Are Writing Prompts Good to Try or a Crutch for Failures? Know Any Good Ones?

Quoth Stimulate Me: “Hey, what do you think about writing prompts? Are they a crutch for people who don’t have enough to say, or are they a good way to get in practice? Do you know any good ones?”

I really wish you’d used a different name than “Stimulate Me,” Stimulate Me, but here we are.

I love writing prompts, but then, I love all forms of fucking around instead of making progress on something publishable…like this newsletter! In a way, these essays are prompts to remind me what I know about the craft of writing.

One of the main reasons I’m such a sucker for prompts is that I also like showing off, doing odd things that nobody else can do in the same way…or would bother.

The key to a good writing prompt? Getting comfortable while writing it.

Probably the greatest writing prompt of all time comes from John Gardner:

“Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.”

Some variations after you’re done with that one:

  • Describe a cat’s litter box as seen by a person who has just witnessed a car crash. Do not mention the cat, cars, or the crash.
  • Describe a bucket of crispy fried chicken as seen by someone whose spouse was seduced away by a circus clown. Do not mention the spouse, the circus, or clowns.
  • Describe a red balloon lazily adrift in the late summer air as seen by Alec Baldwin. Do not mention the sky, the summer, Alec, or any other Baldwins.
  • Describe a sleeping dog as seen by someone who just woke up sixty years before they were born. Do not mention the person, sleeping, or time travel.

I can do that all day. What Gardner’s driving at is the idea that you need a sort of linguistic empathy to capture a person’s inner landscape accurately. What we see (and how we describe it) depends on our mental state.

From what I’ve used in the classroom and in my own writing practice, there seem to be three main kinds of writing prompt:

  • Ones that nudge ideas into being
  • Ones that clarify and refocus existing ideas
  • Ones that flex specific writing skills, sort of like gym workouts.

Here are some in each category that I’ve used with some success.

Idea-Cultivating Prompts

  • One I’ve mentioned before is to take a set of index cards and write a time, place, person, experience, movie, book, or show that fascinates you. You might write, say, “chinchillas” on one card and “1960s New York” on another and “fly fishing” on another. Create a deck of at least a hundred cards and then deal yourself a hand of three cards. Write the first sentence of a story about the collision of those three cards.
  • Kelly Link mentions an exercise from Greg Frost where you write as many first lines for stories as you can, at least fifty. Then write 25 first paragraphs based on half of them. Then keep going with any that connect with you.
  • One that I’ve used often from cartoonist Lynda Barry involves listing a specific type of thing from your life (cars, houses, scary experiences, sublime moments, whatever). Then you pick one and answer some questions that place you in a specific place and time. She explains and leads it here.
  • Also, I’m obviously a big fan of writing stories based on odd random images I find on the internet.

Clarifying and Focusing Prompts

Essentially the purpose of prompts like these is to focus an idea you already have by getting specific and personal. I usually just interview myself with a set of questions like these:

  • What do you know about the story idea so far?
  • Why are you uniquely qualified to write it?
  • What’s the feel of the story? What other stories is it like? How is it different?
  • Who would be the worst person for whom the story could happen? That is, who is uniquely ill-prepared to face it…but absolutely needs to?
  • What is wrong with that person? What are they wrong about in the world?
  • What does that person think they want? How are they wrong?
  • What does that person need?
  • Where and when would be the best setting for the story to take place? That is, what would be the most apt or dramatic or dangerous?
  • Where does the story begin?
  • Who is telling the story?
  • What does the story combine?
  • What do I need to find out to write the story?

That’s a lot, I know, and I often find that I reach about a third of the way down the list before launching into just writing the story…which is great! That’s what you want.

Flexing Skill Prompts

It’s tempting to think of skill prompts as a waste of time, tinkering around with words that aren’t going to lead to anything. Well, there’s nothing to say you can’t build entire stories out of them, and even if they are “dead ends,” you’re still developing an ability to write something specific on command.

  • Write a paragraph that sets a scene (time, place, emotional tenor).
  • Write a paragraph that describes a person.
  • Write a paragraph that summarizes a stretch of time (“For the next six years, we lived in the Concord house…”).
  • Write a paragraph in which a character mulls over a thought or feeling while still being interesting. For extra credit, do it in the third person point of view: (“Timothy knew that cats hated him, but he never knew why…”)
  • Write a paragraph in the voice of a person other than yourself.
  • Write a conversation between two people where it is easy to tell which is which solely by their word choices.
  • Write a paragraph that viscerally depicts action: a plane crash, a fist fight, a car chase.

For extra practice, replace the word “write” above with “From a work you admire, copy…” and find examples to use as models.

This works best, by the way, when you are honest about your own weaknesses as a writer. I’m usually in too much of a hurry to take a paragraph to describe things, so that’s why so many of these focus on that. You may have other things you’d like to work on like dialogue, beginnings, endings, or scene transitions.

I hope that helps!