M. T. Dremer is the author of four novels and received a Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing from Grand Valley State University.
How to Get Past the Dreaded Writer's Block
There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page. Maybe you’re short on ideas. Maybe you have a novel that you’re supposed to be editing, but you lost interest. Or maybe you just can’t find the motivation to squeeze words out of the proverbial tube. Enter the writing prompt: a way to force ideas out of your unwilling subconscious.
The other day I was lamenting an extended period of writer’s block, which I described to my wife as a road on which I was making no progress. Likening the pathways of life to literal roads is nothing new, but when I said it, my wife asked me what the road looked like. I described it as a dirt road, with no forks, out in the open countryside. And, when I described myself, I was sitting directly in the middle of that road, with no chair or comforts to join me.
Whether my wife’s question was intended to jump-start my writer’s brain by asking me to describe this metaphor I’d built for myself, or was simply a question of curiosity, I’m not sure. But it sparked that part of my brain regardless. Which, I believe, is the purpose of writing prompts. You don’t have to use them, you don’t have to write a novel out of them (just to impress your Facebook friends) and you don’t have to adhere to the rules they set down.
Really, the only purpose of a writing prompt is that hint of a spark. That nagging sensation at the back of your mind that suggests there was something else important you were supposed to be saying, and writing is the only way you can say it. Maybe it’s a short story, a book, an article, or a really clever phrase to scratch on the wall of a men’s bathroom. Whatever the medium, a prompt is meant to help you ignite that. Think of them as the jumper cables to a brain that has stalled. A way of saying “Oh yeah, I am a writer.”
With that in mind, I decided to compile my own list of writing prompts, and tips, based on my experience. What worked, what didn’t, and what sounds like fun. My hope is that it will help you get your writing off the ground, and help me clear my own head, moving forward.
15 Writing Prompts to Get You Writing
These prompts are of my own creation, designed to make you start to think about the details. I personally prefer to write speculative fiction, but these prompts aren’t geared towards any specific genre. Nor do they follow any specific format or require any set amount of words to complete. They are, hopefully, just sparks to help ignite your imagination.
- You’re walking down a road. Imagine what that road looks like, and what is on either side of it. Imagine the time of day, the weather, and the horizon. Are you alone? Where are you headed? Suddenly you stop. There is something in front of you. What is it?
- You’re stranded on a desert island. You find a cell phone has washed up on shore. Miraculously, it still works, but it doesn’t have much battery life left. There is one bar of signal strength, you think you can make one phone call. Who do you call? Why did you call them? What do you say in the precious time left?
- It’s the end of the world. You’ve discovered there is only one day left until the destruction of the planet. There isn’t enough time to do all those things you said you wanted to do in life. What do you do? Where do you go? Who do you spend your last day with?
- You’re walking through the woods and you stumble upon a car. There is no road nearby. What kind of car is it? What condition is it in? There are words scratched into the windshield. What do they say?
- You’re sitting in church. There’s a woman sitting across the aisle from you. She’s new, you’ve never seen her before. What does she look like? What does the church look like? What is the reverend saying? In the middle of the sermon she gets up to leave abruptly. You decide to follow. Where does she go? What does she do?
- An extreme weather event forces you to seek shelter. What kind of weather is it? You come upon an old storefront that is unlocked so you go inside. What kind of store was it? What does it look like now? You appear to be alone, but while you try to wait out the storm, you hear a noise in the back. You go to investigate.
- You died. You wake up. What do you see?
- You’re sitting on a bench, few people are around. Suddenly someone goes running by. What do they look like? They’re carrying something in their hands. What is it? After they pass, you see they are being pursued. Who is following them?
- You’re out walking your pet. What kind of pet is it? Something catches their attention and they run away from you. You give chase. Your pet leads you off the beaten path and you find it standing silent before something. What has your pet found?
- You’ve purchased a house. What kind of house is it? The previous owner left all their junk inside. You’re cleaning it out one day and you find a letter. It’s addressed to you, but it’s never been mailed. You didn’t know the previous owner. What does the letter say?
- You’ve been invited by a friend to a dinner party, along with a bunch of other guests. It’s a house that is well decorated. What does it look like? The food is delicious, customized to each guest. What are they serving? When the dinner has concluded, your friend has an announcement. What do they say?
- You’re walking on a busy sidewalk and it’s cold, everyone has their heads down. Something sticks to your shoe. When you pick it off, you realize it’s a winning lottery ticket. What do you do next?
- Your home is burning. Loved ones have been rescued, but you’re still inside, trying to find a way out. You stumble upon a room of keepsakes and you grab something as you pass through. What have you grabbed?
- You want to leave a time capsule for future generations to discover. What story do you want it to tell? Your story? The story of your generation? What do you place in the time capsule? Where do you hide it? Who opens it? How do they react?
- You’re lost in the dark. How did you get here? You fumble around, searching for something to touch, to find your sense of direction. Your hand brushes against something. What is it? Then, in the distance, you see a light. What kind of light? You begin heading towards it. What do you find?
Inspiration Can Come From Anywhere
One of the important things to remember about writing prompts is that they can come from anywhere. We tend to think of them as introductory snippets, like those I’ve provided above, but really, inspiration can come from anywhere.
Some people get it from “people watching” while they listen to real-life dialogue and develop characters around it. Some people get it from life experiences or stories they remember from their childhood. I’ve said before that much of my inspiration came from video games and the sense of existing in and influencing those stories. There’s no single source for creativity, but there are ways to “coax” it out of that tube.
Additional Tips for Perfecting Your Craft
- Read: I’ve suggested this in just about every article I’ve written, but there is no better way to get things moving than reading. It has the desired effect of being good, and inspiring you, or being awful and illustrating that you could probably do better.
- Borrow: Not plagiarize, but take the first few lines of something that does exist, start typing them to warm up your fingers, and see where it goes. Maybe it will end up as fan fiction, maybe it will become something totally original, but it’s a good way to get moving. (As a side note, if it does end up as an original story, be sure to remember to delete/rewrite those opening lines.)
- Write daily: Write a little every day, even if it sucks. Stealing a few sentences on your lunch, your break, or before you go to bed, can be the difference between satisfaction and anxiety.
- Don’t write to be published: In other words, write for yourself first and foremost, rather than a perceived audience. Having an eye on the prize isn’t a bad thing, but it can also add a lot of pressure to your fledgling story. By starting every project with the mentality that this will be a ‘just for me’ story, it ensures you’re enjoying the process and not overthinking/second-guessing everything. You’ll find these make better stories in the end.
- Aim for quantity over quality: You always want your final product to be as polished as possible, but polish is the enemy of the idea phase of writing. First drafts are dirty, ugly, and often misguided. But we can’t get to a quality product until we’ve tested the waters. Writing down things that are ridiculous, silly, or nonsensical is all part of the process.
Ed on June 18, 2018:
O agree with some of the posts that writing should be an everyday activity as well as reading in a voice that can be incorporated into our own writing. Also I find it to block out a certain time of the day for writing.
C Levrow from Michigan on January 09, 2017:
I really like the idea of borrowing lines from a piece you already like and admire to get the juices flowing. I imagine that some fun, modern stuff could come after, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 09, 2017:
Great ideas as writing prompts ! All of them sound interesting enough to weave a story.
I agree with you that writing everyday , even if a small piece is important and also that one should write for self and not always think about publishing.
Thanks for sharing!