary day. I borrowed one of my favorite lines from Janet Burroway, who wrote The Art of Fiction: “Only trouble is interesting.”

“Mine started with her getting in the shower,” she said.

“That’s okay, as long as it didn’t end with, It was all a dream.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “It ended with her realizing that she was really a dog locked in a kennel.”

I swallowed the last sweet bite of cake. “What was your writing prompt?”

“The professor told us to write about a person discovering she has some kind of deformity. I made my character’s deformity ‘craziness.'”

My guess is that sixty to seventy percent of the class did the same. To me, this is primes example of a bad writing prompt, one that sets the students up for failure. While it does ask the student to use her imagination, it also takes away from another piece of solid writing advice: write what you know. Maybe some of the students wrote about their own real or perceived deformities–noses too big or too small, weight issues, maybe several had club foots. Still, is this something a character would discover one day? If you have a deformity, aren’t you often aware of it or have you been avoiding public spaces and mirrors for decades, locked in a tower by an evil, jealous queen?

The prompt also sets the writer up for a few amateur mistakes; one being beginning the story with the aforementioned alarm clock moment; another being the O. Henry “ah-ha” reveal where the story is turned on its head; a third being the narrator telling the story from the locked ward on an asylum (or, in Allison’s case, a kennel). If you are Robert Olen Butler, you can write a whole short story from the point of view of a parrot, and if you are Franz Kafka, make him a cockroach, but for most new fiction writers, it helps to first get familiar with the form before playing with it too much. Learn it first, and then unlearn it all you want.

A good writing prompt inspires you to think about an idea, situation, or character in new and unexpected ways. Some of the best first lines in short stories start with the juxtaposition between two incongruous ideas.  Take this one, from Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief” which place a stranger in what should be a familiar and private place: “A woman I don’t know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen, whispering and moving tactfully.” 

Putting unlike things together helps to create a necessary sense of tension–that idea that you’re stepping immediately into a scene where something appears slightly “off,” like a crooked picture on the wall. This discombobulated feeling from the very first line makes the reader want to keep reading to see if it gets straightened out.

My advice to you the next time you find yourself staring at a blank page is to find two disparate things and put them together–a happy funeral, a tragic wedding, a bloody birthday cake. Use this marriage of two unlike things to see if you can shape the idea into a good 750 word short piece.

As with any writing prompt, take only what’s useful, interesting, or familiar to you. If you need to change the word “funeral” to “Miles Davis concert” or “happy” to “deep shame,” then do it. You may also find that setting the story on a day something is happening will give even the most clich├ęd situation a sense of urgency, as in “His alarm clock went off the morning of his grandmother’s funeral and he leaped from the bed with anticipation.”


Aimee LaBrie is an award-winning author and teaches a fiction workshop for Philadelphia Stories.

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