TLDR you can make a writing prompt out of anything
By Natalie Baliker
After several weeks at home, stuck staring at the walls as if they’re going to change any time soon, I’m desperate for distraction. But at the same time, I’m incapable of sitting down and channelling that energy into my writing. Instead of working on poetry or plot twists, I’ve cleaned out my closet, reorganized my drawers, weeded all of the garden beds…twice. But while going through all of my clutter and middle school mementos, I was hit with a sharp blast of nostalgia. Composition books filled with class essays and doodles, plastic woven bracelets (“gimp” for the real fans), disposable cameras, paper fortune tellers. And then I realized, why not use some of those old games to make writing more fun?
Paper Fortune Teller
To turn those middle school fortune tellers into writing prompt generators, I came up with three different levels. The first step was to choose a color: red, yellow, green, or blue. The next step was a number, from one to eight. After spelling out the color, I had to choose from four visible numbers. From here, I could simply choose a number and unveil a mystery object, or count out that chosen number and pick a mystery object for my next round of fortune telling. Underneath every number flap was a random object (not so random, since I wrote them all down, and knew exactly what my choices were).
By going through the standard fortune telling process, I ended up with a color, a number, and an object. The writing challenge is to take these three things and write a story with them. The beauty of the fortune teller turned generator is that you have dozens of combinations, so you can come up with so many different ideas. Today, I might write a 500 word story about the color red, the number eight, and a 1978 Plymouth Volare station wagon. Tomorrow, I might write a narrative poem about the color yellow, the number two, and sunflower seeds. The beauty of prompts like these is that there are so many different interpretations of ordinary ideas. And after so many weeks of feeling uninspired to write much at all, these prompts are a welcome challenge for my brain.
If the fortune teller doesn’t appeal, how about a game of M.A.S.H.? If you’ve never heard of this game, or never played it before, check out this online version. There are instructions there, but we’ll do a quick sum up. This is a different kind of fortune telling game, where you create all of the possible answers, but a random number determines your fate. In eighth grade, we used it to see our college major, our future job, what kind of house we’d live in…you get the idea. Basically, you have a bunch of categories (job, car, spouse, number of kids, etc.) and you make up some options for each. For example, I might create a job category and include firefighter, lawyer, and chef.
Some people use the spiral technique to determine the magic number, but I prefer to use the number of letters in the character’s name. Easier to do, and it wastes less paper. Once you have a number, all you have to do is go down each list, counting the unmarked options and crossing off the nth option. Just remember to skip the marked ones! When you only have one option left in a category, that’s your answer, so circle it and keep going until you’re done.
How can we adapt this for writing purposes? By using it as a character generator! You can also use this to flesh out your existing characters, or just to have fun. If you use the online generator, you are limited in the number of options per category. However, if you make your own on a piece of paper, the options are limitless.
Did you try one of these methods? Or do you have another idea for us? Comment below, because we’d love to hear from you!
Natalie Baliker is the Long River Review design center liaison and a fiction panel reader. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.