We’ve compiled a list of short story prompts we love. Each presents an opportunity to practice your writing skills, break out of a rut, or just to put yourself in a new creative situation. Some of these prompts are from Adroit, but prompts with hyperlinks in the titles are from our friends at Poets & Writers, listed here with slight modifications. Happy writing!
1. The Smell of Spring
Freshly mowed grass. Flowers. The thaw of an iced-over river. The feel of rain on your skin, instead of snow. Each season is associated with various symbols that are characterized by changes in how we perceive the natural world—through our five sense. But what if you’re already part of the natural world, unencumbered and unprotected by houses, air conditioning, and being indoors for the dark months of the winter? Write a short story from the perspective of a plant or animal welcoming (or dreading) the change from winter to spring.
2. Lost Luggage
You have one of those black suitcases that’s nondescript. It doesn’t have any identification tags on it or any ribbons to mark it. When you reach the baggage claim at the airport, you’re in a rush. You have no time to double-check your luggage and you pick up somebody else’s. You arrive at your house or hotel before you have a chance to realize your mistake. Write a story in which you have to decide what to do next. Is the luggage even marked? What is in the luggage? Does the mystery baggage contain something illicit? Cash? Do you return the luggage, or give it back to the airport staff? Do you get your own luggage back?
Chindogu, a Japanese term that literally translated means “weird tool,” was coined by Kenji Kawakami, former editor of a monthly magazine called Mail Order Life. As a prank, Kawakami published prototypes for his own bizarre inventions that were intentionally useless and could not actually be purchased in the magazine and later in a book titled 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu (Norton, 1995). Some of his popular inventions include the Eye Drop Funnel Glasses, the Dumbbell Telephone, and Duster Slippers for Cats. Write a short story that envisions the backstory for one of these good-natured but impractical contraptions, or invent one yourself following one of the tenets of Chindogu: “You have to be able to hold it in your hand and think, ‘I can actually imagine someone using this. Almost.’”
4. The 9 to 5 grind
Dolly Parton’s 1980 song “9 to 5” begins with this verse: “Tumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen / Pour myself a cup of ambition / Yawn and stretch and try to come to life / Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumpin’ / Out on the street the traffic starts jumpin’ / With folks like me on the job from 9 to 5.” Although the working life might sound fun, it’s often filled with repetitive meetings, overbearing bosses, and unstimulating work. Write a story from the perspective of a character or about a character who’s stuck in an office rut. Do they come to terms with it? Do they encourage their colleagues to evaluate their own motivations? What inspires them?
“I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say,” writes Daphne du Maurier in her 1938 Gothic novel, Rebecca. First love between characters who meet and bond at a young age has often been depicted in literature as feverish obsession sustained over the course of many years. Consider the monstrously toxic romance between Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and the fifty-plus-year separation of lovers in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Write a story that revolves around a character’s experience of first love. Explore your character’s perceptions of love and how the character and their perceptions evolve over time.
“Graffiti Palace was the amazing confluence of three worlds that crashed together: The Odyssey, graffiti, and the Watts riots,” writes A. G. Lombardo in “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Lombardo describes the circumstances in his life, such as his job as a high school English teacher, that combined to form “this strange brew of ideas” around which his debut novel revolves. Write a short story that combines several elements of your life, perhaps including hobbies or passions, political events of national importance, and favorite works of art or entertainment. How can you crash these disparate interests together to form a cohesive narrative arc?
In her New York Times essay, “The Ghost Story Persists in American Literature. Why?,” Parul Sehgal writes about how ghost stories throughout American literature have functioned as social critique, manifestations of protest and redress that reveal “cultural fears and fantasies,” and which understand “how strenuously we run from the past, but always expect it to catch up with us.” Write a story that uses a dark or troubling part of history as the impetus for an appearance of a ghostly presence. How does the ghost serve “as a vessel for collective terror and guilt, for the unspeakable” in your story?
Some of the most famous and important figures in history have been leaders or soldiers during coups or revolutions. George Washington, Fidel Castro, Oliver Cromwell, and Mussolini all came to power by overthrowing the previous leader of their respective countries. Write a story from the point of view of a leader (either of the revolution or against it), a bystander civilian, a soldier, or an observer watching from a different country. Your short story could take the form of a letter or news article (or something else), but it should convey the deep emotional and physical effects of war and revolt.
Imagine a town with no Wi-Fi, no cell phones or cordless phones, where microwaves are kept in metal cages, and only 1950s and diesel engine cars are allowed on the road. All of these are real restrictions in Green Bank, a tiny West Virginia town situated inside a designated National Radio Quiet Zone, where data collection by astronomers at the observatory can be disrupted by the presence of electronic interference. Write a short story in which your main character resides in a town with similar restrictions. Is living off the grid a choice? How do the daily tasks and communication of your character differ without the convenience of the tools and technology we often take for granted?
John Berger begins his classic book Ways of Seeing with the sentence “Seeing comes before words.” He argues that “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” In a sense, the stories we write depend upon what we choose to focus on; by looking at something, we bring it to life. Yet it’s possible to fall into patterns of attention in which our vision becomes predictable, and potentially meaningful curiosities go unseen. Try freewriting about an object that might typically be overlooked. Maybe it’s a toothbrush, or the zipper on a jacket, or a stain on a sidewalk. What does it look like? Where did it come from? How was it made? How long has it been there? What has it seen? At a certain point, description may give way to imagination, which could lead to the beginning of a new story.
11. Brain Augmentation
Your protagonist has a device that augments their reality. Maybe it’s a device like Google Glass (which just debuted a new version for enterprise), that helps them do more work on-the-go. Maybe it’s a brain implant that makes them smarter, better at making decisions, or better at math. How does this impact their daily life? Is there a positive or negative change? Perhaps their relationships are destroyed by it, or maybe they get in an accident because they’re constantly distracted by the device. What are the limitations and the benefits? Do they feel inhuman?
12. Space Disaster
NASA announced a plan to put a woman on the moon in the next five years through a initiative called “Artemis.” We know that these trips tend to be dangerous and end poorly for all that are involved. You’re on a spaceship destined to begin a colony in outer space. You’re among the last inhabitants of the Earth. You’re put in a cryogenic chamber to survive the trip. Write a story in which something goes terribly wrong on the journey there. What is it? How do your characters react?
Earlier this year, scientists published a finding that all of the spiders in the world together consume a total of four to eight hundred million tons of prey every year, which is more than the estimated weight of all humans in the world. In its report of this study, the Washington Post offered the nightmare-inducing headline, “Spiders Could Theoretically Eat Every Human on Earth in One Year.” Write a short story that adapts this headline as its title and considers a confrontation between human being and spider, whether one-on-one, or perhaps a freakishly larger-scale battle. Can you find both humor and horror in the scene?
The campus novel is a work of fiction that revolves primarily around an academic campus, most often a college or university. Some fall into the category of coming-of-age stories, such as Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, while others are more focused on faculty, such as Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Campus novels offer the opportunity to explore characters within the hierarchical structures and pressurized environment of a closed educational system and the contrasting perspectives of teachers and students because of differences in age, power, class, and social and cultural values. Write a short story that focuses on students and/or teachers in a high school or college setting, perhaps integrating elements of comedy and satire like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Jane Smiley’s Moo, science fiction like Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, murder mystery like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, sports like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, or supernatural Gothic horror like Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed.
15. Summer Camp
You’re back at summer camp! Put yourself in the shoes of an awkward middle-schooler. You’re just starting puberty, with all of the doubts and fears of . . . being awkward. How do you deal with the challenges of your age, your size? Write a story in which your characters build a strong friendship at summer camp, where they overcome adversity: bullies, puberty, and too many missing colored pencils at the craft cabin.
Do you remember where you grew up? Think back to the sights, the sounds, the smells, the daily events, the people you knew, and even the people you didn’t know. The places you called home and the places you hesitated to go to, because maybe you didn’t feel welcome there. Write a story where you’re waiting for someone to come to lunch in a place you called home. What’s a vignette in which you can capture your home? How can you quickly communicate a sense of place? Do you have a favorite bakery—one which you walk by daily and smell the freshly-baked muffins? Do you have a friendly rapport with neighbors or are you cold and distant because they’ve never wanted to know you either?
Though many of us look forward to the higher temperatures and longer daylight hours of summer, studies show that particularly hot and humid days often coincide with higher incidences and expressions of anger, frustration, and irritation. Many elements may factor into this correlation, including people spending more time outside in crowds, an influx of adolescents and tourists during the summertime, increased heart rates because of the heat, and discomfort from dehydration and lack of sleep. A feeling of helplessness or lack of control over the weather may also contribute to snappish behavior. Write a short story in which your main character struggles to keep calm on one of the hottest days of the year. What is the catalyst that drives your character to lose patience or keep cool?
18. Ice Cream
Your character owns a Baskin Robbins, Ben & Jerry’s, or maybe an ice cream store with an original recipe. Write a story about an atypical day behind the counter, ice cream scoop in-hand. What happens? Maybe someone has an allergy to an ingredient or is lactose-intolerant. Maybe there’s a break-in. Explain the significance of ice cream in the story. Perhaps ice cream can be a catalyst for a new friendship or your way to treat the community. Or for a gloomier mood, maybe your ice cream store shuts down because of the negative publicity.
“But now I think I hate those fairy tales…. Not really the tales, but how they end. Three words that ruin everything. ‘Happily ever after,’” says an old man in Victor LaValle’s new novel, The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau, 2017). Write a short story that revolves around this notion that the phrase “happily ever after” can involve something more complex, or even ruinous, than what’s seen at first glance. You might choose to write a continuation from the established ending of a well-known fairy tale, or concoct a brand new story in which the idea of a happy ending is just the start to ruinous consequences.
Being bored is a common occupation for people of all ages. Two decades ago, kids might have played outside, gone to the park, or built a monstrosity out of Legos. These days, parents might just hand their children a tablet or phone to keep them from making a fuss. Write a story in which a character is bored. Maybe it’s a child, or maybe it’s an adult frustrated with their life’s direction. Can they break out of this boredom?