Prompt: A Roll of the Dice

Attending a weekend writing retreat led by science fiction author Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Writers in the Grove member, Lorelle VanFossen received permission from Nina to introduce our group to The Story Catcher technique she developed. The following is a summation of the technique for inspiring writing prompts based upon random words and phrases. The document used for the prompt exercise is available for download and printing in a link at the bottom of this post.

Collection of multi-sided, colorful dice.A prompt is anything that inspires you, the writer, to write. It could be a word, a phrase, an idea, and the source of the inspiration could come from anywhere or anything at any moment. The prompt this week was also a workshop on generating random prompts.

How would your writing change if you could generate the serendipity of your prompts on a regular basis, possibly turning it into a habit, a writing exercise used daily?

Nina Kiriki Hoffman developed The Story Catcher, a tool to generate random prompts based upon chance, specifically a roll of the dice.

Nina’s Story Catcher is a booklet where you collect words and phrases as you go through your day-to-day living, twelve words on a page, each page numbered in sequence.

To use the Story Catcher:

  1. Roll one or two standard dice.
  2. Select one or both dice to generate the page number. For page 11, one or both of the dice could total 11. For page 64, one die would be 6 and the other 4.
  3. Turn to that page number and roll again.
  4. Write down the resulting prompt from among the 12 on that page.
  5. Repeat this process three to five more times, noting each word or phrase generated.
  6. Using the resulting randomly generated words or phrase, write your prompt within a 15 minute time limit.

This process generates a completely random set of prompts. Examples might be:

  • police, elephant, walking along the stream
  • dancing, midnight, frogs
  • she screamed, sunshine, smiles
  • love, yellow, E.T. the movie

For our exercise in the Writers in the Grove workshop, we worked from a list of five storytelling devices with twelve possibilities under each one. Each person rolled the dice five times, circling the corresponding number under each. They selected:

  1. Protagonist
  2. Other Character, Antagonist, or Companion
  3. Setting
  4. Obstacle
  5. Goal

Random examples were:

  • fairy, journalist, PTA meeting, you don’t deserve it, and destroy
  • medical worker, dragon, coffee shop, lost item, and hope
  • gambler, scientist, castle, telephone ringing, and revenge
  • executive, sailor, carpool, what hatched, and forget
  • knitter, fortune teller, cruise ship, disability, and retrieve something lost

The above exercise works best when working with a list of protagonists, characters, settings and scenes, obstacles or challenges, and goals for the protagonist to achieve. Again, these can be kept in a notebook as described above, or through various quests and character descriptions found online. Or you can use one or more online random prompt generator.

Why stop with 6-sided dice? Why not play with various sided dice like a 20-sided set? That will increase the range of numbers with each throw.

Think of the possibilities.

Why not use a 20-sided dice set and collect lists of prompt ideas in sets of 20? Use the free online prompt generators below to create your lists, or group them by genre, topic, or some other collection category such as emotion or geolocation.

Randomly generate your characters. Create a listing of all the possible physical characteristics of a character such as hair, eye, and skin color, body type, and maybe even ethnicity or cultural home base. Give each characteristic a number under each category, and roll to randomly create a character with strawberry blond hair, green eyes, blue skin, and a short and thin body. Or maybe a character with white hair, gray eyes and skin, with a super muscular physic. Any combination is possible, and it opens up your imagination with fascinating characters.

If you generate something worth editing and continuing on with, then do so. There are many publications, online and print, accepting short stories and poetry, and who knows if one of these prompts may inspire your next novel.

Here is the Roll the Dice Writing Prompts Exercise 2016 Worksheet (pdf) from our workshop. Print it and start rolling the dice.

Online Prompt Generators and Resources

The following are online resources for more information on working with random prompts and randomized prompt generators.

Even if you aren’t into writing science fiction, the core elements of storytelling aren’t much different from other types of fiction. There are heroes, villains, often a quest, and more often a little magic can go a long way in the real world as well as in fantasy.

The following are motifs and prompts to help you with science fiction, and give you even more ideas for your prompts.

Sometimes the prompts you may wish to add to your collection come from fiction writing sources. Go through some of these to find some good ideas to add to your collection, giving each a number for the roll of the dice serendipity.

Armed with all these prompts, make using these into a habit. Just 15 minutes a day after some rolls of the dice will improve your writing muscles, stimulate your imagination, and very likely take you to places you never considered in your writing. Let us know how it turns out.

Thanks again to Nina Kiriki Hoffman and the Eugene writers group, Wordcrafters, in Oregon for their hospitality and exceptional writing programs, workshops, and conferences.


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