Usually prompts are used to generate a new piece of writing — often through a timed, free-writing exercise. For example, you set a timer for ten minutes and write whatever pops into your head using the prompt. Fiction, real-life memory, poem, country music lyrics, recipe… whatever rings your bell.
In the writing group, we have a lot of laughs — and our share of serious moments — when we go around the circle and read what we wrote (anyone can opt out of reading if they wish, and the two rules of the group are that we’re always positive and whatever is said or read in the group stays in the group).
On your own, you can just keep a writing journal of what you’ve generated, going back through it for odd character descriptions, to remember things for a memoir, whatever you want.
Using Prompts When Your Current Work Needs Help
You can also use a writing prompt when you’re stuck in something you’re working on. Let’s say you’re writing a novel and you need a new secondary character and a bit of side-bar action to keep your readers a bit distracted while you drop them a clue in your murder mystery… but you’re stumped about what to do.
Pick a prompt that includes the elements you need — character profile, setting, conflict, etc. — then set your timer, write freely (forgetting about your current longer work for the moment), and see what happens. You might not find a magical answer, but give it a bit of time, try again with another prompt later, and see what possibilities you might open up.
Here’s One to Get You Started!
- Write the name of each of your characters on a separate index card (to save paper, you can use 1/2 or 1/4 of an index card… you won’t need much writing space on them).
- On another batch of index cards, write nouns at random, one noun per card (orange, submarine, kitten, elm, Paris, sofa, hamburger… you get the picture). Write as many as you can think of. Don’t edit your ideas. If you’re having trouble, get someone to start naming things for you.
- On yet more index cards, write every color you can think of, one on each card.
- Finally, write “memory,” “dream,” “wish,” “fear,” “discovery,” “denial” on each of six more cards (once you see where this is going, you’ll probably want to add your own).
- Shuffle each batch of cards.
- Select one card from each batch. Select another card from the noun stack.
- Write the scene: this character is experiencing this memory or discovery or fear or wish (whatever that card was) — and it includes the color you selected and the two nouns.
Keep writing. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t tell yourself what you’re doing will have no place in your book (how could you know that now?).
Maybe you won’t use what you just wrote, but maybe it will get your mind working anyway, even if it’s on another track completely. But, then, that’s what a prompt is all about isn’t it?