6 Ways Writing Prompts Can Inspire Your Best Writing

If you’re serious about your writing, doesn’t it seem like you should be working on your novel or the story-you-want-to-get-published rather than messing about with writing prompts?

Respectfully, no.

Using writing prompts has many benefits, if you’re getting good prompts and you know how to use them.

Good vs. ‘Meh’

Immodestly, I’ll dispense with the first point quickly: search the writing prompt archives here at StoryADay. Most of them are not frivolous, and all of them are aimed at giving you a push to write complete, crafted stories. 

You can tell the difference between a good prompt and a ‘meh’ prompt, because a good one pushes you to think about the character and a reason for why they’re doing what they’re doing. A good writing prompt offers some tips about how you might work with it. 

 ‘Meh’ writing prompts can be random collections of ideas that don’t help you craft a story. Sure, there’s some fun in thinking “how on earth can I get a postal worker onto a beach holding the antidote to a deadly toxin?” but the ‘person, place, thing’ kind of prompt can make it hard to find something to care about in the story — for you and the reader. 

The Benefits of Working With Prompts

So, here I am, warning you that sometimes working with prompts can feel like a waste of time and yet I’m still encouraging you to work with prompts. Why?

Because writing prompts 

  • Force you try out new ideas 
  • Allow you to try out new voices
  • Inspire you to experiment with form
  • Encourage you to write even when you don’t feel like you have any good ideas
  • Allow you to practice getting to ‘the end’ – a storytelling essential skill
  • Lower the bar – prompts allow you to dismiss your ranting inner critic with a simple ‘yes, I know it’s silly, but it’s not like I came  up with the idea….”
  • Limit your choices – too much choice is tyranny and it’s paralyzing!
  • Give you confidence that you can write, even when you think you can’t

Every year, I hear from writers who are delighted to find themselves writing every day, on topics and in styles they never would have tried otherwise. Their confidence in their abilities soars, and — more often than you might suspect — I hear from them, months later that a story they drafted during StoryADay is about to be published.

How can you get this experience, working with prompts? I have some tips:

Tips

Don’t be too literal – you’re allowed to use the prompt as a springboard. It’s not a contest where you have to use every element of the prompt. If the prompt suggests your character is standing in a doorway, it is entirely appropriate for that doorway to be metaphorical — a mystical portal between two worlds; the threshold between two parts of their lives….

Get emotional – find a character who fits into the scenario and ask why they care. Then ask who might care about them? 

Lean in to the prompts you resist – Every year I hear from writers that the prompts they really, really didn’t want to try (to the point of getting grumpy and maybe storming off for part of the day) are the ones that sparked the most interesting stories. In some cases, this experience has led to stories that ended up published. So if you hate a prompt, consider trying it anyway. Set a timer, promise yourself a reward, tell a friend you’re writing…whatever you have to do to get yourself working. 

Work in shifts – sketch out a few ideas as soon as you see the prompt, then go about your business until later in the day when you can devote another stretch of time to actually putting words on the page.

Make it a story – the problem with some writing prompts is that they don’t prompt actual stories. They might set up an interesting scenario (you are walking along the road and meet a dragon. What happens next?). That prompt is likely to spark a whacky series of ‘stuff that happens’ but there’s no necessity to have a story connecting the pieces. In the StoryADay Challenge you’re trying (at least I am) to write stories. That requires some cause and effect (remember, from the Short Story Framework: a character makes a decision and because of that… repeat to end). So do think about your character and why they care, and why they react they way they do…and because of that what happens next?

Treat them like origami – Origami is supposed to be transitory, of the moment. Working with writing prompts is often best approached the same way. A prompt may spark a story that’s not necessarily anything you had planned to write. It can dredge up some long-forgotten memory, or uncover a subconscious issue you didn’t know you were carrying around with you, or simply send you off on a little flight of fancy for 40 minutes. You may find that you’re writing about the same kinds of characters and issues in prompted writing that you write about in your more ‘serious’ work, but it may not. 

Try to treat prompted work as a vacation. It’s lovely, but it’s not meant to last. 

If you end up with something you want to work on, great! But let’s not put that expectation on prompted stories. Let’s treat them like more-effective writing exercises than simply writing a scene or describing a feeling. You’re still crafting complete stories, but hold them lightly. It’s OK if they only ever exist while you’re writing them. 

Use writing prompts to help you break through the perfectionism that often ends up becoming writer’s block. Use them to experiment. Use them to prove that nothing bad happens if you write a ‘bad’ story. And, most importantly, use them to remind yourself that yes, you can craft a story, any time you want, and that yes, writing can be fun. 

Do you relish or resist prompts? What additional tips do you have? Leav a comment!

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