Well, the idea for a story in five minutes, anyway. Actually writing it will take somewhat longer!

I’ve described my own efforts at writing to prompts and writing based on images—but what if we can’t draw or want to actually create our own prompts? What do we do when we’re just plain stuck, or we’re looking for some kind of random inspiration just to try something new, to launch ourselves into a new genre or just to experiment without the occasional silliness that can come out of those random prompt generators? I have talked about just sitting down and letting things flow out of you, but that isn’t always so easy—sometimes it just doesn’t come.

So this week I’ll submit my “five minute story” method—or what really comes down to a method of creating your own simple writing prompt. It’s a three-stage approach, which I’ve tweaked for the various genres, starting with:


  1. Write down the first valuable thing that comes to mind—literally any one or two words: a magic item? A computer file? Enlightenment?
  2. Write two people’s names, male or female (or whatever). One person does not want that thing. This is your hero. The other person absolutely requires that thing. This is your villain.
  3. What would have to happen to make the first person absolutely have to have that thing or absolutely have to destroy that thing? Add to that, what the second person would do—however extreme—to get that thing.

That’s the simplest version of it. I switched it up a bit for…


  1. Write down the first scary thing that comes to mind—literally any one word: spiders? Snakes? Isolation?
  2. Write one person’s name, male or female (or whatever). That person is not afraid of that thing.
  3. What would have to happen to make that person afraid of that thing?

…but I think this second version could also lend itself to a thriller (which in many cases is essentially a non-supernatural horror story) or a fantasy or science fiction story, too, for that matter. Go ahead and play with these, almost Mad Libs style:

Write down the first [adjective] thing that comes to mind—literally any one word: stinky, magical, high-tech, disgusting, dangerous, mysterious… You get the idea.

The real value of this comes not in the distillation of all stories into three simple elements. By now everyone should know that I tend to rail against ideas like that. But instead I hope this will point out that “a valuable thing” and reasons people may or may not want it leaves infinite combinations available to you.

For instance, the “thing” does not have to be a physical object. This would be the simplest version of the concept. Everyone wants to have or destroy the Maltese Falcon or the One Ring… the so-called “MacGuffin.” But blow that up in the same way I encourage people who participate in my Pulp Fiction Workshop to explode the definition of things like “murder method” from Lester Dent’s pulp formula to include, essentially, anything that makes how that character operates unique and interesting—even in a story in which no murder in any form takes place. That “formula” still holds up if you rename that bit “seduction method,” or “divination method,” or “boxing method,” for any of the various genres. Maybe this “thing” is an idea or feeling: enlightenment or isolation, as I mentioned above.

Either way, the trick is to get specific as quickly as possible. You can start with something like “piece of jewelry” but the sooner you decide it’s a diamond tiara once belonging to Princess Diana the quicker a story starts to take form. If the hero is not interested in isolation, then the horror story starts with the hero forced into isolation (The Shining, anyone?) or forced to keep the villain in isolation (The Thing).

Also note that I asked you to write down not just a placeholder like [HERO] or [VILLAIN] but an actual name. Do that first—start with “Galen wants this” or “Bronwyn doesn’t want the other thing.” The sooner you have a name for those characters the sooner they start to mean something to you, and then so does the story. Think of it this way: Which is a more eye-catching headline, which is a story you’d rather read?




Stories are about people—the sooner you start to get to know those people yourself, the sooner you’ll start telling a story.

Anyway, give it a try and let me know what you come up with. I’ll do the same!


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, characters, freelance editing, freelance writing, horror movies, horror novels, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, monsters, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, SF and Fantasy Authors, Story Structure, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. James Ross says:

    I call mine the wannasoi–because it starts with “I want to ___ so I ___” and has some more blanks, like hopes and fears but it’s mainly want to/therefore. I’ll have to play with this one as well, it seems like it might get into plot faster. Awesome stuff!

  2. Adam says:

    This is a great exercise. Thank you for sharing. I feel like it could be particularly interesting if you challenge someone by specifically saying (without warning), “Imagine the most pointless, flashy, ‘trick’ or ‘gimmick’ style of skill”, and then challenge someone to “write a story where one character desperately wants to master/achieve said skill, more than anything else in the world.”
    There are so many interesting ways to frame/limit an exercise like this, particularly if others don’t know where you’re going with their answer.

  3. Pingback: DOING MY OWN WRITING EXERCISES, PART 4: A LIST OF LISTS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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