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Stuck in the Middle of Your Story? Try Prompts!

by Alina Sandor

Many books on the writer's bookshelves feature prompts to bolster the writer's creativity. In some circles, though, these have become constrained to question-and-answer type exercises and used more for journal writing than actual fiction and nonfiction projects you might have underway. These are terrific if you are stuck for a new article or story idea, but what if you are in the middle of a piece of prose, and run out of steam? No fresh ideas are coming -- and a prompt on remembering the first time you rode a bike seems way off the subject. What then?

Before you decide prompting can't help, you might want to give it another look.

Prompting is all about inciting ideas, inspiring new ways of looking at things. There are several ways prompting can work for you, no matter what stage your story is in. It can help round out characters, develop new scenes, and create inspiration when you feel stymied.

Question Prompts

Maybe you are writing a really great story that at first you were excited about. Now, halfway through, you're stuck.

Don't panic. Bogging down might mean you haven't thought your story through enough. Try creating prompts by asking yourself questions about what you want to do with your story.

In a notebook or new computer document, make a list of questions about your story in progress. Is something in your story bothering you, or is there something that you can't figure out how to resolve?

Write down every question that comes to mind, whether you plan to answer them right away or not, or even if the question seems irrelevant. What you're doing is making a list of prompts specifically for your story.

Try not to make the prompt start with the words "will" or "can" or any other query you could answer YES or NO. The point is to let your mind run wild, brainstorming as many ideas as possible. Here are some sample prompts that I came up with while writing a recent story. Notice how each one demands a lengthy answer.

  • Why is Michael's mother so overprotective of him?
  • What ends do I need to tie up?
  • What kind of fame is Charlott looking for, if any?
  • Why does Michael tell Charlott his secret?

The answer to those four questions filled dozens of pages and gave me ample ideas for my story. Once your questions are in writing, your mind actively tries to help move past your block. Your prompts may lead to more prompts, and more ideas.

Response Prompts

Question prompts work well if you have trouble coming up with new scenes or an ending, but what if you are stuck coming up with the next sentence? This is where response prompting comes in handy.

Let's go back to the story from before. Here's a passage where I was particularly bogged down:

"Michael's down at the police station."

"What?" Charlott suddenly became more sober. "Why?"

"Why do you think? They're questioning him." Andrea grabbed Charlott by the shoulders and hoisted her up. "You're going to go down to the station and tell them this was all a lie."

Charlott jerked away. "It wasn't a lie."

Okay, now what? This is just a smaller part of a bigger idea, a bigger thought I wanted to write down. How could the next line lead into the rest of the story?

In the middle of prose, it's easy to get lost in the overall picture or the emotion. Response prompting can help you stay focused on the scene a hand instead of worrying about the larger story.

Let's start at the end. Take a look at your last line. You didn't write it for nothing; it was going somewhere. Examine the emotion you were attempting to convey. Write down the thought process that went into writing that last line.

Example: I was trying to shock the reader. Michael, one of the lead characters, is in jail. That alone would shock the reader because Michael's generally a nice guy. Charlott loves Michael, yet she is slowly destroying him by revealing his darkest secret.

Now turn your thinking into a question: Is Charlott going to explain herself to Andrea, her best friend? Or make an excuse? What would add to the shock factor?

The prompt pushes you to the next line by keeping your thoughts geared to the emotion that you want to deliver to the reader. If examining the emotion doesn't work, try to zero in on your character's motive at that exact moment. You may find that your character didn't have a clear motive, and that's why you became stuck.

Prompt Rummaging

Sometimes, no matter what you do, you just can't write. Your brain won't let you put down one coherent sentence, let alone come up with a prompt to get things rolling. In this case, knowing how to prompt-rummage can help. This process helps you take stale, bogged-down characters and scenes and look at them in a whole new way.

First, you need several good sources for already preconceived prompts, such as 365 Writing Prompts for the New Year from Writer's Digest Books, The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood, The Writer's Idea Book, or The Writer's Idea Workbook, both by Jack Heffron.

Thumb through these resourses looking for similarities between a certain prompts and your story. Keep an eye out for interesting ways to integrate a piece of a ready-made prompt into your story by directing it, looking at it from all angles.

Suppose I came across this prompt from The Writer's Idea Workbook: "Spend some time with your junk -- your souvenirs and trinkets, old gifts and holiday cards, broken toys and photographs. All the stuff that for one reason or another you haven't thrown out or given away. Write a short piece ..." An exploration of my packrat syndrome might not have anything to do with my story, but I might add that as a trait for one of my characters. The part about a broken toy could inspire a scene in which Michael remembers how he had smashed his favorite baseball through the window when he found out his brother died.

See how it works? One prompt can produce a wealth of ideas, as long as you are open to the possibilities. This kind of prompting adds a dose of reality to your prose, because most prompts ask you to look at yourself instead of at your character.

Character Prompts

The characters are the heart of your story. If you lose touch with your characters, you'll lose sight of your story. How can you find that familiarity again? Character prompting is like a personal e-mail to get you back in touch with these people you created.

To start, put your character's full name at the top of the page. Underneath it, start a dialog with him. Ask him about the situation he's in at the moment. Is he furious, happy, confused? Ask him how he thinks he will solve his current problem.

Don't worry; you're not just talking to yourself. You're creating prompts by making this person real again. Each question is a prompt, followed closely by an answer from your character. Go deep. Ask her about her worst fears, how she feels about her body, what her favorite memories are. The most pressing questions you need to ask, though, are about what she thinks might happen next. What are her goals? Remember, your story isn't just about the plot; it's also about the person living the plot.

When you try prompting, don't censor yourself. Keep an open mind and keep practicing. Once you get the hang of manipulating prompts, you can conquer any writer's block that comes your way.

For more information, check our links to:
Prompts, Exercises and Idea-Generators

Copyright © 2005 Alina Sandor
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Alina Sandor is a freelance writer, does manuscript critiques and reviews, and is author of The Misadventures of a Carboholic: A Low Carb Cookbook.

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