Using writing prompts
Writer's Corner
Scott Stoops  

Using writing prompts

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”

Orson Scott Card

I have always found using writing prompts to be challenging. Some prompts inspire me. Some do not.

Prompts can include:

  • Write a story about a character facing a critical choice
  • Write a story that begins with this sentence
  • Write a story that contains this phrase
  • Write about a place

One would think that the more descriptive and suggestive the prompt is, the easier it should be to write about it. Not always. Any given prompt might connect with the sometimes sleeping muse just enough to say wake up and get to work. It might not. Sometimes these kinds of prompts do not inspire my muse. And it has nothing to do with the quality of the prompt.

Sometimes, the prompt is obscure. How can anyone ever write anything based upon that prompt? I try to set it aside. It just does not want to go away. I go back to it and look again. What is it about this particular prompt that keeps me looking? It is no more intriguing than when I looked at it before.

All of this points out a fundamental flaw in my thinking about writing prompts and how to use them.

The Why of Using Prompts

pen and paper
Pen and Paper

I have heard several people talk about creating when they feel inspired. I’ve used that expression myself on multiple occasions. Writing when the muse is active is easier. Words flow from the pen onto the paper (the keyboard to the screen). The story feels alive; I am engaging with my characters. I write while the muse is there; I stop when it is gone. And then I sit around until the next inspiration.

The thing about writing for anyone who wants to do it is that you need to keep at it. Disciplined writers write every day, or at least most days. That does not necessarily mean they are working on their next book or short story. A friend of mine has several different writing projects going on all of the time. Her reasoning is simple: when she gets stuck on one writing project, she has other projects.

Writing prompts keeps us writing.

They also function as creative weight lifting. Or finger exercises.

By taking on any particular prompt, I am agree to explore that idea as fully as I want to. My creative energies get to engage in a way that they might not otherwise do so. What is unique about this situation? What makes this character tick? How can I use that location?

Writing prompts give us the space to practice that is not tied to any particular project and, most of the time, any deadline. We get to take a thought and develop it, even if the muse is not present. While we are writing based upon these writing prompts, we are writing and, hopefully, getting better with the practice.

Recent Writing Prompts

One that recently piqued my interest is: Write a story that includes a character using the phrase swings and roundabouts. Now, the expression ‘swings and roundabouts’ is not necessarily all that interesting but the thought it conveys, where the pros and cons of any particular choice essentially balance each other out, is.

I am a part of a local group that gets together to share our writing. There is a theme for each month that we are supposed to use. The pieces are as varied as the writers themselves. This month the topic is Beacons of Hope. Not much to go on. That is a broad and generic concept. I wanted to avoid the cliches. Because, I tend to write urban fantasy and magical realism I wanted to express the idea with those things in mind. Could I find a different perspective on who needs hope and what that hope means?

The third writing prompt was from the Writer’s Digest – Your Story series of prompts and contained a single image showing a location. The story had to be about the place and be under 650 words. I wanted to create a character reacting to the scene, conveying his mood and attitude about himself, his life, and that place.

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