Weekly Writing Prompt: Let Your Stories Surprise You!

In this week’s prompt, I will show you my method for inventing original universes and creating new characters. Follow these simple steps, and you might just banish writer’s block forever!

I do not write stories. I create universes. The stories just happen within them, and the more expansive the universe the better, because it makes room for plenty more stories. Many writers find creating new worlds and new settings challenging. After all, imagining entirely new universes can seem like a daunting task, especially if you try to come up with the whole world in one go. Breaking the job of world building and character invention into bite-sized chunks is a helpful way to kick start your creative vision.

The idea behind this week’s prompt is to help you come up with a little grain of inspiration which can be developed into something bigger. Even the most sweeping thoughts start out as small ideas that grow.

The Prompt

Step 1: Follow these steps in order without reading ahead. Once you have practiced the method a few times, you can begin to think more in terms of the big picture. For now, though, just take each step on its own. Relax. Don’t force it. Writing is an act of discovery, so just go with the flow and let yourself be surprised by how things unfold. Don’t worry about making everything perfect, either. That is what revision is for, so save the editing for later.

Step 2: This may seem unusual, but bear with me. I promise it will pay off! Now that you are relaxed and ready to discover this new story of yours, write a short, one sentence reply without knowing what the original question or statement was. Seem a little confusing? In other words, just write a sentence, like, “I hadn’t heard about that,” “Your guess is as good as mine,” or “Try it again.” Don’t worry about what the sentence is a response to. Once you have written the sentence, put it in quotation marks.

Step 3: Congratulations! You have written your first line of dialogue and created a new character with just one little sentence. Don’t worry about who this new person is yet or what’s going on. We’ll get to that later. For now, just remember that you are here to observe and discover. Write a response from a second character and put that in quotation marks, too.

For example:
Step 1: “I can’t remember where I put it.”
Step 2: “Seriously? You lost it, again?”

Step 4: Continue the conversation between these two characters for a few more lines. Just put the things the two characters are saying to each other in quotation marks, and don’t worry about providing any more information than that.

Step 5: Write the next response in the conversation, but this time follow it with a speakers tag. Use a pronoun (she, he, they, it, we, I, etc.) rather than a name, and describe the mood, tone of voice, expression, or action of the character speaking. A speakers tag is the line of explanation which sometimes accompanies what characters say during dialogue. For instance, “Who gave you permission to touch my bacon?! That was my bacon!” she snapped. She snapped is the speakers tag.

Step 6: Continue the conversation for a few more lines, using speakers tags for only one of the characters; the same character to whom you gave the first speakers tag. Continue simply quoting the other character without any speakers tags. This may make the other character jealous, but, eh, they’ll get over it eventually.

Step 7: What is your second character’s name? Don’t think too hard on it or delve too deeply. Simply use whatever name comes to mind given the feelings you are getting from the conversation so far. If possible, work the character’s name into the conversation or into a speaker’s tag.

Step 8: In the next speakers tag, give a clue or a detail about the setting that the two characters are in. This detail should be something that both characters must react to. You don’t need to know all about the setting, since you are here to discover, you just need one little detail. If you do have an idea what the setting is, don’t reveal it just yet.

Step 9: What is you first character’s name? Again, don’t force it. Go with your gut feeling, and work the name in if possible.

Step 10: What are two things that you know about the first character that aren’t already indicated by the conversation or the speakers tags? Don’t sweat it if you can’t work these two things into the dialogue. Some information is important for a writer to know, even if they never pass it along to their readers.

Step 11: So far, only one of your character’s has been given speakers tags. Continue the conversation, using speakers tags for both characters, using their names, and filling in more details about the characters and the setting. Again, if you know what the setting is, don’t reveal it yet. If you don’t know what the setting is, don’t sweat it. Let your characters surprise you.

Step 12: Spend some time developing the setting. You might choose to devote a paragraph to this or parcel it out in the dialogue and speakers tags. Regardless, make it clear where your characters are and what is happening around them.

Step 13: Look back over everything you have just written.

Step 14: How similar are your characters to yourself or people you know? How might you go about making your characters more unique and individual?

Step 15: Can you imagine this conversation happening between real people? Does it seem natural? How could it be made more natural?

Step 16: Think about the details you provided about the setting before revealing the full picture. What other settings might have also fit those details?

Step 17: Would the setting be possible in reality? Should it be? Are any scientific laws violated? Should these be fixed, or is it possible to give an imaginary explanation for why the laws of physics can be broken in this setting?

Step 18: What was your first character responding to in the first line you wrote?

You now have the seed for an entirely new universe! Or perhaps you have a brand new addition to an existing universe. Much of my work has come about through this method, and it has yet to let me down. In fact, if you find dialogue close to the beginning of any piece I have written, I probably came up with the idea using this method.

Practice following these steps a few times, then apply the method loosely. It isn’t meant to be rigid, so adapt it to fit your style. It is now your writing tool, so customize it and make it yours. If you still find yourself struggling for ideas or hitting a brick wall, relax as completely as you can. Writing is an adventure, and the writer has just as much to discover as any reader does—perhaps more. Don’t worry about where things are going, just let the ideas flow and enjoy the journey. For additional inspiration, put on music that that you enjoy and let your imagination surround you. Let your stories surprise you!

>> Back to Writing Prompts



(Featured Image: “WISE J085510.83-071442.5” by Penn State University/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Schwind_Begraebnis bw

(Roggen Wulf, 2014)


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