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Commentary on “Oscar and Olivia”

What If?
The Power of Prompts

Richard C. McPherson

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s perhaps the most common question fiction writers get, and though we might be tempted to claim a mysterious muse or uncanny powers of observation, the answer is often much more practical: the humble prompt. These short invitations appear simply to ask writers to consider an idea or situation, but their real purpose is to ignite a fiction writer’s favorite game: What if?

“Oscar and Olivia” began as a prompt to take two characters who would normally never be acquainted, much less friends, and force them to share a life-or-death situation. The “what ifs” tumbled out: What if one character wasn’t even a person? What if the entire world could see their plight – but only the reader knew the full story? The “what ifs” are still piling up, and my writing coach is encouraging me to treat the Oscar and Olivia story appearing in Twelve Winters as a “pilot,” with subsequent “episodes.” (There is no “what if” quite so motivating to a writer as this one: “What if this were a Netflix series?”)

It’s worth adding that prompts sometimes help expand an existing work. My first published short story, “Man Wanted in Cheyenne,” was about an aging cowboy, based on a prompt to “ignore conventional advice about creating conflict and write about someone who is simply happy.” A year later, I was given a prompt in a workshop to create a scene in which one person waits to meet someone else for the first time, killing time alone in that person’s private space, learning about them as he waits. I threw my peaceful cowboy together with a Hollywood mega-star during a movie location shoot. The result (three years later), was my first novel, also titled Man Wanted in Cheyenne, which was released January 31 by Unleash Press.

When I tell readers I love to use prompts, they’re sometimes let down at the thought that the resulting story began with someone else’s “idea.” But a prompt isn’t so much an idea; it’s more like a key, able to open a door to ideas slumbering inside us already — a memorable character needing to face the right conflict, a epic setting crying to be populated, a mundane situation begging to be deliciously complicated. When I need a break, one of my favorite activities is to settle into a comfy chair and read a cornucopia of writing prompts from the stack I keep in my study. They stir the imagination and remind me why many of us write fiction in the first place: to look at human complexity and ask, “what if …?”

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Richard C. McPherson’s work has appeared in Living Springs Anthology Stories Through the Ages, the Black Fox Literary Journal, Unleash Press 2022 Anthology, Conversations, The Write Launch, and Bright Flash Literary Review. His first novel, Man Wanted in Cheyenne, was released in January 2023. Visit at

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