Sign up to the newsletter

How To Write A Winning Short Story Based On A Prompt

As Writers & Artists and Firewords have come together with a competition based on a visual prompt on the run up to Christmas, I would like to take this opportunity to say what importance the use of prompts has for the editorial team at Firewords. We are just readers here so will have similar opinions to others, and all likes and dislikes are subjective, but we use prompts in each issue of the magazine and the ability to write great stories utilising this is very close to our hearts. It is amazing to see such a variety of stories all from the same source of inspiration.  

We use two kinds of prompt: quotes and illustrations. A ‘quote’ prompt is incorporated into the text, perhaps to show what is physically happening, as part of dialogue, to build description or portray feelings towards a certain character; ‘illustrations’ can depict setting or an emotive subject for the protagonist. As you get ready to write your Firewords masterpiece and any other prompt piece you are getting to grips with, here are some ideas on how to write for them.


1. Use the prompt. If a prompt is set, the publisher wants the prompt used. An error is to bury your head in the sand and not use the prompt at all but write a really nice story on the general theme that has been suggested. Likewise, not investing enough in it and creating an inconsequential, unnecessary sentence containing the prompt won’t look good or stand you in good stead. 

2. Make a conscious decision of whether to be literal or figurative. Either way that is chosen can be a hit or a miss. Both are open to interpretation. It is the quality of this interpretation that success or failure hangs on.   

3. If a quote is being used, give it some importance within the text. 

Example 1: Placing the quote either at the start or end of the piece will help make it a key point on which the whole story hangs.

Example 2: Using the quote in a way that, while straightforward, is innovative and still manages to take us by surprise.

4. If the prompt is a visual one, try to think outside the box. 

Example 1: Pictures can form the basis of the setting of a story. As the main setting, this can make the prompt integral to everything the story is about. However, it could also be one small moment in the story and act as a catalyst for action.

Example 2: Pictures can pinpoint the emotion of the protagonist. The best way to do this is to layer the emotion, looking at different aspects of the image and inferring different meanings. For example, if the image is a woman leaning against a parked Cadillac on a sunny street, you might infer A) that the happiness and ‘sunshine’ inside the young protagonist is like a parked car: it’s not going anywhere and makes for a bright, long, happy future. B) that the happiness and ‘sunshine’ inside the protagonist is based on the arrival of the woman (a lover or good friend), is only applicable for as long as she stays and will be gone on the inevitable day when she drives away.   


1.Try to fit a prompt into a story you have already written because this tends to be contrived, forced, and your reader can sense it a mile away! 

2. Write the prompt into your work in a really obvious or overwritten way. With literal interpretations of a prompt, this will make your piece more difficult to get noticed and stand out from the crowd.With figurative treatment of the prompt, this can be great with a healthy imagination, but there is the real danger of overwriting. You want the prompt to be integral to the story but not the entire thing. 

3. Jump in with your first idea because that might be overdone. Even a well-written piece loses its effectiveness when compared to a dozen stories which have been treated in exactly the same way. Take a while to let the idea settle. It may well be that, after thinking about it, you decide to use that initial vision and it works well. Just don’t do this without careful thought and consideration of a variety of ideas. 

However you choose to approach a prompt piece, DO let the added challenge inspire you and DON’T let it get on top of you. The prompt can be a hook for your entire story, which is a benefit that you just don’t have when sitting with a blank piece of paper to write a new piece. Enjoy it! 

For more information on our short story writing competition with Firewords Quarterly and how to enter, click here.