I have a love-hate relationship with writing prompts. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I don’t like being told what to do—remind me never to sign up for a boot camp! In all seriousness, I love writing prompts that produce free, unselfconscious writing. Overly constrained tasks, not so much.
So, what constitutes a useful writing prompt, and when is it worth trying one?
Writing prompts are great for generating new work, for building skills and dealing with the dreaded writer’s block. They can also be useful tools when undertaking a structural edit of a larger project. Some of the best exercises allow you to tap into your subconscious and resist the temptation to self-censor. They can also allow a writer who’s bogged down in a draft or wading through rejections to rediscover the joy of writing for the sake of it, without judgement or expectation.
Like any skill, learning to write well requires regular practice and an open mind. Exercises like these offer a chance to experiment with different styles and genres, and can help to find your voice. They might even generate exciting work that could lead to competition wins, publications or novel ideas. At worst, they will strengthen those writing muscles. What do you have to lose?
The best writing prompts are limiting enough to draw out the stories buried deep, the ones you can’t figure out how to tell, but loose enough to allow exploration of ideas that appeal to you. Here are a few of my favourites:
- A photo, object or audio track: A workshop favourite, and common competition prompt, this one invokes the senses to trigger memory and inspiration. Patti Miller recommends using an object or song from the past to inspire life writing, but this technique is also excellent for generating material for fiction.
- Free-writing sentences or lists: My favourite version of this style of prompt is adapted from the wonderful Fast Flash workshops with Kathy Fish, and involves free-writing a long list of random first lines. The sentences don’t need to connect, or make sense. When you have twenty or thirty, look through them and choose one to build into a story.
- A one-word theme: Competitions often have a theme. Rather than limiting, writing to a theme can be liberating. Allow your mind to wander, resist the urge to go with the first, most obvious response, and if all else fails, try mind-mapping ideas until you hit on the best one.
- A map: Another fantastic idea from Patti Miller’s ‘Writing True Stories’, this one involves drawing a map of a place from your past and wandering through the rooms in your mind until a memory emerges, then using that memory as inspiration.
- A handful of unrelated words: The Australian Writers’ Centre runs a monthly Furious Fiction competition, in which writers are encouraged to incorporate a series of unrelated words or details in a 500-word story. If entering a competition doesn’t appeal, you can try selecting books from your shelf and randomly choosing a number of words to weave into a story.
- Lift a line from another piece: Next time you read a story or poem with one stand-out line, the sort that speaks to you, try using that line to inspire your own creative work. Ideally, avoid plagiarism if you do decide to publish the piece, or else seek permission from the author and credit the quote.
- Write using a particular style or technique: Kathy Fish does this well in her Fast Flash workshops (highly recommended if you have an interest in flash fiction). Prompts are designed to practice a specific skill connected to the workshop topic (eg. write a piece in second person instructional style, an absurdist piece, one focusing on sensory details only etc.). Even if you’re not as obsessed with flash fiction as I am, I recommend signing up to Kathy’s newsletter, ‘The Art of Flash Fiction’, to receive free prompts via email once a month.
- Ask a question of yourself and brainstorm answers: This one is more useful when developing a draft or working on the outline of a story. I first encountered this method in a workshop with Stephanie Bishop at Varuna. Essentially, you ask yourself the following question: I don’t understand why (insert story question you’re trying to solve), and then proceed to list as many answers as you can in as short a time as possible, the more ridiculous the better. In other words, let your subconscious mind brainstorm a solution. It’s amazing how often you will close plot holes and improve character development in the process, as well as generating new work.
Still searching for more writing prompts? A quick google search will find hundreds of lists like this one.
Do you have a favourite writing prompt you’d like to share?
I really like the one about lifting a line from another piece. I am often reading a book and will be pulled up by a line that really resonates with me. I have a notebook that I write them in. A recent one was in Pamela Freeman’s Digging Up Dirt. “Rigorous self discipline when the desert cart goes by”. To describe a person who looked very fit and slim. But I hadn’t thought of using them as writing prompts. So will definitely try this prompt.
I’m glad you found something useful in that post, Pauline. Jotting ideas and phrases down in a notebook is a great idea — I sometimes use the notes function in my phone. Months later I trawl through those little treasures and wonder what on earth I was thinking, but sometimes they do trigger new work.
I know what you mean. I have done just that. But just recently I have created folders and organised all my sundry notes. Must admit it feels to good. I am an obsessive organiser. Haha
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