You might think of writing prompts as a great way to do some writing practice or as a great way to start a new story.
But how often have you used them to move an existing story along or to kickstart a stalled work-in-progress?
A writing prompt can really help, as long as you are willing to play with it a little to find how it will work for your story.
Go on a Tangent
Using a prompt to start a story gives you a fresh perspective and helps you pull out unexpected ideas. It can do the same thing for your longer work in progress, if you’re willing to go on a tangent.
Imagine that the writing prompt you’ve chosen is ‘hammer.’
You *could* figure out a way to include a literal hammer in your next section.
You could think about what a hammer does, what a hammer means, or do a sort of free-association practice with the idea of a hammer. And then you could consider how that applies to your story.
So if you consider what a hammer does or what a hammer means…
In a practiced hand, it keeps a steady, persistent rhythm in its work. It drives a sharp point home. It is a key element in connecting things.
How could that apply in your WIP? Is there a situation that needs a steady, persistent rhythm? Maybe there is a character who needs to make a clear point? Is there a connection that needs something to hold it together?
Any of those questions can help you see where to move your WIP forward.
If you do some free-association, then a hammer could refer to a carpenter. A carpenter builds things. Does something need to be built, literally or metaphorically in your story?
Or maybe you could think about how a hammer is associated with Thor – the Norse god of thunder. How might thunder, or power, or natural forces come into play in your story?
Learning to let the prompt lead you into a series of questions like these can make a huge difference. Figuring out how they might apply to your story will open all kinds of doors in your imagination.
I am a big proponent of the idea that creativity loves constraints but I also think that creativity loves it when you are contrary.
In this case, that means that you can find it inspiring to take a prompt and reverse it so it works better for your story.
So, if your prompt is supposed to be ‘include the phrase ‘You’re so weird.’ You might be inspired by the idea of identifying what is ‘normal’ in the next part of your story.
Instead of having a character deride someone for behaving oddly, they could be scornful of someone’s conventional behaviour.
And the benefits of being contrary about prompts don’t even have to be that straightforward.
If your prompt is ‘soft’ you can look at ways to make your character behave in stiff or unyielding ways. A prompt for lunch can turn into a consideration of fasting or feasting or being consumed by an idea, or consuming a novel, or being a consumer.
Think About How it Might Make Sense
A few years ago, I took an acting workshop with my friend Monica and she gave me a challenging prompt to work with.
Her suggestion was that I was to be someone with a secret and my style suggestion was ‘vending machine.’
At first, I was baffled. Once I thought about it though, I realized that a vending machine accepts payment and then dispenses specific items. I could definitely apply that to bring ‘person with a secret’ to life.
I sat still and sullen and never offered any information. Instead, I responded in a short, quick way, only when I was asked a question.
You can do the same with your writing. If you took the vending machine prompt, for example, you could consider how one of your characters delivers information. Or you could think about how someone or something in your story is broken, but works perfectly sometimes – under specific conditions/requests. You could also consider how someone or something is never noticed until they are needed. Or you can think about how someone needs to receive something before they can provide for someone else.
Be The Boss Of Your Prompts
Okay, maybe being the boss of your prompts isn’t a playful idea but it is an important one.
The point of a writing prompt is not about creating more stories on that topic. It’s about giving you ideas and inspiration for writing.
So, you get to be the boss of that prompt.
Play with the ideas surrounding it. Consider how you can go on a tangent, be contrary, or make it make sense and help your story develop in a way that satisfies you.
A writing prompt is a good way to practice writing or to start a story but it is also a great way to explore the stories you are already telling. Playing with a prompt can add depth and breadth to your characters and to the situations they are in.
Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her at christinehennebury.com