101 Public Domain Story Prompts
Do you want to use the stories and characters available within the public domain but need help conjuring compelling stories and concepts? Sometimes reading simple story prompts is the easiest way to get those creative juices flowing.
In the spirit of helping writers find the spark they need to come up with a story idea, here we offer 101 story prompts that you can use as inspiration for your public domain-inspired story.
They may inspire screenplays, novels, short stories, or even smaller moments that you can include in what stories you are already writing.
We'll separate these story prompts by using the most well-known public domain stories, characters, and worlds, offering multiple story prompts for each.
Note: Because we’re all connected to the same pop culture, news headlines, and inspirations, any similarity to any past, present, or future screenplays, novels, short stories, television pilots, television series, plays, or any other creative works is purely coincidence. These story story prompts were conceived on the fly without any research or Google search for inspiration.
Table of Contents
101 Public Domain Story Prompts
Dracula and All Other Bram Stoker Characters
We've seen multiple iterations of the character and story, perhaps most notably with Universal's classic Dracula franchise, as well as Francis Ford Coppola's own Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Dracula is one of the most recognizable fictional names in literature and film. While many adaptations have been lackluster — and the overall vampire genre has been done ten times over — this is a property that screenwriters could go to in search of a fresh and new take on the characters found within Stoker's book.
1. A historian discovers that Dracula was real.
2. Dracula immigrated to the United States and is a criminal underground boss.
3. Van Helsing was actually the villain in the Dracula story.
4. Astronauts land on another planet full of vampires, led by none other than Dracula himself.
5. One of the greatest treasures is hidden within Dracula's castle, protected by vampires and werewolves, and pursued by treasure hunters.
The original Mary Shelly novel was first filmed in 1910, but it was the 1931 Universal film, Frankenstein, that has been most remembered. Kenneth Branagh had a go at it with Mary Shelly's Frankenstein in 1994 with Robert De Niro in the title role as well. Since then, we've seen multiple attempts to capitalize on the intellectual property, including the ill-fated box office bomb I, Frankenstein — which itself was based on a graphic novel adaptation of the public domain property.
Just as is the case with Dracula, if you're going to attempt to write another Frankenstein movie, there has to be a unique angle that you can take.
6. A historian discovers that Dr. Frankenstein was real.
7. An heir of the Dr. Frankenstein estate decides to continue his work after finding his notes.
8. Frankenstein's Monster was actually never killed. He lives in the mountains to this day, with Dr. Frankenstein's kin continuing to replace him with new body parts.
9. A man named Frank Stein realizes he is the great, great, great-grandson of Dr. Frankenstein himself. He's a loser in life and tries to hilariously recreate the work of his ancestor.
10. An apocalypse survivor stumbles upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, believing it to be real, and struggles to create a companion from frozen bodies he finds.
The Phantom of the Opera
Made famous by Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic musical — which is under copyright, mind you — this 1910 novel written by French author Gaston Leroux offers screenwriters an enthralling character base to utilize. Forget any of the adaptations, especially those based on Webber's musical, and go directly to the book to find a way to adapt it in "original" fashion.
11. A contemporary retelling set within a Broadway stage.
12. A contemporary retelling set within a high school production of the play, with a teenage outcast as the Phantom.
13. The story adapted to the location of a corporate business, where an office Phantom makes a female administrative assistant a sta executive.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The 1886 novel written by Robert Louis Stevenson, inspired many television and film adaptations, and created a common genre trope of a man with two conflicting personalities. The story has inspired such films as The Nutty Professor and its box-office hit remake of the 1990s with Eddie Murphy.
While the story has become somewhat cliche, a direct adaptation or screenplay inspired by the original story could offer screenwriters a great platform and character base to work from.
14. A contemporary retelling of the story set within the world of politics.
15. A man discovers that his grandfather was the original Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and he's beginning to experience the same split personalities.
16. A teenager concocts a potion in chemistry class that forces multiple personalities.
17. A contemporary retelling of the story with a female lead called Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde.
18. A detective uses his multiple personalities to solve a murder mystery, only to discover that he's the killer.
This character and those within the legend, myth, and proposed historical connections, have been in literature, rhyme, and song since the 9th century or before. We've seen Hollywood go to this well many times, including 1981's Excalibur and of course Monty Python's The Holy Grail.
Hollywood recently tried to resurrect this IP with the 2017 box-office bomb King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Other projects are currently in development as well, so this is a property that should be pursued with caution. But if you can find an original take on the legend of King Arthur, have at it.
19. An archeologist discovers proof that King Arthur — and Excalibur — were real.
20. High school students studying abroad find Excalibur.
21. The Knights of the Round table found the Holy Grail, attained immortality, and still roam Earth fighting for the greater good.
22. A retelling of the story but using historical context and a realistic explanation for Excalibur and Merlin's magic.
23. A space opera version of the King Arthur and Knights of the Round Table story.
After King Arthur, Robin Hood is the most famous character from the British Isles. Characters like Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian, and The Sheriff of Nottingham are ripe for adaptation — perhaps in their own spin-off stories. Robin Hood himself has been portrayed by the likes of Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Sean Connery, Cary Elwes, and Errol Flynn.
So it's clearly been done. However, there's always room to expand (or condense) the story to your own storytelling will.
24. A contemporary version of the story set within the world of Wall Street and high-stakes trading.
25. A contemporary version of the story set within England.
26. A bank robber robs the rich and gives to the poor — later being referred to as Robin Hood.
27. An Old West version of the Robin Hood story.
28. A version where Robin Hood is the villain and the Sheriff of Nottingham is the hero.
29. A superhero version of the Robin Hood story where he has superpowers.
The Jules Verne classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was written in 1869 and was brought to the big screen most famously by Disney in 1954. It even became a staple Disneyland and Disney World ride for decades until it was finally retired.
The book tells the story of a ship sent to investigate a wave of mysterious sinkings that encounters the advanced submarine, the Nautilus, commanded by Captain Nemo.
A new cinematic telling of the story has been in development for years, but studios have yet to showcase another version of this story with equal or more significance to the 1954 classic.
30. A space version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea called Twenty Million Light Years Across Space.
31. A contemporary retelling of the story set within the world of the U.S. Navy.
32. A horror story version where the Nautilus contains terrifying horrors upon discovery.
33. A sequel to the original story where Captain Nemo is alive.
34. An origin story of Captain Nemo that forces us to empathize with him.
Based on the mystery novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the character has become one of the most iconic figures in literature, film, and television. He has been featured in multiple studio films and television shows in recent years — both Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch have played him on the big screen and on television.
There are certain iterations and characters from the series that are still under copyright, but the core character of Holmes himself is still readily available for writers to deconstruct and reconstruct under their own creative renditions.
35. An animated feature version focusing on Sherlock Holmes's dog as he solves pet-life mysteries.
36. A descendent of Sherlock Holmes is a detective in New York City.
37. A serial killer is reenacting murders from the Sherlock Holmes stories.
38. An origin story of how Sherlock Holmes became the greatest detective the world has ever seen.
39. An aging Sherlock Holmes in his twilight years must solve one more case.
The Wizard of Oz
The original novel was written by L. Frank Baum in 1900, followed by many sequels from him and others. All of its associated characters are available to adapt, but only from material found in the first 16 books of the series (published in 1922 or before).
This is another property that has been widely utilized on all storytelling platforms. A recent television series was canceled. The Sci-Fi Channel offered its own original take just a few years ago. We've since seen feature films and even a hit Broadway musical adapted from it. But the original 1939 film remains to be the adaptation that is most revered.
Writers need to be careful to focus solely on the material found in the books. Any reference to characters and visuals from the classic film and any other adaptation since would be liable for copyright and trademark infringement.
40. A sequel story where Dorothy's descendant is sent to Oz.
41. Grandchildren discover that their grandmother was Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz stories.
42. A biographer discovers that the story is actually true and was only ghostwritten by L. Frank Baum.
43. When Dorothy is taken by the twister, someone from Oz is left behind.
44. The Wizard of Oz set on another planet.
45. An old west gunslinger is taken up inside a twister and left in Oz.
Another hot property based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. Disney made a hit movie out of the character and before that we saw multiple film and television versions. 2016 gave us The Legend of Tarzan, which was a modest success.
While the character has his constraints, story-wise, perhaps you could put Tarzan in another era — or another planet for that matter.
But beware, the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate will not hesitate to heavily litigate the use of this character, specifically through trademark infringement laws. While many of the novels are in the public domain, the estate wants to protect its various licensing agreements. Writers should proceed with caution.
46. A contemporary retelling of the story after a castaway is found twenty years after disappearing.
47. A family traveling across space crash lands on a planet, leaving only the male son as a survivor. He is raised by an alien race.
48. A female version of the story called Tarzana.
49. A grandchild discovers that their outdoorsman grandpa is actually Tarzan.
50. A child runs away into the jungle after reading Tarzan stories and wanting to be raised by apes.
The Island of Dr. Moreau
The Island of Doctor Moreau is an 1896 novel by H. G. Wells, telling the story of a man being rescued and brought to an island, only to discover that its inhabitants are experimental animals being turned into strange-looking humans, all of it the work of a visionary doctor.
The book has been adapted at least three notable times for the big screen in 1932, 1974, and 1996. Once again, to keep any possible adaptation fresh, screenwriters need to view the original text of the novel and find ways to tell a more contemporary version of it.
51. A contemporary retelling of the story.
52. A reimagining of the story called The Planet of Dr. Moreau.
53. A surviving experiment of Dr. Moreau's lives in the mountains.
54. A descendant of Dr. Moreau discovers his journals and finds the island.
55. A robot/cyborg version of the story.
The 1719 original story was written by Daniel Defoe. It is a classic novel about the title character's various adventures — most of which are remembered as the character being shipwrecked on a deserted island off the Caribbean coast of South America.
Like most classic stories, it has been adapted for television and film but is possibly ready for a new iteration.
There have been a couple of sequels to the original novel, including The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, and others.
A clever writer could conjure an update to the story.
56. A horror story where Crusoe is shipwrecked on an island of cannibals.
57. A comedy where Crusoe keeps being shipwrecked anytime he wants to travel.
58. A futuristic version where an astronaut crash lands on an uncharted planet.
59. A gender-switch version where a woman is stranded on an island.
60. An alien crash lands on Earth and struggles to survive.
Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
Disney gave us two recent features based on these novels, written by Lewis Carroll, years after they created an animated classic in 1951. We've also seen the stories adapted into television series.
Despite the recent activity on the property, a unique retelling of the story — or part of the story — could be a launching pad for a great adventure, psychological thriller, or horror script.
61. A contemporary retelling of the story.
62. A little girl from a broken home creates a fantasy world inspired by Alice in Wonderland — or is it real?
63. Grandchildren discover that their grandmother is the Alice from the stories, and she leads them down the rabbit hole for an adventure.
64. An aging Alice is visited by her friends from the rabbit hole. They need her help.
65. A middle-aged man is dealing with his aging mother suffering from dementia. She tells stories of her adventures in Wonderland and he fears that she's losing her mind... until he starts to believe her.
The copyright is available in the United States. However, there is an exception for the United Kingdom, which has a (limited) perpetual copyright, owned by the Great Ormond Street Hospital. This was gifted to them by Barrie himself in his will and confirmed by an Act of Parliament.
Peter Pan has been utilized in many variations — with Disney's animated Peter Pan being the most iconic out of all of them. Because of this, it's best to avoid any and all visual similarities and character portrayals found within the animated feature that aren't evident in the actual original stage play and book written by James M. Barrie.
That said, there are plenty of opportunities to adapt the material to your own original versions of the stories. Hollywood has tried its best to exhaust the property — most recently with the box-office disappointment of the live-action origin story Pan.
66. A horror story version where Peter Pan is a serial killer that steals children.
67. Peter, having chosen to live life as a mortal, is dying and wants to find a way back to Neverland.
68. An imaginative child is thrust into the world of Peter Pan after watching a theatre performance of it.
69. Captain Hook comes to our world to find the descendants of Mary.
70. The mother of Peter Pan tries to find her son.
Hollywood may be hesitant to adapt this property, especially given the fact that at least two studio projects are currently in some form of development. The Adventures of Pinocchio was first published in 1883.
The story was made even more famous in the United States, thanks to Disney's animated classic from 1940 — although that feature only retained a handful of characters and basic plot elements from the original novel.
71. A contemporary retelling of the story set in our current times.
72. A robot version of the story where a robot wants to become a real boy.
73. A horror version of the story where Peter Pan goes on a murder spree, angry that he'll never become a real boy.
74. Pinocchio, all grown up, is beginning to show signs of turning back into wood.
75. A sequel story where a teenage Pinocchio wants to create a companion.
76. Jiminy Cricket finds another person in need of a conscience.
The Arabian Nights
This collection of fairy tales touches on Middle Eastern, Indian, North African, Chinese, and Greek cultures. If you've read or watched stories about genies, evil overlords, and flying carpets, they all stem from these fairy tales. And they are obviously all adaptable by any writer.
Whether you want to write direct adaptations or take a more original route and place new contemporary or classic characters — treasure hunters, adventurers, etc. — into those stories, The Arabian Nights remains to be one of the most untapped collections of stories in Western countries beyond Disney's Aladdin animated feature.
77. Children find a magic carpet in their grandparents' antique collection.
78. A down-on-his-luck lawyer finds a genie lamp.
79. A retelling of The Arabian Nights collection.
80. A contemporary update that tells the classic stories but in a present-time setting.
81. The forty thieves are bank robbers that the FBI is trying to track down.
82. Sinbad is a spaceship pilot that goes on adventures throughout the galaxy.
Western Culture Fairy Tales
Whether it's The Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen writings, Western fairy tales have been the go-to property for literature, television, and film for over a hundred years.
The Brothers Grimm's Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are staple stories — many of which Disney has and will continue to go to.
Andersen's The Little Mermaid and The Emperor's New Groove caught Disney's eye as well.
Fairy tales in television and film had a rebirth of sorts after the spec screenplay Snow White and the Huntsman was sold for seven figures in 2010. After that, a plethora of TV series and movies based on or around fairy tales were all the rage. That trend has since subsided in the last few years, but it's likely ready for a revival if writers can find new ways to tell those stories.
83. A contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel with two siblings getting lost in the woods and coming across an old house.
84. A serial killer nicknamed "The Wolf" comes across a young woman that refuses to be his next victim.
85. A male nurse falls in love with a woman in a coma (Sleeping Beauty).
86. A grandmother with dementia claims to have previously been a mermaid — and she wants to return to her undersea home.
87. Ms. White is a mob boss protected by seven bodyguards — each with unique traits.
88. A contemporary retelling of the Cinderella story set within the corporate business world.
89. The Brothers Grimm found a magical cave where they were taken into the worlds they later wrote about.
90. A rich girl meets one of her father's workers that used to be powerful CEO before he lost everything. She falls in love with him, giving him the confidence he needs to become successful again (The Frog Prince).
The Secret Garden
The beloved children's novel was written by Frances Hodgson Burnett and published in 1911. Since then, it has been adapted multiple times for television and film. The book tells the story of a young, privileged girl living in India that is left orphaned when her parents die. She is sent back to England where she goes to live on her uncle's estate, forced to find things to keep herself occupied. She discovers a sickly young boy and a secret garden.
While the story has been adapted many times, with the right new and fresh angle, a screenwriter could certainly adapt the intellectual property to their advantage. Perhaps it's a sequel story — a creative continuation.
With a book like this that is considered classic literature and read by millions of children and their parents, the opportunity to bring this story to the big screen again — in a different but familiar fashion — is intriguing.
91. A sequel story where the now grownup little girl returns to her uncle's estate after a divorce.
92. A sequel story where the little girl's grandchildren discover the secret garden.
93. A sequel story where the garden has died, creating a very dark and scary world.
94. A horror story version where the little girl struggles to escape an evil force within the garden.
95. Author Frances Hodgson Burnett, as a young child, goes through a difficult time in her life which inspire the stories she told in the book.
This character is the hero of H. Rider Haggard's 1885 novel King Solomon's Mines and its sequels. The whole series spans 50 years of Quatermain's life, from the ages of 18 to 68. At the beginning of the original novel King Solomon's Mines, he has just turned 55, so the novels clearly jump back and forth in time. His one true skill is his marksmanship, where he has no equal.
The novels are full of action and adventure and are often considered the first of the Lost World genre. The character was also a template for Indiana Jones.
If there was ever a single character most ripe for the cinematic picking, Quatermain would be him. While he has been adapted for television and film — played by the likes of Richard Chamberlain, John Colicos, Sean Connery, Cedric Hardwicke, Patrick Swayze, and Stewart Granger — it's been well over a decade since the character has been notably deployed.
96. A contemporary retelling of the Allan Quatermain story.
97. Quatermain seeks out one last adventure before he dies.
98. Allan Quatermain's estranged daughter tracks him down.
99. The descendent of Allan Quatermain tracks down one of his found treasures.
100. A retelling of any of the classic Allan Quatermain stories.
101. Allan Quatermain tracks down descendants of Dracula found within the wilds of Africa.
WANT MORE IDEAS? TAKE A LOOK AT OUR OTHER STORY PROMPTS!
The Public Domain Explained
There are a few things to think about when drawing from the public domain for story prompts and ideas.
The Public Domain refers to properties that are available for anyone to utilize, thanks to copyright expiration, copyright loss due to loopholes and mistakes, death of the copyright owner, or failure for the copyright owner to file for the rights or extension to those rights.
According to Stanford University Libraries:
Copyright has expired for all works published in the United States before 1923. In other words, if the work was published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923, you are free to use it in the U.S. without permission. As an example, the graphic illustration of the man with mustache (below) was published sometime in the 19th century and is in the public domain, so no permission was required to include it within this book. These rules and dates apply regardless of whether the work was created by an individual author, a group of authors, or an employee (a work made for hire).
Because of legislation passed in 1998, no new works will fall into the public domain until 2019, when works published in 1923 will expire. In 2020, works published in 1924 will expire, and so on. For works published after 1977, if the work was written by a single author, the copyright will not expire until 70 years after the author’s death. If a work was written by several authors and published after 1977, it will not expire until 70 years after the last surviving author dies.
It's important to note that public domain characters and properties that screenwriters pursue have the danger of infringing on general trademarks from other interpretations of public domain content. While Norse mythology characters are obviously public domain, you can't emulate Disney/Marvel's Thor character trademarks from the comics and Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. You would have to tell your own, very unique and different version of the story and character. One that doesn't infringe on Disney/Marvel's trademarks that they've established.
So when it comes to the legalities of what you plan on doing with anything from the public domain, proceed with caution despite the general stipulation that the property is available.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies