Analysis of a Plot Prompt–Elizabeth Kirkwood

Plot Prompts Jar

“An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.” – Charles Dickens

Where do you get your ideas? Many writers will scrunch up their faces in thought, and respond with, “from my head, I guess. They just sort of happen.” Idea sparks, these notions that pop scenes and characters into our heads, are often sourced from ‘plot prompts.’

But where are plot prompts to be found? It isn’t a requirement of a writer’s creed that they be drawn from a glass jar on little slips of paper (although if you get one of those, you have wonderful friends and you should use it.) They can come from wondering about pickpockets and the things they discover. They can come from the scraping, angry sound of thunder in contrast with the gentle weeping of the rain, or finding a picture of a girl sketching a key on Pinterest.

Not all plot prompts are simple to use, though, once they have been found. To unlock them, to begin to network other ideas and flesh out a story around them, you have to use a writer’s best asset.

You must ask questions.

Yes, yes, I know there are a thousand internet jokes about dangerous browsing history: one minute you need to know the average snowfall in the second week of February in the Himalayas, and the next you’re asking Google for lists of deathly silent ways to kill a character. But asking questions really is your greatest tool.

promptThere’s a lot of information in this prompt to work with. Notice the order in which the information is revealed: A recurring character from your dreams is a comatose patient in a hospital. Oh, and you’re in the same hospital.

Now, it’s been said that the best way to spark an idea is to ask, “What if?” Sometimes, like in the case above, this really isn’t the most useful place to start. Let’s begin by asking a different type of question about the prompt.

Let’s think about the recurring character first. They appear more than once, which is probably significant. What gender are they? Are the dreams in which they appear varied, or the same? Do you learn about them in the dreams? What do they look like? What makes them recognizable? Why are they comatose? How long have they been comatose? Do they dream as well? Who were they beforehand?

And why are you in the hospital? Do you work there, or are you a fellow patient? How long have you been dreaming about this person? Do you know them from elsewhere? When and why did you figure out that you knew them? What are your dreams about? What do you do for a living? What makes you feel lonely?

After you’ve started asking these questions, and maybe answering some of them, you can start getting into more complex what-ifs. What if the person in the coma acts completely different than their likeness in your dreams? What if the dreams are nightmares? What if the dreams are flashbacks? What if you could communicate with the person in the coma? What if everyone in the hospital was dreaming?

Asking questions is an organic process, so there’s no requirement or order to follow. However, just the exercise of asking lots of questions allows you to see more potential in an idea. My idea sparks from the plot prompt would have been much more limited, because I would have stopped with my assumptions, and not explored what else could have happened.

lizAs a dreamer, tea-drinker and star-chaser, Elizabeth has a dual obsession with writing and talking about brilliant writing. When not dredging her fingers in authorly ink, you will find her playing guitar, doodling on her friends’ Latin notes, or talking about scientific poetry. Her first novella, Bridled, is to be published in 2014; in the meantime, she blogs at


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