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When & How to Use Writing Prompts (Improperly)

The infamous writing prompt. Meant to provide a creative ‘floor’ from which the writer may spring forward!

(Little DST humor there.)

Thing is, I find writing prompts amusing, but not helpful in their intended purpose. I don’t use them to start writing.

Instead, I sometimes use them to plug in gaps. Not the intended use, but still, a valuable role to play. Let me explain.

Prompts, Prompts Everywhere, and all at the Same Start!

By now you must have seen plenty of writing prompts. Memes flourish from them. Entire books filled with nothing but prompts.

Here’s a few examples I found with only a moment’s searching:

[FANTASY]

A new shop opens that allows humans to rent mystical and magical things: superpowers, magical abilities/items, etc. Monetary payment is not accepted. You must pay much more abstract prices – memories, emotions, or even years of your life for the most expensive items.

(source)

[MYSTERY]

Every night, a new house of worship in your town is ransacked. Each time, the thieves steal a hidden sacred object but leave more expensive things untouched.

(source)

[HORROR]

A new jail is opened in Antarctica to exile extremely violent offenders. Something there is more frightening than the prisoners.

(source)

See the commonality? They all want you to START where they describe.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with doing this. They were originally meant to ‘prompt’ someone to start writing a story, novel, fanfiction, whatever.

In my experience however, doing this never works right. If I want to write a story about sentient dental floss, using a prompt about encountering a unicorn in a field doesn’t help.

Maps and Wrong (Writing) Directions
I know the map says to go over there. But I want to see what’s over here.

And if I don’t know what I want to write, using a prompt to start off just seems phony. I’m practically guaranteed to lose interest a few paragraphs in. Why? Because the story idea isn’t mine. It’s not original.

Now, all that said, I do sometimes use prompts to shake off stagnation mid-write. Let’s say I’m about halfway through drafting a novel. I know the plot. I know where the characters need to go. But for whatever reason, I can’t see a way to get them there, from where they are at present.

Solution? Look at a few writing prompts.

This one talks about finding a strange object in the last place you’d expect. Nah. This one wants you to imagine standing on a climbing bridge in a gym. This one…

Hang on. One of the characters is a daredevil/risk-taker type. Using a narrow, dangerous bridge would be fun to them. Especially over a deep lightless pit. They’d encourage the others to follow, who will hate the notion but go along with it…

…and I’ve found my way to move forward. See?

It’s a form of medium-change – mentally at least – which helps connect the proverbial dots. Does it always work? No, but it works often enough that it’s useful.

Wrong Thought Prompts, for Your Confusion & Amusement

You don’t think I’d bring you this far and not add some of my own writing prompts, do you? Of course not. Here, have some nice Wrongness in prompt form!

1. You wake up in a locked room with no windows. You see eight mammalian brains on the floor around you. A greenish gas seeps out from between their wrinkles.

Want another one?

2. You’re standing in front of an old bridge over a deep chasm. It’s pitch black out; you can only see two rows of lights on the bridge. Something heavy enough to make the bridge sway back & forth is coming toward you.

You sure you can handle more?

3. Chickens have gained intelligence. They’re marching in huge packs through your town, slaughtering everyone they can find. You happen to have a bag of feathers.

Egg Expressions

I included some reactions for you. Couldn’t find an ‘existential screaming’ image though.
Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

What’s your take on writing prompts? Fun-to-read items, valuable aids to starting off a story, or unnecessary blurbs?

Hmmm, maybe I should set up a discussion board here. Would make responses easier, I suppose…your thoughts?

 

Published inFiction WritingNewsletter Archive

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