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You’re writing time is precious, especially if you have a full-time career outside of writing. You can’t afford to waste a second staring at a blank screen waiting for you next story idea to come to you.
And yet, that exact scenario plays out over and over for writers everywhere. We fight to clear an hour or two from our schedules, sit down to write, and, then … nothing.
The truth is, though, writing inspiration is all around us if we only put a little effort into seeing it.
One of my favorite ways to uncover new story ideas is through the use of writing prompts.
Now, you can find writing prompts all over the web, and there are entire sites devoted to nothing but little bits of prose designed to get your author wheels turning. These nudges work great in my experience, and there is even a section of this site devoted to static writing prompts.
But when you rely on outside sources for your inspiration, there is always the chance the well will run dry when you need it most.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
In fact, in this post I’ll show you a quick and easy way to generate one million distinct writing prompts in just a few minutes of work.
I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. What’s even better is that by mastering this one technique, you’ll almost surely start to unlock mental processes that will help you see the stories lying dormant everywhere you go.
This 7-step system is simple enough that just about anyone can use it from start to finish as I present it here, but I will admit it gets a bit technical. If you’d rather skip all the nitty-gritty and just get at the final product, you can click here now and leave your email address for instant access to the Google Sheet version of The Moonlighting Writer Story Prompt Generator.
Now, if you’re ready to get started, the first thing we’ll do is …
Create a Google Sheet
You can probably build your writing prompt generator using any spreadsheet program you want, but Google Sheets is free and can be used on most computers and with most browsers. If you don’t have a Google account, you can get one by signing up here:
Once you have your account, log in and go to Google Drive:
Now, create a new Google Sheets document:
In your new sheet, add six column names:
- Word #1
- Word #2
- Word #3
- Character Occupation
Your sheet should look something like this:
Before we move on, go ahead and name your document and put it in a folder you’ll remember.
Now it’s time to fill in the details …
Generate Some Random Words
We’re going to use a list of random words for the actual “writing prompt” part of our story idea generator. How many random words do we need in order to end up with a million distinct story ideas?
Just 30. You’ll see why in a bit, but for now, let’s grab our story seeds.
There are a lot of ways you can generate random words, but this is the internet, so we’re going to use a bit of technology. Again, there are multiple websites dedicated to all sorts of randomness, but, for this exercise, I like RandomLists’ Random Word Generator:
Change the Quantity field to 30 and hit Refresh, and you’ll have your list:
Now, copy-and-paste this list, 10 at a time, into the three “Word” columns in your Google Sheets document:
Those are our seed keywords. Next, we need to …
Find 10 Occupations
The next column in our spreadsheet is “Character Occupation,” so we need to find some jobs that one of our characters can hold down. You could just write out the first 10 occupations you think of, but let’s pull our list from the web.
Once again, there are plenty of sites to help you with this, but ManyThings.org presents a nice, simple list of 53 jobs:
Pick 10 of these and plop them into your spreadsheet:
Next up, we …
Pick Some Story Settings
No story can happen without a solid setting, so let’s find some location-and-time combinations for our prompts.
Seventh Sanctum has all sorts of useful tools, and for this exercise, we’re going to use their Adventure Site Generator:
Again, take 10 of these and put them in the proper place on your spreadsheet:
We’re almost there. All we have left to do is …
Pick Some Genres
The genre of your story is important because it will help determine the tropes you need or want to hit as your plot unfurls.
And where would we find a list of genres? Well, we could consult any number of online resources, but we’re going straight to the source for book categories — Amazon, and specifically the Kindle Store:
Choose 10 of those genres and put them in the final column on your spreadsheet:
A Million Choices
Great … you’ve got a spreadsheet with six columns, each containing 10 words or phrases.
So how does that help you generate story ideas? And how in the world does it give you one million distinct story ideas, as promised?
Easy — it all comes down to math!
I can hear you groaning through my WiFi, but bear with me. This is simple and powerful stuff.
You’re going to pick one word or phrase from each column of your spreadsheet and write a story that contains Word #1, Word #2, and Word #3. Furthermore, one of your characters will have the occupation you choose from Character Occupation.
Your story’s setting will come from — surprise! — the Setting column, and Genre will determine the type of story you write … horror, fantasy, romance, etc.
Easy enough. Now, here comes the math …
You have 10 words that you can pick for Word #1.
For each of those words, you have 10 choices for which Word #2 to pick.
That’s 100 ways to choose your first two words.
For each of those, you have 10 ways to pick Word #3, or 1000 total choices for your three-word combination. That’s 10 x 10 x 10 if you’re keeping score.
From there, you have 10 choices of occupation for each of your 1000 three-word combinations. We’re up to 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 10,000 combinations.
Ten possible settings leaves us at 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 100,000 total possibilities.
Finally, each of those 100,000 choices can fall into any of the 10 genres we picked, for a grand total of 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 106 = 1,000,000 possible combinations.
That’s a cool million story prompts, and that’s pretty heady stuff, if you ask me.
Now, you could go through and generate your own prompt each time you need a new one by picking one word or phrase from each column in your spreadsheet and then writing your story.
But that’s tedious, and it’s also not random. You bring certain biases to every choice you make, whether you realize it or not.
Luckily, it’s easy to tap into the power of randomness using Google Sheets. To do that, copy and paste the following formula into cell A12 of your Sheet:
=index(A2:A11, randbetween(1, counta(A2:A11) ) )
This basically tells Google to make the value of that cell (A12 )one of the words from the column above it, chosen at random.
Your sheet should look something like this:
Now, click in cell A12, and it will be highlighted with a blue (usually) border. In the lower right-hand corner will be a small blue square:
Click on that square and drag your mouse to the right to copy the formula to the other five columns:
And there you have your random writing prompt. In this case, the full prompt, written out, would be …
Write a satirical story about an actress in a Monstrous Shrine, using the words trick, erratic, and hope.
Do you have to go through this whole thing every time you want a new prompt?
Just open the sheet and click CTRL-R (command-R on a Mac) to generate a new combination. And if you don’t like that one, hit CTRL-R again.
You’re not stuck with the choices we’ve made here, either.
You can add or remove words, genres, occupations, and settings.
You can also add or remove columns — others that might be interesting are character name, time period, point of view, number of characters, and one or more story events.
Done for You
If you’ve followed along with this article and built your own Google Sheet, you’re all set with a group of 1 million story prompts that should last you a long, long time.
If, however, you’ve read through this piece but found the technical set-up to be a bit too, well, technical, don’t sweat it.
I have done all the work for you and created a completed version of the Google Sheet we built in this post for you to copy and use as your own. Just click here to leave your email address for instant access to the file.
And remember what I said above — you can and should modify this scheme to fit your own writing propensities and goals. If you only write action adventures, for example, then genre probably doesn’t make much sense as one of your columns, but weapon very well might.
Whatever frustrations you face in your writing career, running out of viable concepts shouldn’t be one of them. There are story ideas all around you, and if your muse goes into hiding, well, you can make your own inspiration — using tools like this one.
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