Writing Prompts are the anomaly of the writing world. A lot of writers, when first faced with the idea of a writing prompt, turn their nose up at them. The writer feels like they can make it without the gimmick, or they don’t need help. Raymond Carver once wrote, “Writing is hard and writers need help.” Prompts are kind of like that. Once the writer runs into his or her first snag, boom they go looking for a solution. Sometimes you need a little help, and writing prompts can be that help if you open yourself up to possibilities. There are also situation where people don’t want to write, or feel they can’t write, like high school students, and these writing prompts are for them as well.
It’s hard to tell though which writing prompts are going to help, and which prompts will just fizzle. I give prompts to my writers every day. For 25 years in workshops, courses and writer’s groups I have given and received writing prompts. I’ve found that there are a few characteristics that a good writing prompt needs in order to reach down into the writer and get them writing. Here are 10 things to look for when you are looking for a good prompt.
1. The prompt has the right tone and voice. You can’t have a horror prompt that sounds like a joke. You can’t have a romance prompt that lectures. The tone of the prompt is important. If the prompt matches the tone, you are probably on the right track.
2. The prompt is high interest. Boring prompts are the worst. You can tell when the instructor, prof. or workshop leader just didn’t put any time into the prompt. Honestly, this is like the Frost’s “No tears in the writer…” quote. If a prompt doesn’t more you, get you excited to write, it’s not going to inspire anyone else to write.
3. Cliché prompts. Much like needing to be high interest, a prompt really needs to be original. If you make a prompt the same old same, I think it makes it harder to create. For instance, write a prompt about being a rebel. I was given this prompt in a workshop one time. I can’t take watching a tv show I don’t like, there is no way I’m going to be able to hold my interest through writing a boring story cliché story. It’s just not going to happen.
4. Story starters can be inspiring. I’ve found that prompts that simply write the first paragraph or couple of paragraphs of a story seem to inspire me to write if they are done well. If the first paragraph of writing is excellent. If it has a good tone. If writing in interesting, and it pulls me in, I want to write like that. I think it’s in the nature of a writer. Generally we want to be writers because of something you read. When I read something awesome it makes me want to write.
5. Oddly, the more moving parts the better. Prompts, to me, are the opposite of great writing in many cases. The more complicated they are, the more they get me thinking, and then writing. They need good descriptions to get me pointed in the right direction. It’s a little hard to explain, but examples might help:
Example 1: Write about 2 characters meet and fall in love.
Example 2: Write about 2 characters, in a hurricane, meet and fall in love as the eye of the hurricane passes above them.
The first one I’ve got nothing. I’m moving on. The second example give me enough to want to try it. It presents me with an interesting idea.
6. An element of writing is involved with best prompts I have ever written. I have written a couple of very good (later published) short stories based on prompts. Both of those prompts had story elements involved. The best was write a story where there is a juxtaposition between 2 characters and there situations. I wrote a story about an agoraphobic falling in love with an exhibitionist in a meteor showing. I really love that story. A writing prompt with a literary element explicitly stated, generally inspires the writer in me. I guess it seems like a challenge.
We may add more pointers in the future. For now, these 6 will get you started. We also have a wide range of writing prompts here on the site. The writing prompts below are really for many different kinds of writers in different situations. Writing prompt can be fun if you left them. We will try to post a new one every week! We want you to have fun with these! So enjoy and keep writing!