Thursday, May 6, 2021

Writing to a prompt part 2 - The 'why' game


You can turn any 'prompt' into a short story, and it's worth doing so. At least to try to, now and again.

All it needs is proper application of the 'why' game. And then that same ruleset can be used to check what has been written.

Best of all, it  works for everything, longs as well as short stories. Read on...

Why write to a prompt?

Let's start by not looking at the prompt itself, but consider why we're looking at it, or what it actually is.

A prompt is typically a short description, a 'trigger' to base a (short) story upon, i.e. a kind of writing exercise.

Some may not like short stories, or to write short stories, but think about it: a long story is nothing more but a string of short stories. You might be able to summarize each chapter with a single line after you wrote that chapter.

But... most writers, both the 'pantsers' and the 'plotters', have some idea of where they want to go, and they know so before they start writing their next chapter.

In other words, they've already set themselves a target, or gave themselves a 'prompt' to write to. In other words, it shouldn't be much harder to write a short story to a random prompt, than it is a writing a chapter of a long story.

Of course, that isn't entirely true.

Different and yet the same

The difference? A random prompt can be way more challenging. In exchange it will give your brains a real good workout, because you need to leave your home-grounds behind, and explore strange and dangerous territory. Action writers may need to write a multi-layered story of betrayal, historical novel writers have to deal with aliens, and so forth. 

Short stories force you to take a new path, but they give you more freedom to do so. You don't have to worry how to turn that short, great idea into a three hundred page novel.

There's another difference, and that one's perhaps even more important. When writing a short story it has to convey an image, a message. Beginning, middle, end. Reason, motivation, action, result. Short stories are more to the point, because the writer cannot use the next twenty chapters to resolve any leftover issues.

In that way, writing a (good) short story is way more difficult than a rambling three thousand page epic fantasy. Now here's the catch: that three thousand page epic fantasy still needs some (short) chapters with lots of impact!

Short versus long

I assume that especially that last point would lead to sharper, tougher chapters, with more impact.  Which brings me to the next point: readers have changed.

Books themselves (especially epic fantasy stuff) have become longer and longer, even more so when they are part of a series. I blame word processers for that, because it is too easy to repurpose old material from leftover chapters (I claim 'guilty', your honor, I've done it myself).

On the opposite site, the attention span of readers appears to have shortened. Online readers on some platforms want 500-word chapters... That's crazy, though understandable. The offering is so large nowadays and their choices are endless. If the reader runs into a boring chapter, especially at the beginning of a (longer) story he / she may bail out.

You don't want that. So even if you're into (writing) that (here we go again) three thousand-page epic fantasy, you still have to be able to write a half-decent short story. So, exercise that mind of yours 😅


Yeah, it's that time of the year 😁 A free commercial, you might find some interesting prompts here.

Just for clarity, I have no shares in either Wattpad, Wattpad+, or Discord 😎

The prompt

' An alien '

' Wants to stop the government from discovering '

' A primitive machine '

' But only the dead will know of their sacrifice '

The first three lines appear to be easy, it's the fourth line that causes some headaches. But that's because we forget it's a prompt, not a straightjacket.

' An alien wants to stop the government from discovering a primitive machine but only the dead will know of their sacrifice '

The key is in that last bit. 'Only the dead will know of their sacrifice.' It seems limiting, but let's take it out of context:

1. Who are (the) dead?
2. Who sacrificed?
3. What did they sacrifice?

Basically, when analyzing a prompt, try the 'why' game, and it will be a lot easier. You can freely assign characters / roles to these three elements, and suddenly the plot is wide open!

But... that's kind of cheating!

Yeah, I know. Ain't it great? I feel the need... the need... to cheat!

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