Happy New Year, reader! Yes, you! I hope your end-of-the-year festivities were great, however you personally define the word. Mine would best be described as unexpectedly tiring followed by pleasantly relaxing. But now, on to the post.
As you’ve may have noticed by reading past stories of mine, I’ve mostly been writing flash fiction based on prompts. When that’s the case, it means those stories are necessarily being read at the same time as others that share at least a few similarities.
Stories generally begin as some sort of idea. It could be a character, a plot, a setting, a scene, or countless other concepts, but there’s generally some seed of an idea that grows and/or combines with other ideas to develop into a complete story.
When I first began writing stories based on prompts, I interpreted those prompts as this core idea. The stories I wrote were often the first ones that came to mind based on the prompt. And I think that was a perfectly serviceable way to write, and was pleased enough with those stories even though they weren’t being selected for publication.
Then I received a comment on one story that helped me rethink these prompts. In this case, the prompt (how many times am I going to say that word in this post?) was to take a classic story and reimagine it in a different setting. I wrote a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, placing it on an alien planet and casting the Tom Robinson character as an “otherworlder” (Scout was also called Cadet).
It didn’t get selected, but I did get solid feedback on it. And one comment in particular stood out to me: “Unfortunately we received a lot of sci-fi retellings and only had room for a few.”
Getting that note helped me view my story a different way. I figured my story was written decently enough that it wasn’t rejected outright, but still wasn’t strong enough to compare with other sci-fi retellings. In my head, it wasn’t being compared to all the submissions, but primarily other sci-fi stories written for this prompt.
This totally reframed the way I wrote most of my following submissions. From that point forward, I tried to think of the least likely interpretation of a prompt, and craft a story around that premise. For example, an ancient history romance prompt led to a story taking place in the Maya civilization. A mythical clash featured creatures battling with wits instead of brawn.
You haven’t read those stories … but hopefully you’ve read a couple others that grew out of that thought process. When I imagined a prompt about medieval characters would lead to a bunch of stories set in Europe, I thought about Marco Polo and wrote “The Journal of Wonders.” When one prompt asked writers to combine several holidays, I figured Chinese New Year would be an uncommon choice and wrote “Lunar Eclipse.” I like to think they were selected for more reasons than simply being different, but I’m sure that helped!
I want to acknowledge that none of this is new. Writers have been putting unique spins on concepts for centuries (and doing it a lot better than me). We’re supposed to transform the normal into the unexpected. That said, getting that specific feedback on my To Kill a Mockingbird retelling helped me consciously reframe prompts not as the seed for a story, but rather a seed for how to start thinking about a story. A subtle difference, but one that I’m trying to keep in mind with future submissions.
This takes a little more brainstorming time (at least in my experience). And while I’m in the midst of it, I still find myself fighting the urge to default to a certain interpretation. Plus, I’m still concerned that one day I’m going to bend the prompt so far that it breaks, rendering the story out of scope for a particular theme. And I’m already struggling with situations dealing with more generic prompts like sci-fi or dystopia (especially with tight word counts).
Needless to say, different prompts will lend themselves to this train of thought to varying degrees. Theoretically speaking/typing, there’s ways to play with things like genre conventions, the writing itself, or other elements of the story. I don’t know if those can be defined as creative choices directly inspired by a prompt, but it’s an intriguing exercise to think about.
I’m sure that plenty of other writers who’ve submitted stories based on prompts have considered this. Nevertheless, it was the topic that came to me this week, and it seemed like a nice way to begin 2018. Plus I’m glad to be starting the year with a longer post. Hopefully there’ll be even more to come. And let me know if you have any thoughts on this, or prompts in general!