I’ve said before the most common question I get at in-person author events is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” The second most common question–usually from other writers–is, “What do you do when you get writer’s block?”
My answer to the latter is “writing prompts.”
Prompts have gotten me through times when I haven’t wanted to sit at the computer and write because prompts reset your writing brain and, well, make you think. So, there’s a reason why I’ve taken a bunch of generative workshops recently where the instructor gives you daily prompts. Namely, it refocuses me from perhaps a stalled work in progress onto something completely new.
What is a Writing Prompt?
“Prompt” as a noun means something that serves to suggest or remind. A simple definition for something that can be a variety of things.
I’ve had a story or a scene come to mind upon smelling something that I’d forgotten–how newly mown hay smells, the smell of saddle leather, lemons, and more. Such prompts can be pleasant or unpleasant, but they can still suggest something to write about or even simply remind you you’re a writer, e.g., the smell of fresh ink when you open a box of your printed author copies.
The most common types of writing prompts are visual or written prompts. Visual prompts can be photographs, paintings, any sort of image. I have a collection of something called Rory’s Story Cubes, which were originally developed to teach creative writing to schoolchildren. Shaped like dice with an image of some sort on each face, you roll ever how many you want and start writing from what you see. The fun thing about Story Cubes is that you can interpret those images literally, i.e., a bee is a bee, or figuratively or symbolically, a bee signifies pain or sweetness or being busy, anything that pops into your head. The stories in my collection of espionage flash fiction, Spy Flash, were all written from rolls of Rory’s Story Cubes.
Photographs are another great source for writing prompts. For several years, I participated in two weekly online flash fiction prompt events, both based on photographs. These are great for flash fiction, yes, but in two cases a single picture prompted me to write an entire novel each.
Even written prompts serve to bring an image to mind when you read it. For example, in one of my workshops, the instructor’s prompt was “Begin your story with ‘When I was Fifteen . . .'” A memory immediately came to mind of me on a date at the local drive-in, which I was surprised my parents let me go on, only to have my mother and father arrive and park in the spot next to me. (By the way, the story that came from that, after refinement, won first place in an anthology contest.)
Even touch, hearing, or taste can evoke a story or scene. The key is to be open to our sensory input and accept that anything can be a story.
How Can Random Prompts Help Writer’s Block?
At this moment, I’m blocked on the third and fourth books in a series. I know something is wrong, that something about both of them doesn’t feel right, but I’m blocked from proceeding with them because I can’t figure out what exactly is wrong. It’s so easy for a writer in this situation to fall into a place where you honestly believe you suck as a writer. I’m almost there right now.
Writing something from a prompt unrelated to the subject matter of those books will likely help me with them.
A prompt will focus me on something else. Right now, I’m so focused on figuring out what’s wrong with these two books, I don’t even want to look at them. So, I’ll look at something else, something from a writing prompt. I’ll go down that rabbit hole for a while and forget about the “broken books.” Who knows? Maybe I’ll find the answer in that rabbit hole.
Indeed, at the most recent generative workshop I attended last week at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, one of the prompts was to write about something odd that happened at a place familiar to you.
Back before pandemic, the service at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship that I sometimes attend was interrupted by a man and his pit bull. He came in after the service started, sat quietly for a while, then stood and began to shout that we would all go to hell unless we accepted Jesus as our Savior. Several people in the audience calmed him down and managed to get him to go outside. The police came because many people were frightened. This was not long after a gunman had killed some people in a Unitarian church in the south. Turns out the interloper was intoxicated, but after a police warning, he hasn’t bothered us again.
When I read that prompt, I immediately thought of writing that event from that interloper’s POV, and it worked. With some refinement, I have a story worthy of submission somewhere.
Did it help with my two blocked books? Not immediately, but it did remind me that I may have to approach both books from a different perspective, not the one I initially wrote them in. It also reminded me that sometimes you have to step away for a while. Most importantly, that prompt reminded me I don’t suck as a writer.
Give writing prompts a try. There are a number of online sites, like Writing.com. That site sends you two written prompts a day via Twitter. Writing.com also has an app for your SmartPhone or tablet, as does Rory’s Story Cubes. Writing prompts can get you started as a writer or help an experienced writer break through a block.
So, here’s one for you from Writing.com: You see bullet holes in the promotional poster of your new business.
Have at it!