Take Writing Prompts From "Meh" to "Awesome!"

It's no secret that I love writing prompts, but when they don’t lead anywhere it starts to feel pointless. Some leave you with a list of generic facts about your main character, or you make something up just for the sake of having an answer. When you have limited writing time to start with, it can be super frustrating to spend your time on something that leaves you feeling "meh."

What if I told you it's possible to take any prompt from "meh" to "awesome," and that you'd get new insights into your story to boot?

Let's give it a try! To make a prompt work for you, here’s the gist of what needs to happen:

  1. Pick a prompt that makes your fingers twitch for your pen.
  2. Decide which character/setting/story you’re going to use it for.
  3. Set a time limit (if you want) and do the prompt. Do it several times, if you like!
  4. Look at what you’ve written in response to the prompt and play with it, noodle it, bat it around like it’s the yarn and you’re the cat.

Rinse and repeat steps 1 to 4 however many times you want, but step 4 is the key if you want to have superhero writing prompt powers. Here, I'll show you what I mean ...

Simple Prompts

First, a simple one: how tall is your character?

Simple prompt, simple answer: she’s about 5 feet tall.

You could stop there, and you’d know for the sake of your story that she’s short. People will be patting her on the head, she’ll be wearing heels all the time, et cetera.

But what if that’s not the case? There’s so many questions we could spin off with:

  • Does she like her height?
  • Does she fudge the answer when asked about it, in person or on forms?
  • Does she wear heels all the time or does she spend her days in Ked Champion sneakers?
  • Does she like having someone around to get things out of tall cupboards, or has she scampered onto the counter already?
  • Who does she get her height from in her family?

You don’t have to do this for every physical and emotional trait: just doing a few and having them around as reminders will help keep you in that mindset of pushing just a little further, making the story just a little more unique and concrete. And if you need a way to liven up a scene, you've got a list ready and waiting!

Prompts With More OOMPH

What’s your character’s worst fear?

I don’t know about you, but I struggle to narrow down what my own worst fear is. I have a few that battle for first place. There seem to be two categories: abstract fears that lure you into despair or depression, and fears that are more concrete, like public speaking or palm trees (that's a thing, right?).

For this prompt you could go either way. Let's say my character is scared of heights. This immediately suggests a few uncomfortable scenarios I could push him into, but let’s push it further:

  • Has he always been scared of heights, at least as long as he can remember, or did something trigger it? What was it?
  • What’s the earliest he remembers being challenged by this fear?
  • Do people close to him understand and empathize or do any of them try to force him to overcome it?
  • Has he ever faced it? What happened?
  • How far does this fear extend? Is he okay if he has something solid to hold on to? Does he faint, get vertigo, vomit?
  • Has it ever held him back from something he desperately wanted?

See what I'm getting at here? You can take even the simplest question and push, push, PUSH it, until your answers are as deep as you want them to be.

DIY Prompts

Guess what? You don't have to rely on someone else's prompt if you don't want to! You can come up with your own by asking yourself how your main character would respond to the obnoxious waiter that made a mess of your order by not writing it down, or what would happen if they got into the same hijinks as the people in the movie you just saw. Once you've done that, expand on your answer, just like we did for readymade prompts above.

Prompts are a fantastic resource if you know how to use them wisely. Some of my favourite sources for prompts are Eva Deverell's exquisite creative offerings and Jack Heffron's superb The Writer's Idea Book.

If you'd like more (and what writer doesn't, really?), click here for a collection of prompts that's updated monthly.