Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Creating Your Own Writing Prompts

At the risk of being like the magician who reveals her tricks, I'm going to pull back the curtain and teach you how to create your own writing prompts. It's not as hard as you might think. All you need is an observant eye and a bit of imagination.

Writing prompts provide the writer with a way to jump start a writing session. Sort of like stretching before an aerobics session. Also, when you get stuck for ideas, writing prompts can help prime the pump so to speak. When you hit an impasse writing something different can give your mind the break it needs to work its way around that block. Besides all that, THEY ARE FUN!!!!!!!!!

I wish I could give you a step-by-step method for writing the perfect writing prompt. I can't, but I can give you some principles that will help you develop your own file of exercises so you never have to say, “I don't know what to write about” ever again.

Warning: Don't overthink your writing prompt. There is no right or wrong way to do this. A good writing prompt is anything that gets you to writing. You aren't in high school English class. No one will grade you on your writing prompt. If it isn't fun, do something else.


You can build writing prompts around random events. A simple one is to keep a bag of objects next o your desk. Pull one out and start writing a story about it. My bag is full of weird and unusual objects I've picked up over the years in second hand stores. I pretend that I'm an archaeologist, and I found this in a dig. I begin to daydream thinking about what someone in that time and place might have done with it.

Another fun exercise is to make up a bunch of cards with characters on them like “Vampire, school teacher, little girl, soldier, starship captain, etc.”  Pull out two characters at random and begin writing a story about them. It doesn't have to be good or even make much sense. To make this more interesting create another set of cards with settings on them. So you might have a psychiatrist and a space vampire  on a talk show.

What are some ways you can use random events to create writing prompts?  Why not share a few in the comments.

Real Life Observation

Story ideas are all around you. You just have to look for them. One day, I was on my way to an appointment in San Francisco's Civic Center District. As I approached Grove and Van Ness on the corner I saw a pair of sensible, but new, ladies shoes. They sat just like they had been set on a shoe store shelf. A couple of hours later, I returned. Only one shoe remained. There is a story behind that. I don't know what it is, but someday, I'm going to write it.

Keep your eyes open and you will see writing prompts all around you. That elderly couple sitting in the booth next to you at the restaurant holding hands. What is their story? The child escorted onto the plane alone with a name tag like a piece of luggage. Where is she going? An abandoned house once sheltered a family. What happened?

News stories are another source of writing prompts.  A ten-year-old piano prodigy is playing at the local concert hall. What is life like for someone like that? What will it be like 20 years from now?

Sometimes just an interesting character appears. I recently met an old guy in a pet and feed store when I was getting some pet food. He had a shock of white hair and a scraggly white beard. His face was like leather. While finding the pet food, he talked about being in Viet Nam and about his farm and the time when he was raising peacocks. He grumbled good-naturedly about his arthritis, but hefted a 25 pound sack of Friskies into my trunk with ease. Now, let's say I take that guy and put him into a scene in my work in progress. What would he say, do, contribute to the story?

Is there something you have seen or some interesting character you've met recently, that in retrospect might make a good story starter? If so, post a note in the comments and share it with us.

What if...

If you don't already speculate about alternative realities, now is a good time to start. What ifs are wonderful things. For instance, if someone hadn't said, “What if we combine a computer with a video screen we would be spitting out reams of paper online.

For the writer, what ifs create stories. For a good writing prompt, you can go crazy with your what ifs. For instance, What if cats ruled the world?  What if writing had never been invented? What if all the computers stopped working? What if...

If you find yourself stuck on your work-in-progress, what ifs can help break the log jam. What if the doorbell rang? What if the main character won the lottery? What if one of the characters died? What if a tornado ripped through town? You might never use it in your story, but the what ifs can get you writing and maybe reveal more about your characters and your story.

Well, I'm pretty sure you can come up with a lot of what ifs.  Why not post a few in the comments?

Mix and Match

Sometimes to stimulate your creativity you need to mix things up. Bring together unlikely combinations. For instance, vampires are scary creatures of the night who are evil through and through and live dark, mysterious lives. What if you have a teenage vampire, going to high school? Okay, that one is taken, but the idea is that you take two things that don't seem to match and put them together.

Sometimes genre blending is a good way to start. Instead of chick lit, why not chick lit/science fiction. Young innocent girl from an agricultural planet flies off to a commerce planet where she gets a high powered job hanging out with the movers and shakers of the galaxy. Or how about a horror western. Dracula in Tombstone maybe.

What are some ideas you might mix and match to make a writing prompt?  If you have any ideas post them in the comments.

Point of View

Try playing around with point of view. Take a “typical” story and change the POV. For instance, monster stories are usually told from the point of view of the monster hunter. Why not tell it from the point of view of the monster? Other variations could include telling a love story from the point of view of the waiter in the restaurant where the couple meets for dinner, writing an action adventure tale from the point of view of the taxi driver of the cab commandeered by the hero, telling a sword and sorcery story from the point of view of the horse ridden by the hero.

Just a note, sometimes, if you find yourself stuck with a piece of writing, switching point of view can help. For instance, what is the villain's take on what happened in that last scene?

Can you think of a writing prompt in which a shift in point of view can get you thinking differently? Why not post one in the comments?

Role Playing

As children we pretended to be other people. As writers, we do the same in a different way.  Even when writing certain types of nonfiction, you have to imagine your way into someone you are profiling. The only difference is that you have to stick to what is known.

Here are some great ways to role play:
Write a blog  or diary in the persona of your character.

Write a series of letters or emails from your character to a friend

Interview your character.

What other ways can you “get into the head” of your character?

Are there other ways you can think of to create your own writing prompts? Post your ideas below.

This is adapted from Creative Calisthenics: The Ultimate Workout for the Writers Imagination. Email me to receive a free e-copy of the book (A Five Dollar Value) as well as an anthology of Carolyn Masters Mysteries calledLunar Calendar including one story never before published introducing a pintsized genius and a robotic cat, an exclusive excerpt from Dark Side of the Moon, and a $20 pre-launch discount on premium upgrades to courses offered on the new EducationWantsToBeFree.com website. For complete details of this special offer good through November 30, email me atwebservant2003@gmail.com and put “Free Book” in the subject line. 


  1. These are fantastic suggestions. What I like to do (when I'm in a market-my-fiction mood) is look for themed anthology calls or themed magazines and target something for submission to them. (For instance if you write speculative fiction, ralan.com is a fantastic source.) Sometimes the theme is way out there and it forces me to think, to take a character, and try to go that direction. Then if I have something useable, I submit. It works (at least for me).

    Once again, a fantastic post. I'll likely be using some of these.

  2. Terri, great suggestions. Here are a few of mine:

    Open the dictionary, put your finger on a word. Make the title of the story "(your word) City."

    Pick five random words. Use all five in the story (or poem -- this works particularly well for poetry, IMO).

    Pick up your pen, start writing about anything at all -- what you want to eat for dinner, how you're running out of paper, how you can't think of anything to write. Write for (5, 10, or better yet, 15) minutes. Then go back and cut stuff out, fashion the rest into a poem (or story).

  3. I LOVED the suggestion of keeping things in a jar by the desk. My kids are always bringing in little trinkets, sea shells, rocks they find pretty and the like. I never knew what to do with them all so I put them in a...jar! ha ha

    Now I have my own little jar of prompts already made courtesy of the four little sticky fingered munchkins running amuck while mommy writes.

    Thanks for posting!



  4. Michelle, unfortunately I just have cats. And trust me, I don't want to keep what they bring me in a jar on my desk :-) Seriously, though, that's your own little prompt jar. And you can read the story to your kids and tell them they gave you the idea.

  5. Great post with lots of wonderful ideas. I have a large glass vase that is my idea jar. I also have a box full of odds and ends collected over the years.

  6. Dracula in Tombstone has already been done, but maybe Frankenstein in Brooklyn? Or The Mummies Of Orange County? Thanks! (From the author of Dracula in Tombstone)

  7. I like Frankenstein in Brooklyn. I've been watching a lot of Storage Wars and Auction Hunters. What if the monster were locked away in a box and stored but the last of the Frankensteins died without an heir and the locker went to auction. A couple of dumb guys bid on it and win. From there, the Mind boggles.

    Thanks for the idea, Mickey. And I'll need to check out Dracula in Tombstone.

  8. Ha, very funny, that's a brilliant premise!

    Yeah, it was a really strange coincidence, I did a search for the title today on blogs to see if there were any reviews and came up with this post. It's the EXACT title of my play running right now at Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. I did come up with the idea much the same way you were advising, by looking for a new take on a familiar character. So, for those people reading your blog, it's a good exercise to try for unique and original ideas.

  9. oh, and if you go to my website you can see the poster/logo and read an excerpt.


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