Why Writing Prompts Don’t Work (for Me)

If you’re not a writer–first of all, why not?–and second of all, maybe you’re not familiar with the phrase “writing prompts.” You’re familiar with the idea: in school, when you were assigned a topic to write about, that was a prompt. At work, if you ever have to prepare some prose on a given proposal, that’s a prompt. 

For hobby writers–and maybe professionals, too, I’m not one so I don’t know–a writing prompt tends to be a scrap of an idea for a fictional story, on which you’re supposed to be able to base a longer work. It can be a single word or a few paragraphs; it can also be a piece of dialog. It might be meant to inspire a setting or a mood, or you might be able to base a character off that scrap.

And it’s meant to be a starting point. You’re supposed to take that scrap and let it accrete all the other things necessary for your story (or song or poem–when I say “story” in this post, I usually mean any creative work based on words). Eventually you might dispose of that starting piece altogether, as the rest of the story grows beyond it.

And they don’t work for me. I have never in my life been able to take a single writing prompt and make any sort of work based on it, except for short poems.

And I’ll tell you why.

(I’ll also remind you that this is all my opinion, other things probably work for you, and wouldn’t the world be a boring place if we all wrote the same way and used the same inspirations.)

A Note on Where to Get Prompts

Listen, I’m not going to link to them. First of all, if you like using them, they’ll infest your every social media feed soon enough. You can’t get rid of the things once you let them in. If you haven’t seen any already, go to your favorite search bar and type “writing prompts”. There’s a million and one feeds of ‘em out there. Find your favs.

Also, I’m not going to link to something I’m talking negatively about. That’s just rude.

Now, you can also make your own. You can write down little scraps that seem to have potential. Heck, you could start your own feed of them for other people! Anything that suggests to you a character, a mood, a place, a story. 

One of my favorite places to get prompts is stock photos. It’s actually good for nonfiction writing: while I’m looking for photos to use for this blog, I sometimes see a weird one and think, “What article would this photo possibly be used for?” And then I have an idea for an article. You can also use them to let models’ faces inspire characters, or let them suggest moods or settings, of course.

Another great source is other people’s titles. I am completely incapable of scrolling through my music library without spotting a title and thinking about what I would write to fit it. All I’d have to do is write them all on index cards or in my notes app.

But I won’t, because that doesn’t work for me.

When They Work… and Don’t

Prompts are good for poems. A poem, to me, is like a single object in a museum. It’s on a pedestal, picked out with a spotlight, a hush all around so you can concentrate on the particularities of this one little concept, this one mood, even this one word and how it sounds and what it means.

That’s why a scrap, a few words, can be spun up into a poem. Because that’s the whole point, is examining one thing. 

Also, frankly, poems tend to be short. We’ve whittled them down to a single line in some cases–or a single sentence with some line breaks. (I will leave bitter comments about the state of popular poetry to better bloggers.)

Length-wise, ignoring things like flash fiction and six-word stories, the next step up is a song. A song is also relatively short, and generally has a structure with repetitions–you only have to write one chorus! And, again, prompts–single concepts–are great for, say, the chorus, or one verse.

But then you get to the second verse. Or god forbid the bridge. This happens in poetry, too: Certain forms, like sonnets, are meant to have a turn. You’re supposed to take your original concept, or in this case your prompt, and turn it around, emotionally, conceptually, maybe in a pun. For me, in songs, I like the second verse to be like a new scene. Something else happens, expanding on the first verse.

So now you’re saying, Okay, so you personally just can’t expand on a prompt. You can’t think of somewhere to go from someone else’s concept.

That’s only sort of true. The truth is that I don’t like to do that. If I’m expanding on something, deepening it, thinking a bunch about it, I want it to be mine. Something relevant to me, that starts and expands into a place I’m curious about and I care about. Also, as you might have noticed, I want it to be weird. And most prompts just don’t start in a weird place.

Certainly not weird enough to hold up a whole story. Not even a short one, for me. If there’s not enough story and turn in a prompt–or coming off a prompt–to fill out a folk song, what are you going to write paragraphs about? Where’s your arc? What’s interesting enough about it to make me keep thinking about it and twist other ideas off of it?

Here’s the thing: A prompt, and only a prompt, is not enough for a story. Novels accrete. You’re not meant to use them on their own anyway, they’re just little starting points, little sticks in the river the other ideas catch on. Why not use something you found yourself as that point?

Well, say there’s a prompt you’re in love with anyway. How do you use it effectively?

Where Writers Get Their Ideas: Part One

The first and easiest thing you can do, especially if you’re already on someone’s prompt blog, is this:

Get a second prompt.

This is going to be terribly reductive, and I do know that a lot of prompt blogs do their jobs much better than this. But for the sake of example, say Prompt_Blog_Ultra has posted: “Today’s prompt is: Write something with a dog in it!”

Okay. 

I could spend some time making up a story about a dog; I just read Wodehouse’s “The Mixer” (content warning for a slur in that story). I’ve owned dogs and they… you know, they did things. That I could write about. But so what?

Or I could look at yesterday’s post, which was: “Today’s writing prompt is: Write something about a jetpack!” –and I could add that to today’s prompt.

Okay!

Dog + Jetpack!

Now I have questions! Where did he get it? Where’s he going to go with it? Is he a sentient story-telling dog, or is there a narrator who has just heard a loud noise and can’t find his dog?

That’s one of the secrets of writing that writers are always telling you whenever you ask where they get their ideas. Juxtaposition. Take two things that you don’t normally see together and jam them together! Interaction, friction, mixing!

You can even do this with concepts. For example, take “the story of The Little Mermaid” and combine it with “the concept of backwardsness”.

When I did that, I just meant that I was going to tell the story backwards (beginning with foam on the ocean becoming a human girl, who steals a prince from another girl, and eventually speaks  up for herself and is turned into a mermaid for it). But maybe you’ll take it to mean “She didn’t lose her voice, it’s just that she could only speak backwards” or “What if she–

Hang on, that’s the cue for:

Where Writers Get Their Ideas: Part Two

“What if.”

Magic words. Another well-known secret of writing.

It’s really just a structure for juxtaposition. Instead of just “dog + jetpack” you have them both resting inside of “What if a dog had a jetpack?” Or, heck, “What if a jetpack were sentient and bought a dog?”

This works better with the juxtaposition of concepts. So above, I could have said “What if I told ‘The Little Mermaid’ backwards?” or “What if the Little Mermaid could talk, but only backwards?” (Speaking of which, what about “The Little Mermaid” + “Twin Peaks”?)

It’s a good structure for just generating hundreds of ideas while you’re sitting around sometime.

  • What if such-and-such metaphor were real?
  • What if so-and-so news story had gone this other way?
  • What if I were involved in this national issue? How would I–or this character–do it?
  • What if these two public domain characters met?

This is also better than just “write about x” style prompts because it gives you a part of your structure or arc. Usually it’s going to be the first part, your inciting incident/call to adventure/what have you. The situation as it is at the beginning. Your answer to the question–”Well, this would happen”–is your next step, your next action. So your story has already begun, and now you just need to run after it with a pen. 

Now, also, you have a much bigger metaphorical stick in your river for the leaves and debris of what makes a story great–the characters, the settings, the little fiddly bits–to congregate around. And it’s a question you asked, so it’s probably one you care about more than some week-old stale crumb of text on someone else’s blog.

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this crumb of someone else’s blog! Do you have strong feelings for or against writing prompts?

And if you liked this post, why not share it on your own feed?

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