One of the freshest, most invigorating experiences I’ve had as a fledgling writer is being challenged with a writing prompt. The technique actually comes from the marketing world, where people spin an idea and see what they come up with. Mostly used by creative writing instructors, you’re given a sentence and you have free reign to write a specific amount of words in a predetermined time frame. I find it can be a great way to break through that dreaded writer’s block, or just overcome those moments when you’re momentarily stuck. It gets your mind away from your present project and forces you to try something fresh that hopefully will get your creative juices flowing again and your keyboard humming. The workshop I attended asked me to write in response to a parade in a third world country. It was a funeral parade for a renowned elder in the community. I was his mistress and watched from my balcony. This was a place I’d never been to in my mind. I wrote 2000 words in less than an hour, and enjoyed myself immensely. It was even more fun listening to what others wrote in response to the same prompt!
Using “What if…?” is sort of a generic writing prompt, a one-size fits all prompt, and is the backbone of my writing. I’ve discussed this many times, and it’s obvious if you follow our blogs that my sisters and I have very different styles when it comes to writing. I’m definitely chided as being the pantster in the group, a word I never new existed until recently. And, in essence, I use this writing prompt every night when I tuck myself into bed. “What will my characters do tomorrow?” I mumble. “What if…?” And that’s how I write. But when I am stuck, I like to take myself someplace and try to spin a yarn based on what I see around me. Go somewhere and invent a scenario, a story.
The other night I watched an episode of Perception on TNT, a story about a man who invented an entire CIA caper based on his experience in a bar one night. The “Clean Handz” sanitizer mounted on the wall became the name of his mission, the word “Cobra” on the pinball machine was his code name, “Grey Hawk” written on the coasters was his handler and the name of his informant came from an on-wall article about an agent in the agriculture department, whom I assume was just a patron who’d done something notable. From my perspective the perp was pretty creative and he convinced the FBI he was credible until the end of the episode when they arrested him for impersonating a CIA agent…oh…and murdering somebody. Turns out it he wasn’t actually the murderer, it was his girlfriend who had totally believed in his CIA persona and thought she was protecting him from getting assassinated.
Another cool way to use a writing prompt is to stretch it, change it up several times. Start with a prompt and write your scene/story. Then
- Use a different point of view, go from first person present to third person past.
- Shift the dialogue.
- Change the setting.
- Add flashbacks.
- Change the backstory.
- Plot something crazy: send your protagonist to jail, or to the circus, or give him a daughter he never knew he had.
The Internet is flush with ideas for writing prompts or just look around for them in everyday life: a bit of overheard conversation in an airport, imagining who the person is in the car beside you the next time you’re stuck in traffic.
Or use headlines, signs, phrases from TV, books, songs, or movies. I find song lyrics especially inspiring. I wrote a whole passage in WIVES OF LUCIFER based on a lyric where the singer describes a bloody thread attempting to sew his broken heart back together. That image haunted me for days before I decided to write about it.
The Six-Word Story: According to legend, Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a short story using only six words. He came up with: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Six word stories are fun, check out this website for some examples. Then use your six-word-story as a prompt.
Magnetic Poetry: Tiny strips of magnetic words you can arrange into sentences. My college-age sons had the X-rated version plastered on my refrigerator and I had to make sure to put them away if company came over. You can order them online at Amazon.com.
There’s an old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. This certainly applies to a writer. Once you’ve expanded your horizons, you’re ready to go back to your project with new vigor. So, if you’re stuck, for even a few days or a month, or you just want to try something new, give a writing prompt a shot. You’ll be surprised where your creative mind will take you…on a mysterious journey to a land you’ve never visited before. Happy traveling! Send me a postcard!
Up Next: D is for Dreams as Inspiration