Prompts Are Everywhere: Using Writing Prompts to Spark Creativity

Have you ever needed that spark to write? Try writing prompts.

A blank page glares back at you, taunting you to write something. Anything. A minute passes. Then another. Three cups of coffee later, you find yourself on social media watching cats riding Roombas and the page remains woefully blank. Ideas are everywhere, but sometimes we need a kick in the brain to notice them. Writing prompts provide something the bottom of your caffeinated beverage cannot: a fresh idea. Prompts can help you out of a rut and trigger new creativity.

Let’s say you been “adulting” all day and your brain is full of kids, bills, and work. Maybe your muse took a nap because you’ve been agonizing over where to put commas as you edit. Or you woke up extra groggy this morning and that third cup is a joke because you know you need the whole pot. A prompt is a great way to start a writing session when your brain is in the wrong mode. Take 10 minutes and sit down to write. Find a prompt that triggers at least one spark for you, set pen to paper (or whatever your preferred method) and write. Don’t stop until the timer dings. Let the ideas flow and give your brain permission to play. It wants to play, so let it. There is no right or wrong way to use a prompt. It’s whatever strikes you in the moment.

The most basic prompt is a short list of words.

A good list will have at least three words that don’t fit together at first glance. Random prompt generators typically give a character, place, and object. Some include additional elements like time and weather. Your creative job is to connect the ideas. When you find the right prompt, your brain will begin building a story around them without asking you permission. First, connect two items, then add in the next. Ask questions, be curious and, most importantly, find a way to the chocolate.

The words hat, rose, and chocolate might be connected first by a hat with a rose on it. Expand upon the idea by asking the ‘W’ questions— who, what, where, why. Who is wearing the hat? A woman. When did it come from? A store, maybe not important. Where is the hat? On the bench next to the woman. What is that hat doing there? Well, this is where it gets really good…remember that guy she met in line for hot chocolate? The words don’t have to be used verbatim. If chocolate gets you thinking about Mayan conquerors and the quest for gold, go with it. It’s a prompt, not a law. The best prompt is the one that takes you in an interesting direction and won’t let you NOT write it.

Writing prompts come in many shapes and sizes beyond three-word combinations. All provide an entry point to a story.

  1. First lines
  2. Dialogue
  3. Character based
  4. Setting based
  5. Photo
  6. Ripped from the headlines

Writing prompts are everywhere.

A Google search yields dozens of writing prompt sites. The 10 Minute Novelists’ Pinterest page has a curated list. If that’s not enough, the app store for your phone contains several dedicated prompt apps. Canned prompts are great, but you can also make your own. One photo prompt can be worth a thousand words or more. This style of prompt is also readily available when you search on the term, but consider following photographers on social media or using stock photos.

An adjustment to your viewpoint or a narrowing of focus results in a different way of seeing the mundane.  For example, a storm passed through knocking down chairs and tables at an outdoor cafe. In panoramic view, the closed cafe sat at the end of a row of shops abutted to a huge parking lot. Like any old downtown. By narrowing the focus to see only the knocked over chairs and tables and asking questions, the scene is transformed. Who caused all this damage? There was a struggle. They were waiting for her. Was anyone hurt? He got there too late, so he didn’t know what happened to her. Why would anyone take his one and only love? Oh, right the gambling debts.

Searching for an even more exotic source for prompts? Try news headlines. Science news covers everything from medical testing to planetary discoveries to the amount of wine we should all drink. Headlines from foreign countries bring you concepts that are just that— foreign. Controlling the kangaroo population, mobile hospitals, red ants floating in pools. What if you built a world where the constraints of the headline were the rule? Everyone must drink a glass of wine a day for longevity, but otherwise, they wither away. And maybe it isn’t wine, but some other government supplied an elixir of doom. Two steps from the headline becomes a conspiracy laden dystopia. Add a character who can’t get his elixir and you will probably need more than the prescribed ten minutes.

Allow writing from prompts to be sloppy.

The sentences don’t have to make sense but do let the ideas flow. Where you start may not be where you end and it’s ok. Stories have a character in a setting with conflict and prompt may give you only one of these elements of story telling. All writing is progress and you never know when you can use the ideas from a simple prompt. Do you have a favorite style of prompt? Has one led you to a larger work? Leave a comment if you’ve benefitted from prompts.


Sara Marschand has been writing Urban Fantasy and Science fiction since she ended her full time career in engineering. When not writing, she enjoys everything produced by Marvel studios. Sara lives with her spouse, 2 noisy kids, a frog and a goldfish that spits rocks. Visit her blog here.

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