The Prompt That Ate My Brain


I love themes, I hate deadlines. Put them together, though, and you come up with the perfect butt-in-chair motivation to finish a story. The theme acts as a prompt, unless it’s too broad or too detailed – more on that below – and there’s a built-in expiration date on your writing efforts. If you don’t get that music-themed off-Earth steampunk-robot story featuring a strong female lead character and an alien dog finished in time – well, you have to worry there may not be another market for it.


Duotrope (of thee I sing) has a calendar function that lists upcoming themed deadlines and I love these. Some of the themes I wrote toward and had the story accepted afterwards this past year included: strange words and sounds, Norse mythology in a modern urban setting, cartography, a prompt based on a painting by Zdzislaw Beksinski, and – yes – steampunk robots. This kind of thing just gets my juices going. Other times, the prompters just seem to be throwing broad, meaningless words out there or else the theme is so circumscribed it takes them more words to set out the theme than they’re allowing for the story length. Themes I’ve seen have included:


– Conversations


– Time


– Green pond    (what!?)


– Flourish


– Awaken


– Snow


– Character must be a biblioclast, setting is not Earth, plot must include an embarrassing nickname, a family curse, a flashlight and a broken bone (all in 1k words)


Did I feel prompted to write something after seeing those? Only after that last one. It ate my brain for a week. But the story was accepted and published afterwards, so it was worth it. Most of all though – it was fun.


If you’re all idea’ed out, here are some sites that work with prompts or offer story generators:


The Steampunk Story Generator at the back of the chapbook Homeless Moon 3,



I expect to be finished with my story about a green pond any day now.



How do you feel about prompts and themes? Like ’em, hate ’em?