writing prompts?

In this post, I referred to the blog "I Had the Write Idea," which is a series of writing prompts. I follow the blog, though I don't use writing prompts.

Or do I?

I thought I didn't use them, but then someone on another blog asked who used prompts, and I realized that I do. Whenever I think about a particular type of workplace, my immediate question is, "Hey, can I set a mystery there?" A hospital, a school, a college, and now a hospital again. I've also thought of newspaper offices, and there was a writing prompt recently about graveyards, and so I thought of setting a mystery in a graveyard.

I think these are writing prompts, of a very specific kind.

The interesting thing is this: before I started to write mysteries, I couldn't write short stories at all. Only novels. But mysteries have all sorts of rules (there has to be a crime, or at least the possibility of one, there has to be a detective, the detective often has an assistant, etc.). And, contrary to what you might expect, the restrictions make writing easier, not more difficult.

I saw an interview with Pete Townshend once, and he was asked whether it was difficult to write rock and roll songs, since the style is so tightly defined (rhythm, chords, melodies, verse & chorus and maybe a bridge, possible lead break, lyrics of a certain kind, etc.) and he said that it was the opposite. The restrictions made it possible. To paraphrase from memory: "If you put somebody in a room and say, 'Make music!' he or she will likely freeze up. There are too many options. But if you say it has to be three or four chords, a verse and a chorus, two to three minutes, and so on, then something can start to happen."

I've found that mystery stories work the same way. There's a body, and a detective, and the detective's assistant, and suspects, and motives, and secrets, and so on. It's actually easier to "write a story involving a somebody who doesn't listen to an entire voice mail, who misses vital information for that reason," than to "write a story."

But then, as I talked about here, the mystery stories I'm writing turn into a longer narrative anyway, since that's what I'm used to doing. And because there is the detective and her assistant, essential for these mystery stories, but there is also their adopted daughter. I think she's half the reason I keep going with these stories, since I'm dying to find out what happens next with this new and entirely unexpected family.


Oh, and the conclusion of "The Mystery of the Other Patient" is up now. It's called the "Epilogue/Prologue" because it ends this story but it also leads right into the next one. But the next one won't start immediately, since I want to move "The Mystery of the Other Patient" over here, and also add the floor plans. And take a little break.

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2 Responses to writing prompts?

  1. sonje says:

    Restrictions do induce creativity. I remember when that first hit me. I was taking a college class and we were given the option of writing a short story for one of the papers. There were restrictions. It had to start with either the sentence, “I am a liar,” or “I am born.” Or it could end with the sentence, “I am dead.” I chose the “I am a liar” option, and it turned into one of the best short stories I’ve ever written.

    I definitely see the books I’m writing now as puzzles. I start generating pieces. Some are to fit a form (like the constraints of a genre) and others are just fun and need to find places to go. Sometimes the puzzle is hard and sometimes it is easy. But generally pretty fun!

  2. Pingback: the positive side of limits » Anthony Lee Collins

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