Prompts are an effective way of getting a writer’s creative juices flowing—but not all prompts are created equal.
There’s a totally unique, top-notch prompt out there itching to be discovered: it’s two words long and is guaranteed to lead to a unique story. The Two-Noun Prompt method is one of the most powerful inspiration tools a writer can use.
The Two-Noun Prompt Method
Inspiration is a fickle beast; it flows and wanes in irregular patterns. In times of inspiration famine, many writers turn to the Internet and its cache of prompts: wonderful story crumbs that can be baked into full-fledged works.
But mass-produced writing prompts open you up to creating boring, predictable content. Although your take on a popular prompt will be a little different from your peers’ interpretations, you can only write so many variations based on the same idea. Why risk using a second-hand prompt when you can easily create your own?
Creating your own prompt out of thin air is easier said than done. While freewriting, going for a walk, and letting your mind wander are ways to build story ideas, these vague approaches don’t always work well. Sometimes you need more guidance—and this is where the Two-Noun method shines. It gives you the starting materials but allows you to use your creativity to weave them into a tangible story.
Step 1: Generate
The first step of the Two-Noun Prompt method is to generate two random nouns. The best way to do this is via an online generator—the Writing Exercises website has an excellent one that suits this exercise perfectly.
Be wary of using a simple random word generator. Those might also generate verbs or adjectives, and this method works best when you use nouns.
If you don’t have access to the internet, a dictionary can be a good substitute. Open up to a random page and write down the first noun you come across. Repeat the process with another random page, and there you have it: two nouns. Of course, because dictionaries are alphabetized, the selection process isn’t truly random, but this method will work well enough.
If you can’t get online and don’t have a dictionary, you can still use the Two-Noun method by looking at your immediate surroundings. For example, perhaps you’re standing at the bus stop next to the library, and above you there’s a billboard featuring a flamingo. Your two nouns can be “library” and “flamingo.”
No matter which method you use, the key is to choose two objects that you would not normally consider linked in any way.
Step 2: Connect
The second step of the Two-Noun Prompt method is simple: Connect the two nouns. Create the seeds of a story by brainstorming a connection between your two words.
It’s a simple instruction, but sometimes hard to carry out. How in the world do you connect a library with a flamingo? Here are some tips to create a strong connection and, therefore, a strong basis for your story:
- Go with what your gut immediately tells you. Write it down without thinking about it too hard.
- Think contextually. Both words don’t have to be at the forefront of your idea. Perhaps the main character saw a book about flamingos at the local library.
- Write down what emotions each object inspires in you. This often makes possible connections more obvious.
If you’re still a bit unsure about this prompt system, here are some helpful examples to give you a sense of the process:
“Library” and “Flamingo”
My first thought, as mentioned above, is that the main character has found a book about flamingos at the library. How does that translate into a story?
Your character might live somewhere non-tropical—perhaps New York City, in the dead of winter. They trudge through the snow to get to the library. Books are their escape. They spy a book about the Yucatan, with a vivid pink flamingo on the cover, and it captures their imagination. But as they finally close the book, they are brought back to reality—the snow, the cold, and eking out a living in the Big Apple. Perhaps there is something deeper troubling them. That’s up to you. The flamingo seems to stare as they put the book back on its shelf.
We can condense this brainstorming into a single sentence that conveys the beginning of a story: A minimum-wage worker in New York dreams of the Yucatan to escape their urban life and their internal struggles.
“Feathers” and “Bowl”
When I think of these two words, I think of a bowl filled with feathers. Why in the world would someone have a bowl filled with feathers?
Perhaps the main character is a witch, and she uses feathers as an ingredient in her potions. Birds typically represent freedom—so the witch must be creating a potion to free herself from something. Perhaps a curse? Or, perhaps, the scorn of society. Perhaps it goes deeper than that—she is trying to escape herself and what she has become.
This is how I arrived at a story about a witch who is using her magic to escape an identity crisis.
“Lemon” and “Tombstone”
My first thought is of a mourner leaving lemons in front of their loved one’s tombstone. It’s a strange thing to leave at a graveside, for sure. What’s the meaning behind it?
Consider the word “lemon” and how it can refer to something that is defective. It’s also acidic and sour, often irritating. Perhaps the man is leaving lemons on his ex-wife’s grave because she was a sour person. He never saw her after they separated, and now she’s dead. He never had a chance to give her a taste of her own medicine. So now, years later, he goes to her grave and leaves her not flowers, but lemons. Lemons for the world to see. And perhaps in this process, he realizes that he, too, has become a lemon of a person.
This is a story about a man who seeks impossible revenge, only to find that his quest has made him just as sour as the woman who wronged him.
If You Get Stuck, Re-roll!
Sometimes you’ll struggle with two words that don’t resolve in any meaningful or creative connection. That’s okay! The goal is to challenge yourself, but there are certain combinations that may not ring true to you. Re-roll them; choose new random words.
You should, however, strive to make your connections completely unexpected. Good fiction thrives on the unexpected—surprising language, unique stories, and one-of-a-kind connections between ideas you never thought about connecting.