Story Prompts to Get Unstuck

I am not usually one who needs story prompts. I don’t mean for this to sound arrogant or bragging – it’s just that I’m usually so inundated by ideas that what I need is more time to write, not more ideas. But even us constantly-flooded-with-ideas folks get stuck now and then, or we want to take a break from current projects and try something new.

I’ve written a couple of posts in the past about generating ideas and breaking through writer’s block. I find that writing something else besides my current project can keep my mind in a writerly mode without it getting bogged down in whatever I’m stuck on.

I also started a Pinterest board with cool pictures and ideas for story prompts.

Another great source of inspiration for me is music. Sometimes ideas come to me while I’m listening to something, other times I purposefully play certain songs or tracks while I’m brainstorming. If you want to know what kinds of music get me going, here are some of my favorites.

I hope that some of these links can help you if you need prompts or brainstorming fodder. What are some of your favorite ways to get your creative juices flowing again?

The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: Tense

It’s been a while since I’ve done a nitty-gritty of writing post. I often focus on general writing elements like spelling or grammar, but this time I want to gear this post towards fiction writers.

When writing a story, tense is very important. And I don’t mean “tense” as in dramatic tension (although that’s extremely important, too). By “tense” I mean “when is the story taking place.” Is the story told in the past tense, the present tense, or the future tense?

Past Tense

This is the most common way to write a story. It works well for either first or third person point of view.

“I smiled at Joe.”

“Dennis slammed the door behind him, trying to drown out the angry shouts.”

The first example is first person, with “I” telling the story; the second example is third person. But both are written in past tense, as if the action has already happened.

Present Tense

Again, this works for either first or third person narration.

“I smile at Joe.”

“Dennis slams the door behind him, trying to drown out the angry shouts.”

Present tense can have the benefit of putting the reader more directly into the story, because it gives the feel of the story happening right now. I’ve heard many arguments against present tense storytelling, though, saying that it’s less professional or less mature. I personally don’t have a problem reading it, but I think that present tense narration doesn’t automatically work for every story.

Future Tense

Obviously, this writing style would be told as if something were about to happen.

“I will smile at Joe.”

“Dennis will slam the door behind him, to try to drown out the angry shouts.”

Future tense is rather awkward, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a work of fiction told entirely in future tense. (If you’ve read – or written – one, please share!)

A Word of Caution

Most people know the difference between past and present tense and can choose the right forms of the words to use. However, the biggest issue I’ve seen in writing is a change of tense during the course of the story.

A lot of people will switch between present and past tense as they’re putting together their first draft. For a first draft, this is okay – the idea is to get the story out, not to worry about polishing it just yet. But I have read second and third drafts (and even finished, edited, and published pieces) where the writer keeps losing track of which tense the story is in.

Of course I’m not referring to a story that deliberately changes tense, as a way of making an artistic point or distinguishing between present scenes and flashbacks. Incorrectly switching tense would be something like this:

“Dennis slammed the door behind him. The angry shouts bother him, and he walks faster.”

I’m not trying to advocate whether past or present tense is better. I think that is a decision determined largely by the story itself, and the writer should be free to choose either one. But please, writers, do choose one and stick with it throughout the story.

Even if you try something far out like writing in future tense, consistency truly counts for a lot.

Stories about Stories

I like stories, and so stories that are about stories seem doubly cool to me. I decided to analyze three of my favorite “stories within stories” and the different ways that this concept can be handled.

A Tale: “The Tale of the Three Brothers” in Harry Potter

I’ve read various cautionary articles about inserting a “tale” into fiction. Interrupting the flow of the plot for “storytime” can slow the action, take the reader out of the story, and is often a thinly veiled excuse for an unnecessary flashback. While all of these are true, I think there are still ways to use the “tale” inside a story without interrupting the main plot. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows does this very well with the “Tale of the Three Brothers.” One of the main things that makes it work is that this tale is vital to the rest of the main plot of the book. This tale isn’t an excuse for lame backstory or filler for a slow plot—without this little story-within-the-story, Harry wouldn’t learn everything he needs to know about the Deathly Hallows, which is vital to the rest of the story.

Plus, the tale was treated beautifully in the film. Honestly, it’s my favorite part of the movie:


Nested Stories and Flashback Tales: The Historian

If you’re not supposed to use tales within a story as an excuse for a flashback, then this book breaks that rule with every single chapter. This book is a bit unique, though, because the entire thing is a flashback within a flashback, and the different time periods of the story mesh perfectly to create the larger plot. I blogged about this book in a post I did about narrators, because all of the flashbacks are told in the first person, but by different people. This book isn’t really a good model for the average writer to follow, even though this author handled the writing style brilliantly. If you want to write a story within a story, it would probably be wiser to stick with a Harry Potter-esque “tale,” or a story about a story, as in the following example.

A Story about a Story: The Princess Bride

Since the book of The Princess Bride is very different from the movie—and probably more people have seen the movie—I’ll focus on the film for my example. The “main plot” of the story is the relationship of a little boy and his grandfather. Very little action happens, but there is character growth as the impatient boy realizes that his old-fashioned grandfather really isn’t as out of touch as he first thinks, and that they both share a love for a good story. The bulk of the movie, of course, is the fairy tale that the grandfather reads to the boy, The Princess Bride. The occasional hops out of the tale, like when the boy complains about the kissing scenes, are just frequent enough to remind the audience that this is a story within a story, but they don’t interfere with the flow of the plot.

Now over to you! Do you have a favorite “story within a story?”

Or a favorite Princess Bride quote? Just because.