Writing Prompts: Coaxing the Imagination

Author: H.L. Andrews

Whether you’re currently working on a piece, seeking creative inspiration, or looking for ways to improve your writing, writing-prompt exercises can be an invaluable tool. They can help you discover new story, scene, or poem ideas, develop characters, break writers block, and improve writing skills. And, well, they’re fun—bonus

Most of you are probably at least familiar with writing prompts. For me, the term conjures the memory of my fourth-grade creative writing class assignment to write a “welcome letter” to an extraterrestrial visitor and include instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Apparently, galactic aliens arrive hungry.

But I digress.

Improve Your Current Piece or Discover a New Idea

Now, I can hear some of you (yes, hear—I have quite an active imagination) saying, “I don’t need writing prompts. I have my idea. I know my characters. I like my style. The writing is flowing just fine.” That’s fantastic (really)!  

However, you (or your characters, story, poem) can still benefit from the occasional creative diversion of writing-prompt exercises. A quick (or not so quick) journey into the world of the unplanned and unexpected can inspire new and interesting scenes, settings, perspectives, characters, or emotions that might not have otherwise occurred to you. It can help add detail, depth, or richness to your current story or poem, or reveal a lack thereof. Of course, it can also uncover an idea for another piece.

Types of Writing Prompts

Writing-prompt exercises vary in their purpose, focus, and specificity. Some provide specific feelings, genres, or subjects, while others provide only broad context. Some describe the traits of characters or their situations, while others plunk them down in a scene with no direction. The writer takes it from there, spinning the pale straws of ideas into the golden threads of a literary tapestry.

Here are some examples of writing prompts provided by the creative minds at LitBridge:

Write a story that starts with, “He woke up and was shocked to see that it was autumn…”

Take an image that you can recall from the prior week. Use this image to help you write a poem.

Write a story from the perspective of an inanimate object such as a candy wrapper, laptop or water bottle.

How to Really Use Writing Prompts (it’s not always as obvious as you think)

Right now, many of you are saying (I can hear you again), “Really? You’re going to tell me how to use a writing prompt? Duh, it’s obvious.” Hm. Maybe. Maybe not. You might not learn anything new here. Then again, you just might!

There are different ways to approach an exercise. It is common for writers to focus on the scene, the character(s), the emotions, and the setting simultaneously and in keeping with their unique writing style. After all, most writing prompts ask that you write a complete story or poem, which, of course, contains all the aforementioned elements.

However, what many writers (including me) miss in these seemingly clear and simple instructions is the myriad ways in which to approach this exercise. They go on “auto-pilot” and just start writing. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but you might discover something different, or even better, if you occasionally depart from your standard approach.

Let’s try to two approaches to the following prompt:

“He woke up and was shocked to see that it was autumn…”

Approach 1: Use your typical approach to write a story that begins with this prompt.

Approach 2: Now try approaching the prompt by focusing on only one of the following elements at a time:

Focus only on the character’s surroundings, the scene, the setting, and go into detail about those elements. Is he outside? Inside? In the city? A small town? Is he on a bustling street corner, an alley, a park, the train tracks, his bed, his couch? Is it day or night? Summer or winter? Rainy or sunny? Are there passersby? Buildings? Birds or planes flying overhead? A fire in the distance?

Focus only on other characters in the scene—their actions, behavior, emotions. Are they walking hurriedly or strolling? What are their facial expressions and mannerisms? What are their individual stories? (One of these characters could end up being your main character.)

Focus only on the main character’s appearance, attributes, and situation. Is he old or young? Is he wearing a business suit? Jeans? Pajamas? If so, are they disheveled, clean, dirty? What color are his eyes? His hair? Does he wear glasses? Is he married? Does he have kids? Does he have a job?

Focus only on the main character’s emotions and state of mind. Is he tired? Disoriented? Sad? Happy? Reflective? Frightened? Bored? Angry? Regretful?

Focus only on the physical setting from the main character’s perspective. What does he see? Is it familiar? Unfamiliar? What feelings or memories, if any, do his surroundings or specific objects evoke in him?

From the Straws of Prompts Rises a Potential Masterpiece

If, at any time during this process, you find yourself intensely inspired by a character (main or supporting), a character’s story, or a setting that does not align with the subject of the writing prompt, just go with it. Leave the straw of the prompt behind and weave those golden threads into a rich, magnificently vivid and unexpected literary masterpiece.

Whether your story or poem harkens back to the prompt or departs from it entirely is irrelevant. The destination of your prose is not as important as the creative journey that leads you there. But you never know, the destination might just be the greatest piece you’ve ever written or the one that finally gets you published. Just ask author Jack Downs, whose forthcoming novel, Buried Treasure, was born of a writing-prompt exercise.

Share Your Writing-Prompt Stories or Poems

We’d love to know how these approaches worked for you! Please share your stories and poems inspired by this writing prompt in our Comments section.

For more inspirational writing prompts, visit LitBridge’s Writing Prompts page.