How (and Why) to Use a Writing Prompt [Bonus prompts included]
I’ve often wondered over the years what the point of writing prompts are. They didn’t seem that practical, especially when there were other things I’d rather write.
The first writing prompt I ever recall doing was to write a scene from the perspective of a doorknob. My first thought was, really? This is what we’re writing?
I just didn’t get it. What was the point?
Then I experienced Writer’s Block. Tragedy struck and short circuited my usual practice of emotional processing through writing. Suddenly life was too awful to write about (I wrote primarily non-fiction back then), and after a while, even my creativity in fiction writing began to drift away.
It was in this stuck state of being that a writer friend invited me to join her in a Neil Gaimen masterclass. Each week he taught us something new about writing fiction. It was in one of these classes I discovered the power of writing prompts to set those old creative passions on fire again. That particular prompt (shared in the list below) was not as important as the thought process that happened as a result.
Writing Prompt Power
What I didn’t realize was that writing prompts are like little electroshock paddles to a dying creative heart. By inviting us to think in new ways about new ideas, our brain has to wake up a bit and put into action a number of processes critical to writing, but which have been blocked or shut off in our blocked state. Processes like visualizing a scene, or entering into the POV (point of view) of a character we’ve never contemplated before, or even exploring a scene through all five senses. Suddenly these new pathways of thought jolt awake our creative heart, bringing back to life the powers of imagination and the joy of creative exploration.
How to Use a Writing Prompt
Okay, let’s say you’re convinced about the usefulness of writing prompts, but exactly how to use them remains a bit fuzzy. Basically, if the writing prompt does not include instructions (most do not), here’s how to use the exercise to jolt your creativity to life. (I wish I could see your face after you try it, because I know you’ll be surprised at how well this works.)
- Imagine the scene in your mind. Try to see it.
- Use all five senses (or at least multiple of them) — what sounds do you hear? Are there smells? What sounds do you hear? Is there a taste involved? A texture or physical feeling? Describe them with as much detail as you can.
- What emotions are involved in this scene — for the main character? For others in the scene? Does the scenery itself convey emotion? (dreary skies? peeling paint slumping toward the floor?)
- Get into the mind of your character. Even if your character is a doorknob or an empty room — it is a living thing (in your story, at least), so let it speak to you about who it is and how it sees the world.
- Draw from your own experiences to inform those of this scene. For example, if you’re writing about the perspective of a homeless child, that may be entirely unfamiliar, but you know what it’s like to feel rejected, right? Or unseen? Or that feeling when you’ve worked in dirt and wind and are all sweaty and feel desperate for a bath? You know what it’s like to be a kid — maybe even mistreated as one. Let those inform your understanding of your character.
Writing Prompts to Jumpstart Your Creativity
So what’s say we stir up some creativity with some awesome writing prompts? These are ones I have personally used in my own writing groups and workshops, and which I and other writers have found very useful. One said it was “a big deal” how well the prompt had worked. I get it. Neil Gaimen’s prompt was a game changer for me.
- Think of a pleasant childhood memory. (Tomato soup and Grilled cheese on lunch break from school? Watching Saturday morning cartoons with your dad?) Write the memory. Include the five senses, who was there, what they were doing, and your emotions at the time or now looking back.
- Twisted Fairytale — can you rewrite a well known fairytale from a completely different perspective? (Ie: The Big Bad Wolf told from the Wolf’s perspective, A day in the life of one of the sisters in Cinderella, or maybe the reason Little Red Riding Hood was invited to Grandmas was not as innocent as we’ve been told. This was the prompt from Gaimen’s masterclass that seriously unblocked my creativity.
- What is an early childhood memory? If it’s a complete memory of an event, try to explore the surroundings and sensations of it. Can you see the flooring or cabinets? Can you see who is there? What can you hear? How are you feeling in that moment, and why do you think that is? If the memory you recall is just a minute flash of an image that doesn’t have any context — explore it.
- Write about the beach. An event that happens, or what a character observes. Special challenge — if writing from a character’s perspective, try allowing the character to write it. Ray Bradbury says that fiction writing is less about plot and making something happen, and more about following in the footsteps of characters and writing down what they do.
- Recall a dream (or nightmare) you had and write it down. Include the five senses — what did you hear? See? Feel physically? Smell? (Did you know smell is the most often forgotten sense in writing?) Was there a taste? Then include events and how you felt about them.