40 Writing Prompts to Inspire Your Short Fiction

Every once in a while when navigating the waters of writing inspiration, I’ll find myself lost in a murky patch, unable to come up with anything worthy of the page. Practicing one’s craft is essential, but too often we find ourselves void of ideas or inspiration, leaving us with nothing of substance to write about. And while I’ve had a mixed relationship with the concept of writer’s block, what I do believe is that there are times when we all just need that one idea to spark our imaginations.

I think much of the time when we talk about “writer’s block,” the actual problem at hand is a lack of substantial ideas to drive your writing. That’s why I’m here today.

Following will be a series of potential such ideas, prompts to help you figure out what to do with your story; my attempt to assist with your “writer’s block.” Do with these ideas as you will; they are all pretty flexible in that they could be used for a short story, a novella, or to kick off your novel/serve as a subplot. Maybe they’ll just get you thinking, or provide inspiration for a roleplaying campaign. I’m giving them openly to you for your own use; they bear no limitations or restrictions, and can be easily adapted.

The prompts below are separated into three categories. The first is the longest list: that for my current favorite genre, fantasy. The second and third are respectively for science fiction and realistic fiction—the latter for tales set in our world, events that could potentially happen tomorrow.

Not all of these prompts are to be taken completely seriously, but I hope they’re able to provide some inspiration nonetheless.

Fantasy Prompts

  • The protagonist is a seasoned fighter or rogue who must find their way in a world where everyone else can use magic.
  • Inversely, the protagonist discovers that they are a sorcerer in a world that shuns “witchcraft.”
  • A magical substance is discovered either in our world or a similar modern setting, and quickly takes over the economy.
  • Portals to alternative realities have begun to to pop up wherever there are concentrated masses of people, and occasionally someone will fall through. (Subgenre: Portal Fantasy)
  • All of a certain metal or other natural resource upon which we depend suddenly becomes corrupted by a mysterious force. Weapons and tools containing even hints of this material gain magical properties, but are also extremely dangerous to use.
  • Two nations in a fictional world are at war over the right to use magic. One side considers it immoral; the other disagrees.
  • The protagonist, a monarch, desperately struggles to keep their nation in tact and maintain alliances as the nation is harried by supernatural forces.
  • In a fantastical “age of discovery” setting, what’s discovered on a mysterious island may change humanity forever.
  • In a fantasy world, the spirits of the dead come back to the realm of the living once a month to engage in a grand festival. During one such event, some or all of them fail to return. Why?
  • One morning, every major religion becomes manifest. The gods of many faiths appear and engage in combat; humankind is stuck in the middle of their celestial conflict.
  • Write about a world in which deep thoughts take physical form beside the thinker.
  • Bandits intrude upon a gathering of nobles. At first it is suspected that they were sent by enemy Houses, but it soon becomes evident that there is a darker truth at play.
  • A fabled magic city is finally found, but the riches it holds are guarded by the spirits of every traveler who previously found it.
  • Magic exists that allows people to drastically change their appearances. The protagonist is walking down the street one day when they see themself inside a shop.
  • The protagonist learns that they have a number of days (up to you as the writer) to live, though they do not know how they will die. Write about these last days.

A hard or soft magic system is defined and depicted as the protagonist, a magic user, utilizes the magic to complete a task. The five prompts listed below are magic system variations, inspired by trends in modern fantasy.

  • The magic requires components, such as blood, sand, or oxidized copper, to function.
  • The magic requires blood to function; if the user’s own blood is spilled, the effects are stronger.
  • Promises are required to use the magic. (This is inspired by Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive; it is something that has rarely been explored elsewhere.)
  • Time or age must be used as payment to use the magic.
  • The magic system is built around trigonometry and the laws present within it.

Science Fiction Prompts

The following is a short list of prompts fit for a futuristic setting, be it dystopian, utopian, or something in between.

  • A mysterious illness results in the death of exactly half of human civilization, causing havoc and shutting down major industries essential to survival in the modern world.
  • Alternatively, the illness affects the vast majority of the population; only a small percentage is immune, and it is they who must rebuild civilization. (This does suggest a longer-form story, but is adaptable for a more condensed plot.)
  • In a utopian future, not all is as it seems. What actually keeps the world running smoothly?
  • In the far future, the government is run by artificially intelligent beings. They were made to rule perfectly and justly, but have less than ideal ways of enforcing justice, and are rarely open to change.
  • The ability to manipulate the passage of time was founded with the justification that we would be able to remake the past for the better, but some who were involved in the process wished rather to make the future better for themselves.
  • This story can take any form, but there’s a twist at the end: the protagonist finds out that they are actually a clone of their original self.

Coming around to a classic science fiction idea, the human race has been forced to leave earth in search of other planets to inhabit. Here are four ideas for what they might find.

  • They find a planet nearly identical to earth, but whose inhabitants are far more advanced than earth’s people, having better maintained their home.
  • They find a world in a similar state of ruin to that which they left. And like the one that they left, the reasons for this new world’s condition have deep roots not so easily uncovered.
  • They land and must survive on a planet composed entirely of water.
  • They find a world whose inhabitants keep the means of time travel as a closely guarded secret.

Realistic Fiction

Following will be a list of ten additional prompts within the historical and realistic fiction genres, with splashes of mystery.

  • Zoom in on a mundane, relatable scenario and turn it into a life or death situation.
  • Follow robbers who hide their valuables inside museum statues for safekeeping.
  • Write from the viewpoints of animals going extinct.
  • Write about the most polite and amiable group of robbers ever.
  • The entire police department interrupts a zoom meeting to ask some questions. Why do they do this?
  • When the detectives arrive at a crime scene, the first thing they find is a spinning top.
  • Twins reunite in middle age and attempt to figure out what first separated them.
  • A restaurant employee has a philosophical enlightenment whilst on the job.
  • Two would-be philosophers engage in a deep philosophical conversation, though neither know exactly how to conduct one.
  • George Washington’s dog tries to make sense of a political conversation.

Many of these prompts can be meshed together to create a multi-genre tale. Urban fantasy and science fantasy (usually second-world science fiction) are both completely valid styles, and the industry is always looking for such unique ideas.

Anyway, that’s about it for today. I hope I was able to inspire you in one way or another. Perhaps I’ll branch out in the future, making lists for nonfiction and other alternative genres.

And if you’re still at a loss for what to write about, my go-to recommendation is to read. Very often reading, especially in the genres we like to write, will give us that surge of inspiration we need; and regardless, it’s a far more productive choice than sitting around thinking about your craft.

That’s all for now—thanks for stopping by! I hope to see you around.

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