Writing prompts can be anything from a photograph, a line of overheard conversation, or in the context of creative writing workshops and classes, an exercise designed to get learners writing, producing ideas, experimenting. Such exercises might expand upon or consolidate a learnt technique or introduce the writer to new ways of writing (or, equally important, new ways of looking and seeing).
All writing prompts provide a peg to hang ideas on, a framework of sorts when you are daunted by the idea that you could write anything or nothing when faced with that empty screen or blank sheet of paper. Writing prompts have their place if they can offer you a jumpstart on the days when you are considering doing anything but writing. These are the days when you expect fully formed, lively prose to fall flapping at your feet and when you forget that a big part of the early stage in writing is allowing yourself the freedom to string strange ideas together in a blithe kind of a way before the serious work starts (the testing and prodding and sucking air in through your teeth stage).
The best writing prompts I’ve come across are playful, random and encourage writers to have fun with words and images. They also counteract that urge to clean the windows, do the ironing, or reorder your cutlery drawer – whatever feels more pressing (and enjoyable) than sitting down to write.
Anything that might lead you tiptoeing past your internal critic for long enough to get a few words down is worth trying. My internal critic is like a sour dowager, she loves earnest and grave and pessimistic thoughts. Playtime tires her, so that she gives up and shuffles off to have a lie down. Ironically, without her critical glare, I’ve found that what starts off in jest can sometimes lead to a serious and satisfying piece of writing.
For this reason, I like writing prompts that are not too prescriptive but rather feel a bit like a scrawled map to an odd destination. The best prompts encourage detours. Sorting through my old creative writing teaching class notes I found the following list of prompts. I sincerely apologise to the members of my long-suffering adult education class for setting them. There were better prompts, I’m sure, based on inspiring texts and important theories. However, I seem to remember my class’s response to these prompts was great – a diverse range of flash fiction and short stories, populated by well-sketched, vivid characters. The outcome was funny, inventive and unique (just like my learners) and every one of them deviated, thankfully. Now do I really need to reorder my teaspoons…?
Choose one of the following and write a short story, piece of flash fiction or a poem.
Setting – An oil rig
Objects – A mirror, a bucket and a fire hose
Setting – A Georgian brothel
Objects – A shoe with a broken heel, a fingernail and a diary
Setting – A Wild West saloon bar
Objects – A gun, a turnip and a bible
Setting – Victorian London
Objects – A meat pie, a shawl and a diamond ring
Setting – A space station
Objects – A glowing stone, a vial of liquid and a handful of human hair
Setting – A 1950s kitchen
Objects – A bottle, a coil of rope and a ripped dress