Creating Random Writing Prompts

A babbling brook, a sailboat at anchor in an island cove, and a industrial accident.

You can probably figure this out from my other posts here, but I love writing prompts. Perhaps too much, since lately I’ve been spending more time creating them than using them. My form of procrastination, I guess.

My latest little creation is not really writing, but rather an Excel spreadsheet that generates random writing prompts like the one above. I find it remarkable that such a simple thing can stimulate so many interesting story prompts.

To create the spreadsheet I started with a list of things, something like this:

aerobics class
secret diary
something unpleasant under the bed
ex-boyfriend
path through the woods covered with fallen leaves
babbling brook
distant mountains lit by the setting sun
mine explosion
scent of new mown hay

This is a list I keep adding to, a little every day. I currently have about 130 items in the list.

Now for some Excel geekiness. I’ve created a Named Range called “story_items” for the list (which makes the formula simpler to write) and then I put the following formula in one cell next to the top of the list:

=CONCATENATE("A ",INDEX(story_items,RAND()*COUNTA(story_items)),", a ",INDEX(story_items,RAND()*COUNTA(story_items)),", and a ",INDEX(story_items,RAND()*COUNTA(story_items)),".")

What this does is produce a sentence like “A _____, a _____, and a _____.” with the blanks being filled in with random items selected from the list. Every time the spreadsheet is recalculated new things are put in the blanks. (You can force a recalculation by typing function key F9.)

One nice thing about working on this spreadsheet is it has me looking for new things to add to it. For instance today I’m collecting smells (the “scent of new mown hay” above). All in the service of keeping the creative juices flowing.

So, what do you think of my little tool? I’ve been sending a few prompts out to my Twitter followers a couple times a day — should I keep doing that? Can you suggest more things I should add to my list? Let me know in the comments below!

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About Kurt Schweitzer

A former vampire logistics facilitator, past purveyor of Italian-style transportation, and Y2K disaster preventer, I'm currently creating websites, novels and other fictions while reinventing myself. Again.
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