One of the best things that writers can do to exercise their mental and creative muscles is to play around with writing prompts. I don’t often see prompts that are focused on fantasy (or speculative fiction), so I thought that this would be a good place to try it out. Not that the below ideas can’t be applied to any writing genre, but I’ve written them with fantasy in mind. What I’m going to use here is a method that I’ve seen done during my time as an educator, which is to use movie trailers as the basis for the writing prompt. I love movie trailers. As commercial products, their job is to manipulate you with high energy, high comedy, and high drama in small bursts of creativity. As such, they are perfect for putting you in the inspiration mindset you need when working with prompts.
Fantasy Writing Prompt #1: Trailer Visuals
First let me begin by explaining what this writing prompt is not. You don’t want to watch the trailer below and think “how can I write a story similar to this?” Instead, you want to watch the trailer and use it for some completely random source of inspiration. Let me give you an example with the king of all fantasy trailers:
If I were to just tell you to watch this trailer and use it as a prompt to get an idea for your own story, then you would likely end up with an idea that is as derivative as most fantasy novels in the post-Tolkien era. No, the point of this type of movie trailer prompt is to drain the trailer of all story details and focus purely on the visuals. As I watch this trailer, I’m struck by this visual:
Now I know exactly what is happening in this scene of Fellowship, but instead of thinking of that, I want to drain myself of all knowledge of that story and pull out an idea that could take me in a completely different direction. So I study the film frame and look for my own story. Here are examples:
Story Idea #1: Let’s go with a Science-Fiction route. In the future, there is a society where statues like the above are placed at the entrances to certain forbidden locations. There are five such places in the entire country. Anyone who attempts to pass beyond the statues is immediately disintegrated by some kind of electric wall. Nobody knows what they are and everyone wants to figure out how to pass beyond them.
Story Idea #2: Let’s go more fairy tale. There are two statues like the above that have existed forever in the land our hero has grown up in. Most people take them for granted, but our hero has wanted to learn their true story since he was a small child. He meets an old woman who claims to have spoken to the statues. She tells him how she was able to accomplish this. At first, he thinks her crazy, but after it gnaws at him for a while, he sets out to try what the old woman advised.
I can go on and on with this one frame, or I can skip around and try another.
Fantasy Writing Prompt #2: Trailer Title Cards
Watch this trailer:
The title cards for this trailer ask the following question:
Have you ever wished for a different life?
The point of this prompt is to ignore the content of the visuals and focus on the advertising title cards that aim to pull you into the story concept. Instead of focusing on how this film answers the above question, I’m going to answer it myself.
Story Idea #3: Let’s go horror. A serial killer is granted a wish: to be able to kill a victim by living the victim’s life in one day. So, for example, whereas the serial killer used to murder his victims the old fashioned way (blood and gore and such), he now selects only those people whose lives he covets most. By performing a specific ritual, he is able to grasp his victim and spend twenty-four hours inhabiting the highlights of the person’s life. He must commit suicide at the end of the twenty four hours. This will kill the person and return him to his body. If he doesn’t, he dies.
Story Idea #4: Now we will try something more comic. Set in your traditional epic fantasy world, an accident-prone woman wishes for the life of one of the noble heroes who constantly fights back the typical dark lord type. A spell might grant her this wish, but instead, it backfires and she takes over the dark lord’s body (and the dark lord takes over her body). At first, she is terrified of what she has become, but upon realizing that the hero she admires is in league with the dark lord (and is playing a game with public), she must find a way to stop him.
Fantasy Writing Prompt #3: Key Dialogue
Movie trailers often feature lines of dialogue that perform the function of the title cards. So I might take the below trailer (another favorite–and note that I don’t necessarily need a fantasy movie trailer to use for fantasy writing prompts):
In this trailer, Bill states, “There are consequences to breaking the heart of a killer.”
So just like I might take the title cards in Writing Prompt #2 and answer the question, I might take the key lines of dialogue in this trailer and use it to lead me to my own story concept.
Story Idea #5: Let’s go magic realism. A killer (I’m focusing on lots of murderer protagonists today, I guess) gets parole after twenty years in jail. When he goes to find his lover, he discovers that an old friend of his has committed a magical version of identity theft, which involves the slow transformation of one person into another. Over time, this friend has taken over his life and has now become indistinguishable from him, save the friend hasn’t been tarnished with a history of murder and jail time and is as a result infinitely more appealing to the lover. The killer now makes it his mission to corrupt the friend the way he was corrupted, so that the friend will become the brutal man that he once was but learned to change from.
Story Idea #6: Let’s go with epic fantasy. Obviously, I’m already thinking towards something like The Iliad, which essentially boils down to the epic consequences of breaking a killer’s heart (or, really, the heart of leader with a whole lot of clout). I’ll try and avoid that route. How about we avoid the traditionally romantic and go more devilish. I’ve always liked the theory that Satan rebelled against God because he loved him too much. Essentially, the idea is that Satan refused to love humankind because he felt it was his sole duty to love and worship God, and this put him at odds with God. How about something like that for our epic/high fantasy villain? So, essentially, we see a high fantasy world of wizards and men and elves and such. In this world, however, we learn that wizards/men/elves became dominant by killing the magical powers that created them. A loyal and devoted servant of those powers, who was spared the bloodbath, seeks to rise to power and destroy humans and their world for their orignal murderous deed.
You can, of course, try out each writing prompt for each of the above trailers. So you could use Fantasy Writing Prompt #1 with the Coraline trailer (pick a visual and pluck out ideas) or Fantasy Writing Prompt #3 with the Fellowship trailer (“If you want him, come and claim him”) or Fantasy Writing Prompt #2 with the Kill Bill trailer (“Every step she has taken…every enemy she has faced…has led to this”). Prompts are all about giving your creative self a jumping off point, so you want to take the smallest bit of inspiration and go crazy.
You can use the above trailers for your own ideas or you can go to YouTube and look up trailers for your favorite movies (or movies you hate, it doesnt matter). This video is a thirteen minute compilation of various trailers:
FINAL, ESSENTIAL STEP:
The very last step is that you look over all the story ideas you collect from the fantasy writing prompts (aim for 6-10, like I have above) and just start free writing on the one that excites you most. You might find yourself with a viable new short story idea, novel idea, or even just a great idea for a subplot that you can add to your current novel draft. Or you might find that you just needed some practice to rejuvenate yourself after a stretch of working on the same project for too long. Either the process for this prompt is (1) gather ideas from trailers using any of the three prompt strategies and (2) free write off of your best ideas.