WTF is an “anti-prompt”?

A cartoon-style golden trophy cup sits on a desk in the foreground of a library. Colourful confetti and ribbons surround the cup. A banner reads, "Not Quite Write Prize for Flash Fiction".

Like many other writing competitions, the Not Quite Write Prize uses creative writing prompts to inspire and challenge entrants (and to ensure your entries are written for this comp and not some other purpose).

Unlike other writing competitions, the Not Quite Write Prize also includes something called an “anti-prompt”.

The Not Quite Write Prize anti-prompt challenges entrants to break a traditionally accepted “rule” of writing.

What are the “rules” of writing?

When it comes to the art of writing, there are no “rules”. It’s a no-holds-barred creative pursuit that will look different for everyone.

But, when it comes to the craft of writing, there are many helpful precepts which can guide fiction writers to elevate their prose. These are what we’re calling the “rules” of writing. Understanding these “rules” will help you to craft more compelling stories.

The anti-prompt presents a chance to engage with these rules from a new perspective.

The anti-prompt is a challenge, not a licence.

When we ask you to break a writing rule, we’re not issuing a licence to ignore the rule and its reason for existing. Instead, we’re challenging you to think about why the rule exists, to recognise how it works to elevate prose, and then find a creative way to break the rule without breaking your story.

We’ll use an example to illustrate our point. Most writers have heard of the so-called rule, “Show, don’t tell.”

“Show don’t tell” teaches writers to value dramatisation over description. While proponents of this rule acknowledge that straightforward description can keep a story moving, they’re right that it’s usually more compelling to show the reader what’s happening rather than simply telling them. When a scene is dramatised through character action and dialogue, it allows readers to experience the scene first-hand. This is, more often than not, a far more engaging way to tell a story than simply stating a series of facts.

So, let’s imagine that the anti-prompt asks you to break the rule, “Show, don’t tell.”

If you took the most literal interpretation of this anti-prompt, you would describe a series of events in a matter-of-fact tone, leaving nothing to the imagination. Would this make a great story?

Possibly.

… But probably not.

If you want to win the Not Quite Write Prize, you’re going to have to look deeper.

The anti-prompt exists to spark creativity, not stifle it.

It’s important to remember that our goal in the competition is not to penalise you for going by the rules. So, in this example, we wouldn’t penalise you for using some (or even many) “showing” techniques in your story.

What we really want to do is reward you for finding at least one creative way to subvert the rule while still telling a compelling story. From the subtle to the very bold, we welcome all creative takes on the anti-prompt. Any story written “in the spirit of” the anti-prompt, in other words where we can see evidence that you’ve engaged with the challenge on some level, will be a success in our book.

There are many ways to approach the anti-prompt.

There are countless creative ways to approach the challenge of the anti-prompt, and it’s up to you to find an approach that allows you to tell the best story possible.

Here are some examples of how you might break the rule, “Show, don’t tell”:

  • Keep it simple: Just break the rule once and move on, for example start your story with a single “telling” sentence, then proceed to dramatise the remainder of your story. But do so in a way that makes it clear you’ve engaged with the challenge.
  • Find a natural fit: Find a situation in real life where the rule doesn’t usually apply, for example in this case you might use a police report as your inspiration.
  • Make it your whole plot: Contrive a plot involving a character who refuses to “show” something, or a character who is always “telling”.
  • Use it in dialogue: For example, give us a parrot called Show who has witnessed a crime and ignores the plea, “Show, don’t tell!”
  • Take it to the literal extreme: Tell an entire story without any dramatisation whatsoever but do it so well that we all bow down to your mastery.

Take your time brainstorming different ideas before you commit, and don’t be afraid to have fun with it!

Learn from past anti-prompts in action.

In our “Bonus” longlist announcement episode for each round of the competition, we cover different creative executions of that round’s anti-prompt to show what’s possible. We’re always amazed by what our entrants deliver. Check out some past episodes below to help spark your creativity:

The most important challenge of all is to deliver a great story.

Ultimately, you will be judged on your ability to deliver a great story. Having a clever take on the anti-prompt might get you all the way to the longlist, but if you want to win the Prize, you’ll first and foremost need to deliver an excellent piece of fiction.

Write on!