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3 Types of Prompts from The Writer's Book of Matches

Situation, dialogue, and assignment prompts from The Writer's Book of Matches.

The Writer’s Book of Matches provides three types of prompts. You won’t find any that instruct you to “write about your favorite relative” or “write about the last time you cried.” Our prompts tend to follow Goldsberry’s rule: “Start where the story gets interesting.” (page 137)

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To that end, each prompt details a conflict, revelation or unusual situation. In many cases, the protagonist seems obvious. In others, you’ll have to do a little creative thinking (which is part of the fun, wouldn’t you agree?). Also keep in mind that there are no “rules” here. If a prompt about a lonely housewife who decides to have an affair inspires you to write a story about the human invasion of Jupiter’s tenth moon, more power to you!

One other note: Some prompts are brief. Don’t assume that this means you won’t have enough to write about. Our intent isn’t to provide you with all of the details, only a direction in which to explore. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott uses a quote from E.L. Doctorow to describe this aspect of writing: “Writing…is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” (page 18)

The first—and most common—prompt is called a SITUATION PROMPT. Situation prompts provide an obvious protagonist who finds himself (or herself) in an unusual or emotionally charged situation. Sometimes, we designate the protagonist as “you,” meant to suggest that you write about the prompt from second person point of view. You don’t have to do this, of course, and should feel free to write in second or third person, whichever you prefer.

In many cases, we liken the moment at which a situation occurs to a “plot point,” defined by Syd Field in his classic book Screenplay as “an incident or event that ‘hooks’ into the action and spins it around in another direction.” (page 115) Here’s an example:

Upon reading the contents of his teenage stepdaughter’s diary, a man is left fearing for his life.

In this instance, the protagonist is obvious, i.e. the man. Ask yourself who this man is. Think about what kind of relationship he has with his stepdaughter (keeping in mind, of course, that the relationship as he understands it might be totally different from her perception of it). Think about how he found the diary. Was he looking for it? Did she leave it out for him to find? Also, think about less obvious scenarios. Perhaps the man’s wife forged an entry in the diary and left it for him to find. Why? Well, that’s an interesting question. Sounds like a story worth telling, wouldn’t you agree?

One thing that makes situation prompts so enjoyable is that they challenge you to come up with an intriguing spin on what might otherwise be a straightforward story. In other cases, you’ll be presented with an intriguing situation (absurd, even) that you have to make believable. For example:

A dairy worker develops the uncanny ability to communicate telepathically with livestock.

Bizarre, certainly, but think of the implications. How would such a situation play out? How would it affect the protagonist? How could it affect the world in which the protagonist lives? How would the cows react? Should one of the cows be your protagonist? Now think about the various genres in which you could explore this prompt. Science fiction, social commentary, absurdist humor—any is fair game. Don’t assume that the most obvious approach to telling a story is the best.

DIALOGUE PROMPTS are a little trickier. In a dialogue prompt you’ll be given minimal information about the speaker or to whom they are speaking. In fact, you’ll have to create the context in which the dialogue is being spoken. This gives you more freedom to create a plot, while at the same time forcing you to deal with character interaction before anything else. Here’s an example:

“He told me it was my fault, slammed the door, and took off. That was three days ago.”

Use whatever dialogue you are given to help create a plot point or story situation. In the case of the prompt above, ask yourself who the speaker is. Are they male or female? What actions led to this statement and why? How will the situation be resolved? What will the speaker do next? How will the person being spoken to respond, and how will that affect the original speaker?

Approach dialogue prompts with the same imagination you would a situation prompt. There are no rules. Your speaker can be The President of the United States or a twelve-year old child. Your choice will greatly alter the landscape in which your story takes place, and may require you to do a bit more thinking before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be).

Finally, be on the lookout for ASSIGNMENT PROMPTS. These are rare, but can require extra effort on your part. They present a shared context in which multiple characters find themselves. You job is to create a situation or conflict for each character given the context. Here’s an example:

In the near future, women begin to out earn men by 50%. Write about how such conditions affect the following characters:

  • An ambitious young man who just recently married
  • A young girl whose father is a stay at home dad
  • An old man who pines for “the good old days”

If one of these options particularly strikes your fancy, then write as much as you can about that character. We suggest, however, trying to write at least a page for each character noted, as doing so will help you to think about the same story from multiple viewpoints. This is an invaluable exercise for learning how to write interesting secondary or minor characters (a great weakness with many writers—particularly scriptwriters).

Find out more about The Writer's Book of Matches.

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