I’ve written a fair bit on the theory behind conscious inspiration and the the differences between it and the unconscious inspiration most of us are familiar with. I’ve yet to talk about what this conscious process actually looks like. Today, I aim to finally tackle that aspect by demonstrating how I come up with writing prompts every month. I’ll talk in general terms and go step by step through the creation of a specific example. With that much detail, I should be able to illuminate how these conscious processes play out in my brain. Plus, give you a bonus writing prompt.
The primary tools I use for developing writing prompts and Ideas to Steal are random word tables and my polyhedral dice. The tables included in the Mythic Game Master Emulator are my go-to resource, but I’ve also used the tables in the rule book for the Ironsworn rpg. Both work the same way. They have a list of 200 words that’s split into two tables of 100 words each. I roll my d100 dice twice to randomly select a word from each table. The end result is a pair of words that are assumed to be connected. Why and how is left completely to my imagination. I often find that the connection between the words isn’t in their literal definitions, but in the overlap between concepts and ideas associated with those words.
Shawn Tomkin, the creator of Ironsworn, outlines several methods you can use to get more mileage out of random tables like the ones included in his book – ways to nudge your imagination along in case your initial results aren’t enough of a spark. I’ll address this in more detail when I get to my specific example. Briefly, though, I’ll state the methods that work best for my brain.
- Pull from different combinations of tables till your imagination is satisfied. (See example below.)
- Flip digits to get new results. A roll of 61 now becomes 16.
- Keep rolling the dice until something jumps out at you.
For the best results, I recommend taking a few minutes to go partway into a meditative/daydreaming state before rolling the dice. You want to establish that stable connection to your imagination but still be aware of and have control over your body. My ideal set up is to have instrumental music playing through my headphones, the word tables open on one of my devices, my physical dice ready to roll on a clear section of my desk, and pen and paper nearby to capture my ideas.
A Specific Example
I’m using Ironsworn’s tables for this prompt. Tomkin labels them “Oracle 1: Action” and “Oracle 2: Theme”, but the labels are irrelevant for this case. Below are the results of my dice rolls along with the specific table I got the word from. The specific table will become important later in this example.
Oracle 1; 80 = Change
Change what? Change who? Change how?
Oracle 2; 98 = Home
A person’s home is changed somehow. This makes me think of a story about moving away – moving to a new home. Though, that begs the question: why are they moving? How has their home changed? Was their house destroyed? Was there a fire? Were they robbed?
Maybe the house itself is fine. Is the character not welcome in their town anymore? Are they being exiled? Are they socially banished because reasons – reasons severe enough that they want to flee the resulting persecution?
I’m not satisfied with this idea just yet. It’s still too vague to clearly crystallize in my mind. A trick I often use with writing prompts and Ideas to Steal is, instead of rolling my dice again, I take my previous results and look up the corresponding words on the opposite table. Thus, I’d take my first result of 80 and look up the word in “Oracle 2”, rather than “Oracle 1”.
Oracle 2; 80 = Health
The main character’s house is fine. They’re moving away because of health issues. Maybe the main character themselves isn’t the one dealing with poor health. Instead, someone in their immediate family has contracted a terminal illness, like cancer. The whole family now has to move somewhere close(r) to the hospital where the family member is receiving treatment.
You know what would be especially tragic? The sick family member is the main character’s sibling.
One could stop here and tell a full tale of this family coming to terms with one of the children becoming terminally ill. The focus would be on the healthy sibling. The tragedy will ring differently depending on whether the protagonist is an older or younger sibling.
Being a big sister myself, I really identify with the former scenario. The feelings of powerlessness, anger, and frustration over your inability to help and protect your little sibling as a big sibling should. It’s the kind of situation where someone could easily lose faith in God, the universe, humanity.
I imagine the latter scenario – a younger sibling watching an older one wither and die – would be a prolonged period of grief. Someone you’ve held dear your entire life is being taken from you. Not quickly either, but slowly dragged out of existence. Talk about a knife to the heart.
I feel like there’s something else missing from this story idea. Cancer stories like this have been done before, so we need something unique. 98 in “Oracle 1” could be the key.
Oracle 1; 98 = Search
There’s a search for something. The main character wants to find something before their sibling dies. It’s something special to both of them, something that could symbolize their bond. Because of their illness, the sick sibling has to abandon the search. But the main character wants to complete it, acquire this special item, and give it to the sick sibling, so, at the very least, they can pass on with no loose ends. That’s the Idea to Steal!
The main character and their sibling have been searching for a rare collector’s item for years. It could be a baseball card that would complete their collection, or an autographed CD from their favorite band. The sibling becomes terminally ill and, sadly, must give up the search. The main character, however, is determined to find this item. Will they succeed before their sibling dies?
What I like about this Idea to Steal is that you can focus on the illness as much or as little as you want. It could be an ever-present sub-plot, an arc for the sick sibling to go through while the main character goes on their search. Or the illness can be an abstract yet palpable time limit looming over the entire story – rarely seen but always felt. I ended up cutting the family’s move from the final version because of brevity. But even if the family doesn’t move to a new home, the concepts of “home” and “family” are closely linked. So the second element the dice gave me is still present.
Now It’s Your Turn
I’ll conclude this post by encouraging you to try out a random word table or generator for yourself. The pdf version of Ironsworn’s core rule book is available for free on Tomkin’s website. If you don’t have physical dice to use with the tables, here’s a set of virtual dice I enjoy using. Maybe rolling dice and looking up stuff in a table is too gamey for your taste. If you’d rather not roll dice, I found a website that works the same way as the tools I use but will generate random words with a single click. Adjust the site’s settings to display two, four, or however many words you want per click.
See if you can develop your own writing prompts using the tools I’ve linked above. Or hold a particular story in your mind and see if you can weave the combination of words (or at least ideas associated with them) into your next bit of action. Once you got enough practice with this, you may start combining other sources of input – news, personal experiences, songs permanently on loop in your brain – together in intriguing ways. You might start doing this without even being actively aware of it happening. Keep at it, and you’ll never be short of inspiration again.
Did you try a random word generator or table out for yourself? How did it go? Do you have other random inspiration tools to recommend? Please share down in the comments. Also, let me know if you have any more questions about conscious inspiration.