This page features weekly story prompts and “Finish this Story” openers to get your creative juices flowing.
Visit the Cabin Tales Blog Page for episode shownotes that include links to writing exercises mentioned on the podcast.
Prompt from Episode 6: Begin in the Darkness
“Flowers in the Graveyard”
Keep your eyes open as you walk around your town, and when you see someone do something odd, think, could this be the opening of a story? Who would tell this story? How would they begin? Immersed in an early scene? In the middle of the plot? When the story is over, swearing to you that they’re about to tell you the truth?
Today I was walking my dog when I saw this girl, maybe 18 or so, cutting through the cemetery. I love to walk my dog in the cemetery because it’s not creepy in the daytime. It’s a very well-maintained cemetery, and huge, like a big city block. There are twenty different sections to it, old ones and new ones. And every road is lined with giant maple and elm trees and oak trees. And there are dozens and dozens of squirrels there. It’s very beautiful and peaceful.
And I’m always touched by the tokens of love that the living leave for the dead. There are some graves that are not even that recent, but people still bring flowers to all the time. Sometimes planted, sometimes plastic, but some people bring bouquets of fresh-cut flowers. So I was quite shocked when this girl cut through the cemetery and on her way across, she stepped off the road onto the grass, and she walked right up to a headstone and she took the flowers that were resting against it. She didn’t replace them with fresher ones – she wasn’t visiting the grave. She was stealing, from the dead. And I thought, there’s a story in that. And what if the story is that the dead person – it’s a horror story – the dead person is an evil spirit who demands fresh flowers every week. Maybe they’ve been terrorizing their daughter or their granddaughter for years, since they died. And now that this girl took the flowers, they are going to take revenge.
And that’s your story prompt for today. You know what’s going to happen in the story: an evil spirit is going to get revenge. Write an opening line for it. How would you open this tale? With the discover that the flowers are gone? With the death of the evil spirit? With the culmination of his revenge? With a scene of the witness walking her dog, wondering what kind of person would steal from a grave?
Prompt from Episode 5: Squirm
If your story has no tension, maybe you haven’t given us a character to root for. Or you haven’t told us what the character’s goal is. Or you haven’t put enough problems in the path to that goal. Or you haven’t written it in a captivating way.
Make us feel for your characters and foreshadow what we’re about to go through with them. And go for the emotions.
My neighbour recently told me a heartbreaking story about his son, Simon. He’s a young teen with intellectual challenges, and he’s a really sweet kid. And he was invited to a friend’s cottage to see the fall leaves, and they all stayed over. Simon has a very hard time telling nice people apart from mean people. But my neighbour had known these other kids for years and he thought they were nice. But really, anyone can be nice to their friend’s father, right? No matter what they’re planning.
So, Simon brought a lot of things to the cottage, because he was super excited to be going overnight without his dad. And so he brought books and art supplies and a whittling kit—he’s a very talented carver—and he also brought his bunny. He has a pet rabbit—she’s a little grey furball. Her breed is called a Jersey Woolly and her name is Woolly. Simon named her. She’s tiny, like two pounds. And Simon carries her around in a satchel when she’s not in her hutch. He doesn’t feel comfortable without her. And the parents of the friends he was staying with said they didn’t care if he brought her. And Simon’s father said it was okay so long as he brought Woolly’s carrying case to keep her in when they went swimming and hiking and everything – because obviously you don’t want a pet rabbit lost in the woods.
And that’s your story prompt for today. I have a lot more story to go with it, but I’m not going to tell you because you can make up yours. You have everything you need. You have a vulnerable protagonist who’d do anything to protect his little bunny. You have a suggestion that the friends aren’t really friends at all, and their parents are going to be oblivious to whatever they get up to. And I told you straight off that the story would break your heart. So. You’re prepared for something awful.
That is a complete fabrication, by the way. My neighbour has no children. So don’t feel too sorry for Simon or little Woolly because they don’t exist. And you can take their story anywhere you want it to go. Build more tension. Draw out the dread. Make us squirm. But please don’t kill the bunny.
Prompt from Episode 4: Bad Things Happen
All-ages Prompt: “Crossing the Field”
Plotting is all about choices. Choices you make as an author. Choices you offer to your character, and the paths they take and the paths they leave behind.
I often think about plots as I walk my dog. There’s a field at the top of my street where I let him run off-leash. It’s a big block of scrubland between a grocery store and a golf course, just wild meadow left undeveloped. And there’s almost never anyone there. My dog is a bit of a jerk with other dogs, so he never gets off leash unless I’m absolutely sure there’s no one else around. And this is a huge meadow, so I can see at a glance that no one is there. And so it’s my dog’s favourite place to walk.
The meadow is fenced on the north side where it backs onto the golf course, and it’s heavily treed along the fence so you can’t even see the golfers. But it’s open on the south side and completely visible from the grocery store parking lot. The field is very large; it takes about ten minutes to walk across it. But it’s split right down the middle by a thin line of trees that comes down from the golf course. So it’s almost like two separated fields, each about 5 minutes across. There’s a path that cuts through the trees, so you don’t have to walk all the way down to the parking lot to cross into the other half of the field. The line of trees that splits the meadow isn’t very wide, it’s maybe 50 feet, just 15 or 20 steps through the trees and then you’re out into the other half of the meadow.
But once you step into the trees, the path curves, so you can’t actually see the meadow on the other side. And after three steps, you can’t see the meadow that you just came from either. I always leash my dog as we cut through the trees, just in case there’s another dog on the other side. And there always a real feeling, when I step into those trees, of disappearing. Because it’s not just that I can’t see the meadow anymore. It’s that we can’t be seen, either. And so, it feels like vanishing, like stepping out of the world when I enter the trees, and then back into the world when I exit the trees into the other side of the meadow. And I can’t help thinking, each time I walk my dog into those trees, What if someone came out of the grocery store and looked up and saw a person and a dog walk across the meadow into the trees and then never come out the other side? And that’s your story prompt for today.
Plot out a story for “Crossing the Field.” You can make it a simple plot – nothing but that moment where someone steps out of the grocery store and sees someone they know cross the field. Maybe it’s a parent watching their kid. Or maybe it’s a teen watching their former best friend. Or it’s a person watching someone who has done them harm in the past. And then alternate details of the present tiny plot with memories and reflections and thoughts and feelings of your onlooker that will make this tiny plot into a meaningful story.
Or, use this opening to launch into a classic or complicated plot. Stepping into the trees could be the inciting incident to any plot at all: there could be a party in the trees; it could be a dog party. It could be a portal to another world. There could be an injured bear in there. Or this could be some dystopian society and the walker is trying to escape. The onlooker could be an ally or a tattler. There’s no end to the plotting you might do.
Prompt from Episode 3: Spooky Stories are All Around Us
All-ages Prompt: “The Object Study”
When I was younger and I thought I wanted to be a teacher, I spent a whole summer running a day camp. And I found out very quickly that I was not cut out to be a teacher. I really like kids and I really like learning, and I really like helping kids learn. But I have no authority. It’s just a certain element you need in your personality to be a good teacher. And I do not have it. Also, I have a soft spot for naughty children because they’re kind of bored and they don’t want to be there, and who can’t relate to that?
So in this day camp, I tried not to have favourites, and I really liked all the kids who were in it—but I especially liked the naughty kids – but there was this one boy who was a little harder to like than some other kids. He was very very smart, and probably bored. But he made fun of the other children’s ideas. And he had a cruel wit, and because he was smart, he could really wield it well. A know-it-all who doesn’t really know much is easier to feel for because you think they’re maybe trying to overcompensate for something, some insecurity. But a know-it-all who really does know it all is just arrogant and hard to like.
So this boy—we’ll call him Aaron—he was always correcting the other kids and making fun of them for not knowing as much as he did. And he really liked it when they would make mistakes because then he could pounce on them and correct them. There were still many likable things about him, not the least being his intelligence. And I’m sure that he would have grown up to become a highly productive and maybe even influential member of society if things had gone differently at camp.
But one day, things just went badly. Honestly, they went badly in some way every day, really. It was an environmental-themed day camp, and we did activities like we made iron-on designs for reusable shopping bags. And Aaron would ask about everyone else’s graphic designs, “What’s that supposed to be? An eagle? It doesn’t look like an eagle. Don’t you know what an eagle looks like?” And then we’d go hiking through the forest path, and Aaron would ask “What bird is that calling?” And always some other kid would guess, “I think it’s a cardinal.” And Aaron would pounce, “No. It’s not a cardinal. It’s a robin. Don’t you know what a robin sounds like?” And that is pretty much how it went. So people started to talk less and less freely and everyone looked forward to the times when we’d watch a nature show or write a nature story.
Now, writing a nature story is not what you’d generally call a dangerous activity. But to help the kids start a story, I brought in a bunch of props for object studies. I still do this – I just use better judgement as to what props I bring, because I learned from this camp experience.
But I do collect a lot of unusual things. And some of them I will tell unusual stories about. Like I have a rain-stick from Nairobi that really makes it rain. And I have a whalebone from the Arctic than can make the sun rise. And I have a pair of beaded gloves from Barcelona which – well, I know nowwhat they do, but at the time I wasn’t exactly sure what they were supposed to do, because the old woman who made them, or who sold them to me, didn’t speak enough English and I didn’t speak enough Spanish to understand what she said. Although she did make it clear that these were very powerful gloves and I should probably not let any child I loved put these gloves on. But who takes that seriously, right? It’s at a market in Spain; you just buy the gloves.
So anyway, they were very small gloves. And I had never worn them myself because they were much too small. And it was just bad luck for Aaron that he had such a big brain and such small hands. And also that he just would not be told. So when he chose the gloves – and they were exquisitely beaded gloves; he actually had to wrench the gloves away from Moira, this girl in the camp who saw the gloves first and she really loved them. And she was just like, “Whatever, it’s not worth fighting Aaron over.” And she took a little music box instead. So Aaron got the gloves. And I told him, “Just look at them, Aaron. And you can touch the beads and the cloth and use them to inspire a nature story. Like maybe a squirrel finds the glove and insulates her nest with it. Just, whatever you do, don’t put those gloves on.”
But Aaron thought he knew better than anyone and he would not be told. So he took the gloves back to his desk and that’s your story prompt for today.
Finish the story. What happened to Aaron, poor Aaron, after he put on the magic gloves? Or pick up another object near you and write a story about that. Think of a character holding it. What are they going to do with it? Where is it going to lead?
Prompts from Episode 2: Nasty People Meet Nasty Ends
Spooky Prompt: “Alone on Swimmer’s Graveyard”
I had a friend when I was younger, Cora, who was very timid. And her boyfriend John was very aggressive, and together they were like the protagonist and antagonist in a story, usually a sad and repetitive story because life is like that. But things got a little more interesting when we all went to my cabin. This was long ago. I invited Cora, and John just kind of invited himself. And the whole time, John just kind of sat there while Cora fetched his dinner and his drink and his book. To be fair, he had his arm in a cast because he’d recently fallen off a bicycle. And he was really milking that. And he insulted the cabin a lot. “It’s so small.” Which it was, small, and it was really small with him in it.
So on the second day, we took the boat out to an island that has some woods and a big clearing and a firepit and a nice sandy beach. John swam a lot. Cora was afraid of water. She wasn’t a good swimmer. In fact, I’m not sure she could swim at all. She wore her life jacket the whole time. She’d seen a woman drown in a motel pool when she was little and she never trusted water. She liked to look at it but she didn’t like to swim.
And this island was actually called Swimmer’s Graveyard by the locals because it has a really unexpected severe drop-off not far from shore and you cannot see it at all from the surface. You’re wading happily and then you can take one more step and whoosh, you’re suddenly in over your head. And this fact just delighted John. He would tread water just past the drop-off and shout to Cora, “Come on out!” He was just trying to get her in over her head. He was just that kind of guy.
So I just took off on my own after lunch and took some pictures of mushrooms because that’s something I like to do. So I was in the wooded part of the island and I didn’t really know what was going on in the clearing. And when I got back, they were both standing on shore and the boat was gone. It had been tied to a little birch sapling not far from the sandy part of the beach and there was still rope tied to the sapling but the boat was gone. And it wasn’t even visible. Like it was completely gone, as if someone had towed it away.
It was Cora who had tied the boat. She was really good at knots. And John was saying, “You didn’t tie it right. You let it get away.” But she knew her knots – and this was before you could just look them up on a phone—and she said it had been tied in a rolling hitch, so if the boat had pulled, it just would have gotten tighter and there was no way it could have come undone by itself. So she said, “Maybe there’s someone else on the island.”
And that was not a thought I wanted to entertain. Because it was a small island, and if there was someone on it, they were being really quiet. And we would have heard another boat drive up. The most logical conclusion was that the boat had just drifted.
But there were kayaks back at the cabin, so I said I would swim to the cabin and come back with the kayaks. So I gave Cora my camera and I took her life jacket. I’m not a great swimmer.
Cora really didn’t want me to go. She looked so worried. But she always looked worried. She was a worrier. She kept saying, “I’m sorry,” about losing my boat. And John kept saying, “You’re always sorry.”
It was true. Cora was always sorry. She’d been saying sorry for the whole two years they’d been dating. And I guess – I didn’t know this at the time, but I guess while I was out taking pictures and they were alone at the firepit, and Cora was dousing the fire and John was whining about clouds coming in—I guess she had finally found the courage to tell him it was over, that she was going away to do her Masters the next week and she never wanted to see him again.
But I didn’t know that she had told him that. I didn’t know that when I swam away with her life jacket, and left the two of them alone on Swimmer’s Graveyard, in the middle of nowhere, with clouds coming in, and that’s your story prompt for today.
Write your own ending to Swimmer’s graveyard. That is not a true story, by the way. I’ve never even met anyone named Cora in my life. But I have known couples like John and Cora, and so I took that inspiration from real people and completely made stuff up. And you can do that too.
Fright-free Story Prompt: “The Busy Pine Squirrel”
I was very struck by a little pine squirrel who lives in my yard. All last winter, she was the busiest, most industrious animal that I have ever seen.
We have a walnut tree that grows beside our deck. And so in the fall, last fall, it was just full of walnuts. And walnuts are like big green balls when the grow from the tree. They’re twice or more the size of the brown nut in the shell. And so this pine squirrel complete denuded the walnut tree. One by one, she stripped every single nut off the tree. And she took it from the tree and she burrowed under our deck and she kept all the walnuts under the deck. And she defended her territory. Anytime another squirrel tried to get to that tree, she would chase them away chittering.
And so one by one, she took every single walnut off that tree – she must have taken a thousand walnuts and they were all buried under our deck. And so she didn’t have much room for more. And so then, one by one, she took each nut out from under the deck and she shucked it. She stripped off all the green stuff and then she buried the brown nut again under the deck and made more room for more food.
And so she was busy every second of every day. And then after she had taken all the walnuts off the tree and shucked every single nut and stored every single nut, well then, she just sat there on the deck with no more walnuts to attend to, with all of this energy with nowhere to go.
And that’s your story prompt for today. What does a character with so much energy go when their to-do list is done?
Prompts from Episode 1: Things hide in the dark
Spooky Prompt: “The Drummer in the Basement“
There is a place that makes me a little nervous, and that’s my basement. We live in an old house, like over a hundred years old. And the basement is really just a cellar. It’s unfinished and it’s only about 5 feet high so you can’t actually stand up fully. You have to walk hunched over. And whenever you lift your head up a little bit, it gets caught in the cobwebs. The walls are stone and concrete, and they’re a little bit crumbly. There are big beams and boards exposed in the ceiling, and pipes hanging down. And the lights have individual chains next to the bulb that you have to pull to light them. So you sort of light your way one bulb at a time if you have to cross the basement. It’s dank and dark. And, even creepier, there’s a small cement cell in one corner, that used to be a coal chute. It’s kind of like a creepy closet within the creepy basement.
We don’t keep much down there except Christmas decorations and old toys. If we had a ventriloquist’s dummy, you know that it would be perched on a box of dolls next to the coal chute. But we also keep a drum kit there. My youngest son plays the drums. And drums arent’ like pianos. You don’t set them up in the living room and hope that guests will play them. You stick them in the basement and you hope the earth will absorb most of their sound. so anytime you want to play the drums, you have to go down into the creepy basement. It’s not that bad, once you’re sitting.
Now, to get to the basement, you go through a door in the hallway next to our kitchen. Being an old house, everything is built very strong, and this is a thick hardwood door at the top of the basement stairs.
Now, our house has changed hands many times over the past hundred years. And at some point in the past, someone attached a bolt high up on this door so that it locks from the outside. Now, we assume it was a parent who was child-proofing. The basement stairs are very dangerous. They have no back to them. They have no rail. A child could easily fall down the stairs and crack her skull on the concrete floor. A horrific accident. So some father or mother bolted the door shut. Because why else would you put a lock on the outside of a basement door?
Now, one day when my son was a young teen, his dad and I went out for the evening and we left him in charge of his little brother. It was night. It was late. It was dark. And he was feeling pretty good about being home without his parents. Until he was standing in the kitchen and he heard someone hitting the drums in the dark in the basement beneath his feet.
And he walked softly down the hall to the basement door. And yes, the bolt was shut tight. So anything in the basement had to have come from the basement.
And he heard it again, someone on the snare drum. Not playing it like you or I would play it, with a pair of sticks and a light rhythm. Not like this [drumbeat]. More like a bare hand slapping the drum skin [hollow bang], over and over [hollow bang]. Maybe playing [bang]. Maybe teasing [bang]. Maybe daring him [bang] to come down [bang] into the darkness.
And that’s your story prompt for this week. It’s time to write your own tale. Start with a setting. You can use my creepy basement. That is a true story, by the way, and I’m not going to tell you the end of it. You’re going to make that up yourself. You can start with a setting of your own that scares you.
Fright-free Prompt: “The House with Two Doors”
I live in an old house. It’s like a little cottage. We have a big yard, with lots of trees and shrubs and gardens. All the cats in the neighbourhood love our yard because there are so many places to lounge on a sunny day.
We have two cats at home, Isis and Ember, and they both go out on summer days. But neither of them likes the winter. As soon as it gets cold or it snows, they’ll just flick their paws and run back inside. But every summer they get used to going outside and they totally forget that winter is even possible.
Now, our house has a front door and a back door. And it never fails, every year when the first snow falls, our cats will go to the back door to go out, as usual. And I’ll open the door, as usual, and they’ll stare in horror at the snow. And immediately, they’ll head back inside.
And they’ll go straight to the front door. Like maybe summer is still out front. It’s worth a shot, right? So I’ll open the front door and no, there’s winter, so they’ll just go to the couch and act grumpy for the day and wait for summer.
But I was thinking, wouldn’t it be awesome if you had a house with two doors, like mine, and each door really did lead to a different world? Maybe different seasons, like my cats would like. Or maybe different yards, or different civilizations, or different times in history. And each day you could choose, do I go out the back door or out the front?
And that’s your story prompt for the week. Write about a house with two doors, and what sorts of places those doors lead to. Then put a character inside the house and have them open up a door and walk outside.