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5 Writing Prompts and Exercises to Get Your Novel or Short Story Going

runners on a track getting ready to race
You Have to Start Somewhere or You'll Get Nowhere

Writing, on the best of days, is a difficult endeavor. As experienced writers, we have a pretty good idea of what’s good and what isn’t when it comes to fiction. We also know that when it comes to our own writing, we doubt every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and every chapter. But we also know that that is part of the process, and so we keep going.

As short story writers and novelists, we question everything. We may have some stories published in print and/or online journals, a novel or two or seven out there in the world with a few stellar reviews (and plenty of bad ones), but it doesn’t matter, because no matter how proud we are about our accomplishments, imposter syndrome is stronger than any award, publication, or recognition. And that, for some of us, leads to stagnation. It leads to staring at a blank piece of paper or a blank screen. I don’t believe in writer’s block, but many writers do, and so maybe it leads to that. We’re not getting the words down, and it’s driving us crazy. So, what do we do?

Well, prompts are definitely a solution. They can take any form, really, and they may lead to nothing useful in and of itself. But they achieve one important thing: they get us writing. And that’s what it’s all about. So today, I’ve come up with a few different types of prompts that are based on distinct elements we writers deal with when it comes to the craft of writing. Hopefully one or more of them will get the inspiration going. You never know what it’ll lead to.

Here 5 Writing Prompts to Get Going on Your Novel or Short Story:

  1. Do you have an idea of what sort of world your novel will take place in? Is it on planet earth in contemporary times? Or does it exist in a parallel universe where things aren’t quite the same as they are here on earth? Let’s pretend it’s on a different planet. Describe the landscape. The weather. The inhabitants. Do they have a different political climate? Is there a political climate? What’s the hierarchy of the people or beings that live on this planet? What are their occupations? Family statuses? Transportation?

map of the world with an airplane and a hand
Choose a Location and Add the Details. Build the World Where Your Characters Live

  1. Next, write two or three examples of conflict. It can be in dialogue and scene, or simply ideas you have for the fiction you want to write. Remember, conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces—two people, a person against the elements, a person against themselves, whatever.

  2. Then find examples of tension in your favorite novels or short stories. How did the authors create that tension? What did they do to ease off so the reader could breathe? If you feel yourself getting uncomfortable reading, there’s a good chance it’s because of the level of tension the writer has created. Write a scene where the tension and conflict is so high you almost have to turn away from the page.

  3. Using the same novels or short stories, rewrite the endings so the resolutions turn out differently than how the author resolved the conflict originally. You’ll do this on your own writing later, but for now see what happens when you do it for a novel or story you enjoyed reading. We do this for our own writing, but see what it’s like doing it for a book that’s already published and respected.

  4. Does any particular structure seem to fit with the novels or short stories you’ve been reading? What about for your own writing? Do any of them appeal to you? If so, try writing an outline with that structure as a base for your novel. Remember, you have a number of options to choose from. Here they are:

  • Freytag’s Pyramid (a brief description of all of the below are located at this link).

  • Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

  • Three-Act Structure

  • Save the Cat Beat Sheet

  • In Medias Res

  • Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey

  • Seven-Point Story Structure

  • John Gardner’s Fichtean Curve

Signs to places in the U.K. made of wood
YOU, as the Author, are the Tour Guide for Your Readers. Take Them on a Journey (somewhere they'd enjoy).

6. Last but not least, can you list the themes presented in these works? There’s probably more than a couple. Jot them all down. After you’ve completed the first draft of your novel, make a list of the themes you’ve written into it. This will help you focus later on when you jump into your second draft. If you know that your novel is about unrequited love, and death, and comeuppance, you’ll be able to better focus on these themes as you rewrite what you’ve written. Your novel will be stronger for it, and things will start to fall into place for you as you jump to that third draft. Writing is like working with a piece of clay. You chip away at the clay and mold it until you see the object that was always there, waiting to be discovered. It’s your job to discover your story.

Now, you don’t have to use any of the above prompts but give it a try. If one of them clicks something in your brain that leads you in a different direction, go for it. Don’t force yourself to do something your brain doesn’t want to do. Just write. Free write. Go stream-of-conscious. Do whatever you need to do to get words down—it doesn’t matter what they are. See where it goes. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break. It’s okay. You never know what you’ll discover when you let loose and break away from your stringent writing habits. The gold you’ve been looking to mine may just be where you least expect it.

If you’re seeking some book coaching or are ready for your novel to get edited prior to publishing it or submitting it to agents, send us an email at to discuss your book project.

Cully Perlman is the author of a novel, THE LOSSES. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Bull Men’s Fiction, The St. Petersburg Review, Real South Magazine, Avatar Review, Creative Loafing, Connotation Press, The Good Men Project, Pioneertown, El Portal, and more. He was a 2013 semifinalist for his novel-in-progress, LOS BEAUTIFUL, as well as on the short list of finalists for the 2012 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Competition for his novel, THE LOSSES. He has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Story Contest, won the Writer’s Digest Dear Lucky Agent contest for a novel, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open.

Cully holds the following degrees, and would love to help you on your way to publication:

MFA - Creative Writing, Fiction – University of Tampa

MA - Literature in English – Georgia State University

BA - English Literature – Florida International University

MBA - Market Strategy & International Business, Regis University


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