Writing Better Prompts, Starters, & Beginnings:
A Few Pointers
When it comes to your roleplaying prompt or the beginning of your story, first impressions are of primary importance: if people aren't impressed by what they see at first, they're most likely going to move on to something else - so here are a few pointers to help you get people drawn into and engaged into what you put out.
Table of Contents
- Set the place and atmosphere.
- Show people something that will pique their curiosity!
- Be cautious of these particularly annoying elements in prompts and beginnings.
- In summary...
Set the place and atmosphere.
You don’t want to end up with descriptions that, for all of the details you’ve given, your characters might as well be standing around in empty white rooms. You don’t need to be hyper-detailed and describe every bush and brick, but you want to give people enough of an idea that they can paint a reasonable picture of the setting in their minds.
You also need to be careful that you’re not actually giving people far less information than you think you are. For example, many prompts and beginnings give only the most generic and vague indicators of of the character’s location - for example, I’ve seen many beginnings and starters that essentially go “So-and-so walked through the city...”
This actually gives very little information. Is this a residential, commercial, or industrial part of the city? Is this a well-off area where the buildings are in good repair, or is this a poor and run-down district? Is it somewhere in the inner city, or on the outskirts, or somewhere between? Can you be relatively certain of your safety here, or is this a place where you might get knifed for your wristwatch? Is this city inland, or near the coast? What’s the climate like? How about the weather? What time of day is it? Are we even in a contemporary city of Earth, or are we in some fantastic world of the future or something?
Likewise, if you’re describing your character’s home, what’s it like? How old is it? Is it in good repair? Is it clean, or messy? What’s the general decor style like? What colors is it primarily decorated with? And remember: the contents and state of a character’s house is a great way to convey information about its occupants! For example, a rack of antlers could indicate that someone who is into game hunting lives there, a cross on the wall might indicate a religious person, and jam smeared on the table and toys left around can indicate the presence of young children. Green, brown, and other natural colors and nature motifs on the wallpaper could indicate a nature-lover.
Be careful that you don’t take any setting for granted. Is your castle well-maintained, or is it a crumbling structure? Which room are you in? Is your tavern bright and cheery, or is it dark and seedy? What part of town is it in? Where is your quaint little magic village located? What kinds of geological features are around it, and where? And so on and so forth, with any setting or location you use.
Show people something that will pique their curiosity!
Every prompt and beginning needs to have something that grabs people’s attentions and makes them want to see or know more in order to make them willing to keep reading or to participate in the story. Maybe there’s a new realm or world for them to see and explore, or a strange new artifact to find out what does. Maybe there’s a dramatic, suspenseful, or mysterious scenario playing out.
If your prompt or starter is supposed to hook people in with a character, you must remember one very important truth: nobody is as interested in your character as you are. (Protip: Never gush over how amazing/talented/badass/interesting your characters are out-of-story - you'll sound arrogant and self-absorbed, even if they are great characters.) You, having created this character, already have some level of emotional attachment to xir, and you (presumably) know what makes your character interesting or admirable. A person who sees your character for the first time has no attachment to your character whatsoever, and can only see the traits you successfully convey in your storytelling. They also can’t see inside your head to know what your character’s made of - so you have to show them.
If you are writing a roleplaying prompt, not only do you have to get the player engaged in a character, but you have to make a reason for the player’s character to become engaged in the character, too. Would any real person who knew as much about your character as the other player’s character could be expected to know be expected to start interacting with your character? Would the character you’re aiming to have interact with yours realistically have any motivation to - eg, would a villain who has to act quickly to set xir plans in motion stop to seduce someone who basically amounts to a random mook? If not, then you need to fix that.
And while we’re at it, simply making a character exceptionally beautiful or handsome is not a very good way to try and grab people’s attention and make people want to know more about a character. See also So You Want To Have An Attractive Character?
Be cautious of these particularly annoying elements in prompts and beginnings.
The Nuclear Space Elephant In The Room: Something that in reality or within the context of the universe would be a pretty big or extraordinary event clearly happened before the story started, but it’s either completely unexplained or poorly handwaved (EG, “oh by the way, America was enslaved by vampires after the president signed away the country in 2023”), and it’s clear that the writer has no plans of ever explaining or justifying what happened beyond the laziest of handwaves. Unless you’re aiming for surreality, extraordinary happenings require extraordinary explanations.
The Infodump of Irrelevance: Where the reader is piled under with a ton of information that doesn't actually contribute to building up the setting or atmosphere, nor does it contain any vital information necessary to know before the story gets rolling. (And yes, the Nuclear Space Elephant In The Room and the Infodump of Irrelevance can and do overlap when writers get so caught up in showing people details that don't actually matter that they forget to check and make sure that they included the ones that do.)
A Protagonist Is Born: Where the story opens with the protagonist's birth. Usually completely pointless as there's rarely ever anything in them that we wouldn't easily find out along the rest of the story. Often comes with a heaping helping of glurge with mothers tearfully cooing over how perfect or special the baby is and/or dying in a state of blissful serenity.
I Wake Up In My Bed: Where the story opens with the protagonist waking up in bed. Not only is this one incredibly overdone, these openings rarely, if ever do or show anything important to the story. Skip it and start with something actually interesting instead.
Death On The First Page: Basically, killing characters off (usually friends or family of the main character) before the audience has the chance to form an emotional connection to anyone in the story, whether on the literal first page or not. This is a very ineffective way to start a story off, because with no emotional investment in who is dying or being affected by the death, audiences really aren't going to be emotionally affected. Compare Finding Nemo, Up, and Big Hero 6, which have family deaths that matter to the audience.
Abuse As Usual: Where the story opens on a scene of the character being abused by chronically-abusive parents, physically and/or verbally. Fails to engage or affect the reader for the same reason as the above beginning - we don't care enough about the character yet to actually empathize with the character's pain.
Poor Little Me!: Where the reader immediately gets dumped on with a recap of how awful a character’s life has been up to this point and how miserable the character is right now in an overblown attempt to make people feel sorry for the character.
I’m So Special Look At Me!: Where the reader is immediately dumped on with a description of how exquisitely beautiful, talented, different, or unique a character is, rather than anything that could actually make the reader emotionally connect to the character or create genuine intrigue around xir.
Holing Up For A Hero: Where we’re introduced to a character (usually a thinly-veiled author avatar) who has no gumption or get-up-and-go beyond the bare minimum of what it will take to glom onto someone who can pull xir out of xir life of boring blah drudgery and into a life of thrills and excitement. (Bonus points if the character has been mooning over an intended love interest after a single brief meeting!) Such characters are hood ornaments, which make for boring protagonists and RP characters.
Out Stalking For A Hero: A character who is supposed to be a sympathetic protagonist, if not a potential love interest, essentially stalks down another character, and it’s supposed to be seen as cute, romantic, or a sign of ~true love~ rather than creepy or weird. There are much better and more legal ways to meet someone.
Alternate Universe Overload: Where the AUs are stacked on so thick that the only thing the characters have in common with their original counterparts is their names… and sometimes, not even that. If it reaches that point, you might as well just be writing for an original universe.
So, in summary...
- Describe the setting enough that people can know what kind of place they're in.
- Show people something to pique their interest or curiosity.
- If anything about your setting is exceptionally strange, offer some explanation as to how it got that way.
- If you're in a roleplay, give people a reason to interact with your characters besides them simply being there.
- Don't pile the AUs on so high that there's nothing left of the original material.
You might also be interested in:
On Plot Structure & Plotting
Genre, Plot, & Story Prompt Generators
Tips To Write Better Roleplay Prompts
Tips For Describing & Summarizing Your Story & Pitching Your Plot Ideas
How To Break Your Creative Blocks
Reasons Your Story Might Be Stuck - And How To Fix It
On Showing vs. Telling
Common, Yet Terrible Character Descriptors - And How To Fix Them (And Write Better Descriptions In General)
So You Want To Have A Powerful Or Talented Character Who Probably Won't Be Perceived As A Mary Sue?
Things We Need More In Female Characters & Their Stories