Writing Prompts from Classic Stories

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Here’s a way to come up with story ideas: retell a classic story, with a twist or two. Or merely use an extant story for inspiration.

Finding inspiration in other stories is a long-held tradition in every medium, including film, television, and prose. Walt Disney is the obvious example, having made umpteen animated features out of fairy tales and historical accounts. In general, films are frequently made out of stories original published as novels or originally told as history… or originally released as earlier films.

Michelle Hickman does something similar with her Fractured Fairy Tales, which are nothing like the Fractured Fairy Tales they used to air on Rocky and Bullwinkle (because those were animated, and these are not).

I myself have been wanting to try my hand at Biblical fiction, retelling some of the old Bible stories in a modern style, filling in historical details and character motivations, giving the stories my own distinct feel. And last week, I actually did so, in miniature.

An Example: Rahab and the Spies

I wrote a short-short story about Rahab and the Israelite spies in Jericho, inspired from the traditional tale in the Bible (Joshua chapter 2). But my story is a prequel of sorts. It’s sorta sandwiched into the prologue of the original:

Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.

I got my story idea when someone asked a common question: “Why did the spies go to a prostitute’s house?” There are a number of standard answers people give— such as that Rahab wasn’t actually a whore; she was just an innkeeper (of the kind of “inn” where guests commonly stay only a few hours in the afternoon, and sleep overnight on the roof amongst the stinky drying flax); or that God “led them there” (which I guess is as good a cop-out as any).

None of the standard answers makes for a very good story, which is typical, because standard answers usually minimize the conflict. Political correctness usually demands simplistic heroes and villains filling stereotypical roles, whereas realistic characters are motivated by human frailty and self-contradiction. The human condition is almost never so clean-cut as a politically correct hero. That’s why in the stories I like best, the prince is at least as likely to be corrupt as he is to be noble, because only in vacuous fairy tales are princes faultlessly virtuous. In reality, princes are power-hungry egocentrics, and sometimes they do good things, and sometimes they screw up. And that’s life.

So I gave a decidedly non-standard answer to the standard question, “Why did the spies go to a prostitute’s house?” The spies went to Rahab’s house, because they were doing what spies typically do: snooping for information. They probably figured that Rahab knew the inside story, directly from city officials whom she had as regular clients. After writing half my story, I realized that they also probably figured that they could hide out in Rahab’s house inconspicuously, that the townsfolk would avoid noticing a couple of vagrants staying the night with a local hooker.

But these answers only posed more questions for me, which good answers frequently do. How did the spies facilitate their introduction to Rahab? And more importantly, why did Rahab herself decide to help them? The answer given in the traditional story falls short: that she was afraid of the Israelite God. Yeah, okay, fear can be a powerful motivator. But fear is only a symptom, a feeling that comes from an unmet need. What were Rahab’s unmet needs?

Once I began to answer that question, I had my story. Rahab was probably afraid, yes, but particularly afraid for herself and her family. A little research showed that Rahab might have lived in a low-property-values area, outside of the fortified city proper, exposed to attack. If so, she was probably also poor, part of the working class rather than the ruling class. Maybe her family grew and processed flax in order to make ends meet. And maybe that’s also why she got into prostitution, to make ends meet. But these things don’t alone make her a traitor to her countrymen. As a poor prostitute, maybe the other citizens of Jericho looked down on her, someone to be used rather than someone with a life and purpose. Although she was tight with her immediate family, she had only loose ties with broader Jericho society: another unmet need.

So I told my story from Rahab’s perspective, speculating as to her motives and the details left out of the classic account. As a result, my story is not about Rahab saving the Israelite spies. Rather, it is about the connection she established with them, and the unlikely grace that eventually turned a foreign whore into a Jewish matriarch. And writing this story, I realized that I could also read the original story in that context, though no one I’ve encountered has made the case as powerfully as writing this story has for me. (But that’s a different blog post.)

How to Use a Classic Story as a Writing Prompt

To use a classic story as a writing prompt, start—of course—with a classic story. It can be a popular fairy tale, a legend from your own or another culture, an historical account, or even a favorite play or movie. (But be careful about respecting current copyrights and the legalities of fair use.)

Then add additional information or change a key assumption in the story. This will almost surely provoke an alternative interpretation of the story. Look at a specific element or plot point, and ask open-ended challenge questions, such as:

  • What deep-seated, unstated reasons might the characters have for their choices?
  • What secrets are the characters hiding from us in the traditional account?
  • What important facts did the traditional account leave out or get wrong?
  • What if one important plot point were changed? How would it affect the story?
  • What happened before or after the traditional story?
  • What if the traditional story universe were combined or juxtaposed with elements from another story universe?
  • What’s the strangest thing that could have happened in the story? The happiest? The darkest? The funniest?

Try to come up with unusual or creative answers, and look for ideas that inspire or excite you.

When you’ve decided what story you want to write, lay out the events of your new story as though it were a fresh idea. Remember, you’re not telling the same story that has been told before; you’re telling your own story, which just happens to be inspired by a classic story. Choose a story format (e.g., flash, short story, novella, novel, etc.), narrative point-of-view, writing style, and so forth, just as if you were writing your own story from the ground up. Choose your new story form to highlight the elements and themes you see in your derived story; don’t feel beholden to the way the story was originally told, because the original story is just a writing prompt for you.

A Few to Get You Started

Here are several story prompts I came up with using this technique:

  • The story of the Prodigal Son is actually a story about two brothers, each very different from the other. What kind of a relationship did those two brothers have growing up?

  • In the story of the Four Iroquois Hunters, who would it be today, in the year 2010? (Four women gossiping at lunch? The winner doesn’t have to pay her share of the check?)

  • Everyone—even non-Trekkies—loves the Star Trek original-series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” So… what actually happened after they beamed the whole kit-’n’-caboodle over onto the Klingon ship? (How many Klingons had to be hospitalized? How many needed psychiatric treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder? “My only regret is that I couldn’t have taken more of the damned little horrors with me when I died.”)

  • What if Columbo got on the wrong track, and his guilty party is actually innocent?

  • What if Moriarty were to leave a false trail of evidence for Holmes to follow, a subtle enough trail that Holmes believes he’s actually on the right track?

  • How come the self-destructing tape in Mission: Impossible never accidentally explodes in Jim Phelps’s face? And what if the bad guys learned the magic karate chop that can instantly knock out an opponent? Or got ahold of one of those très kewl chemical spritzers that cause a grown man to pass out in two seconds flat?

You get the idea. Run with your own variations. (Or swipe one of these, if you’d like, but your own are probably better for you.)

If you use this technique and post your story online, please leave a link to your story in the comments!

Keep writing!


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2 responses to “Writing Prompts from Classic Stories”

  1. Michelle H. Avatar

    Again, I’m deeply touched that you would link me in a post. I’ve been blogging sporadically at best, and trying to catch up with a lot of blogs, which is the reason for the late reply. Thank you for the mention.

    As for reworking Biblical works, that is no small task. I wish you luck in such an endeavor.

  2. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Hi, Michelle. Your Fractured Fairy Tales just came to mind as a good example, because I typically enjoy what you do with them. (Even though I know others do similar stories, yours were the ones I thought of.)

    Right now, when I come up with an idea for a rework of a Biblical story, I write it in my story-idea journal. At least then I’ll be able to come back to it later and flesh it out. Mostly, I find myself spending a lot of time on research, which on the one hand sparks all kinds of ideas but on the other hand proceeds slowly.


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