Thoughts on Conflict in Writing Prompts

The A-to-Z Blogging Challenge has just concluded and it’s back to regular posts. While my month was a bit busier than I thought it would be, I enjoyed reading blogs and finding more writers like me out there to connect with and learn from. For those who followed my blog and commented on my prompts last month, thank you so much again for stopping by and following along. I look forward to having you back and keeping up with your blogs as well. If anyone commented on one of my prompts and I haven’t responded to you yet, feel free to let me know in the comments here so I can stop by and read a post or two–I don’t want to miss you!

*Also, my prompts for letters K and L are now up if you want to check them out.

In reflection, I had a lot of fun doing all those writing prompts. One thing I tried to include that I didn’t always see in other writing prompts was conflicts. Conflicts are the catalysts around which a plot is based as opposed to simply making lists or dabbling in descriptions, dialogue, POV (point of view), voice, or character-building exercises, etc. I think so many “story prompts” have failed me in the past because they weren’t really suggestions for writing stories but rather suggestions for creating story elements. While describing a scene using the five senses is an excellent exercise for the beginning writer who hasn’t considered that aspect before, those descriptions are nothing more than nice pictures hanging on a metaphorical wall with no story behind them until a conflict is introduced that gives those pictures purpose, relevance, and direction. Conflict is the key ingredient that makes a story happen.

When I first started writing with the serious intent of publishing a piece of fiction a couple of years ago, I found a lot of prompts for beginners that suggested brainstorming a variety of things like character, setting, dialogue, and so forth as I mentioned in the list above. I got pretty good at brainstorming my own lists and coming up with “great” and “unique” ideas for these story elements on my own, but the concept of weaving them into a satisfying journey was still a bit of a mystery to me and I couldn’t figure out what I was missing. I also kept running into plotting clichés and contrivances (where I made characters do things they probably wouldn’t have done given their personalities or circumstances because I wanted the scenes to move forward in a certain way). Indeed, what was ultimately missing for me was an understanding of conflict.

A great story doesn’t just have a great setting, an idea you’ve never seen before, a unique twist on an old theme, or an interesting character. Like the letters of the alphabet, only so much about any story will be unique–and even then the only thing unique about the letters we use to form words is the pattern and combination we use rather than the invention of new symbols (at least in a phonetic alphabet). The conflicts aren’t necessarily unique either. They might be, boiled down, man vs. nature, falling in love, the journey of revenge, and so on. But what makes them unique is putting your character in the context of their personal setting and giving those common conflicts a personal flavor. That’s what makes every individual’s daily conflicts unique, I think, though we share the same kinds of conflicts. If my sister and I had boyfriends, my sister breaking up with her boyfriend might be similar to what I might experience breaking up with my boyfriend, but the differences in our personalities, tastes, and choice of work venue will also make our experiences with breaking off a romantic relationship individual in a way.

In my opinion, great stories that feel fresh and unique aren’t based on grand, unique ideas. They’re based on basic human conflicts we’ve seen a thousand times that have been uniquely personalized by a character (his goals, weaknesses, fears, strengths) and his setting. Don’t just throw your character to the lions. Pit his goals against his weaknesses, his strengths against his fears. Make your characters proactive in resolving the conflicts they encounter.

To sum it up, there are a lot of writing exercises out there that focus on a mere element or two of story creation. Pushing myself to create 26 writing prompts that offer conflicts as well as setting and character creation this month has really boosted my confidence in my ability to devise good plot seeds as well as create good story elements. If you’re ever stuck on a story you’re writing, or you thought you had a good idea but don’t know where it’s going anymore, I would recommend writing a series of prompts on your own where you practice simply identifying ways to tie elements of the things you love into feasible conflicts.

Beauty of Decay Writing Prompts: Blogging A-Z April 2013

What is beautiful about decay, you ask? I worked with dinosaur bones as a college student and participated in a mentored research project involving taphonomy. Taphonomy is the study of what happens to an organism from the moment it dies until a scientist retrieves the remains. I can’t think of many things more beautiful to me than fossilized bone fragments, so naturally I would say that death, decay, and decomposition hold a certain sense of beauty for me.

Beginning as part of the April 2013 A-to-Z Challenge, Beauty of Decay is Slither’s new writing prompt collection featuring 26 visceral writing prompts and exercises created by yours truly to inspire the creepy story writer in you. As one of Slither’s main themes is exploring the bright side of human nature from the dark side of writing, so Beauty of Decay Writing Prompts will be themed with both enlightening and creepy content in mind. Each Beauty of Decay post will begin with a brief fact or experience blurb, followed by a prompt or exercise that draws from that blurb.

Decay’s prompts will be categorized thusly:

Monsters (M): from interesting animal facts to prompts about the mythical, mysterious, and paranormal.
Natural Disasters (ND): natural disasters and acts of nature.
Genetic Anomalies (GA): anything that has to do with genetic inheritance, mutation, genetic disease, evolution, speciation, etc.
Forensics/Taphonomy (F/T): rot, decay, forensics, and taphonomy.
Mind and Body (M/B): transformations, morphology, physical and psychological stuff.
Paranormal (P): prompts with paranormal elements.
Apocalypse (A): any prompts specifically on apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, or dystopian scenarios.
Other (O): anything that doesn’t fit into the above six categories.


Beauty of Decay Writing Prompts:

1. Neglected Apple Tree (F/T)

2. Bone Eating Insects (F/T)

3. Evil Calculus (P), (O)

4. To Slay A Dragonfly (M)

5. Extremophiles (M) and Extreme Temperatures (ND)

6. Interpreting Ancient Footprints (M/B)

7. Gastrointestinal Distress (M/B)

8. Spiders And Hydraulic Locomotion (M)

9. Magic Ink (P)

10. Junk Food Apocalypse (A)

11. Koi Catastrophe (GA)

12. Struck By Lightning (ND)

13. Mitochondrial DNA (GA)

14. Stephanie The Cat (P)

15. Skinning Orcs (M)

16. Sentient Parasites (M)

17. Quick Sand Rescues Gone Awry (ND)

18. Rust and Tetanus (ND)

19. Your Secret Horror (O)

20. Twinkie Relics (A)

21. Ultraviolet Radiation (ND)

22. Active Volcano (ND)

23. Lovely Warts (M/B)

24. Brainstorming Xenobiology (GA)

25. Red and Yellow, You’re a Dead Fellow (M)

26. Puzzling Zygomatic Arches (F/T), (M/B), (A)


Writing Prompt: Puzzling Zygomatic Arches

I thought it would be fitting to end the A-to-Z Challenge portion of the Beauty of Decay run with a prompt that featured a skull.

The zygomatic arch includes the temporal process of the zygomatic bone and the zygomatic process of the temporal bone. Together they make what we otherwise refer to as the cheek bone. Isn’t it lovely?

Zygomatic Bone (I got this picture here)

Writing Prompt: Puzzling Zygomatic Arches (F/T), (M/B), (A)

Here are three scenarios to try:

(F/T) 1. Write a story in which your main character is a forensic scientist investigating a case. Only the zygomatic arch (or arches) of a missing person have been found in a park or someone’s back yard. Have your character gather clues about what happened to the victim (is the victim still alive?), who did it, what they did exactly, and why only the cheek bones have been recovered. Was it foul play after all?

(M/B) 2. Write a heart-wrenching story in which your main character suffers significant trauma to the face–particularly their cheek bones. Perhaps they have some kind of bone disease or their face was smashed in an accident. You could even throw in a paranormal element and make it a curse. How does your character cope? Is there a cure–whether surgical, magical, or otherwise medicinal? Bonus points if the cure isn’t a perfect fix, but it makes the condition much more bearable. More bonus points if your character learns something important about themselves and overcomes a fear that’s part of their personality but has nothing to do with the condition of their face in the process.

(A) 3. Write a story about a futuristic society in which people have their cheek bones artificially altered in some way after a certain age, perhaps for personal beauty and social acceptance or to honor the gods. Perhaps this alteration sets this society apart from other civilizations around them or provides a class distinction: maybe only the warrior class has this alteration to make them look more fierce. Without completely copying the premise of The Uglies series, have your main character go against this cultural norm when he or she is expected to endure (or not partake in) the procedure with both good and bad unforeseen consequences.

4. Alternatively, choose some other small and unusual–or ordinary–object, tool, or body part and come up with your own ideas for world-building, questions, and conflicts centered around it.

Writing Prompt: Red and Yellow, You’re a Dead Fellow

When I was little I learned to tell the difference between certain kinds of snakes that were poisonous and those that were simply mimicking the coloration of their deadly cousins through the rhyme: “If red touches yellow, you’re a dead fellow. If red touches black, you’re okay, Jack.”

Writing Prompt: Red and Yellow, You’re a Dead Fellow (M)

Invent a deadly species–an alien species; an earthly monster; or a speculative version of an existing species like a spider, bird, snake, berries, mushrooms, etc.–and come up with a catchy rhyme the people in your story use to tell the difference between harmless and harmful cousin species with similar appearances. Write a story in which your character is thrown into a situation where they have a close encounter with one of these species and they can’t remember the rhyme that tells them whether this creature is safe or deadly–they have to figure it out another way. Bonus points if you administer the wrong antidote, or if getting past these creatures is vital to some other urgent goal on the journey.