I’m not a huge fan of traditional writing prompts, but I totally get why so many people love them. When I’m feeling like I need a creative boost, I gravitate more towards more unconventional writing exercises like the ones I’m about to share with you today. I need prompts that take me out of my comfort zone and allow me to really stretch my writing muscles. Exercises that allow me to examine a situation, object, or subject matter from a slightly different perspective than I’m used to – and to make mistakes in the process without judgment.
The thing with creative writing exercises is, to be really successful, I don’t think you can go into the prompt session thinking “this’ll be the basis of my novel” or that the result of the exercise is going to be this really beautiful, perfect piece of writing. I mean, I’ve definitely developed something I’ve produced during an exercise into a more substantial piece. Sometimes I even joggle lose new ideas for whatever I’m working on at the time, but it’s not my starting intention. That kind of expectation just sets you up to choke when that cursor starts blinking, which is the opposite of what most people are searching for through a writing exercise.
Really the goal is to just get your brain warmed up. Creativity is like a muscle, and creative writing prompts are akin to stretching before working out. You gotta get limber before you can expect to perform at a high level. When I’m writing, the first twenty minutes is almost always pure trash. I’m trying to settle into the story or character’s voice. I’m trying to peel the day’s stresses off myself and trying to re-center my focus. So, I find a quick writing exercise prepares me for a nice, long, and productive writing session than if I just jump into my writing project cold.
Here I’ve compiled some of my tried-and-true writing exercises that have gotten me through many a creative dry spell. Let me know how they work for you.
Pick a song.
Listen to it a couple times and write a scene based on the lyrics and musical mood. Because there’s already a story happening in the song, I find that this writing exercise lets me focus on honing more nitty-gritty skills like character motivation, dialogue, and developing a really rich setting for my characters to play around in. Incorporating the auditory as a writing exercise takes some of the nerve-wracking guesswork out of what I’m going to write about and instead I get to enjoy figuring out how I’m going to bring it to life.
Side note: This one is actually a really great exercise to use if you do want to specifically work on an existing piece of your writing. Pick a song that you think resembles the mood or tone of the overall story or a specific scene you’re trying to capture.
Taken from my beloved Surrealists, this one is exactly as it sounds: just write whatever the fuck comes to mind for ten minutes – no matter what. But there is one other rule. You can’t take your pen off the page. (Did I mention this one works best as a hand-written exercise?) That means writing “yada yada yada” if you have to until more sensical words spring up in your mind. In short, this exercise is supremely freeing. You can’t judge any of what you put down on paper because it tends to be peppered with quite a bit of nonsense. But I find, when the ten minutes is up, if you string the more sensical parts together you often have at least one beautiful image or stirringly honest sentiment that will make you go “wow.”
I find automatic writing exercises really helpful before diving into the blank pages. I’m a fairly vocal with my self-critiques, so doing some automatic writing beforehand helps put me in the right frame of mind before facing that silently judgmental blinking cursor.
Contextualize a photo.
Image search things like “most surreal places on Earth,” “most beautiful hideaways,” or “places humans can’t visit on Earth.” Whatever floats your boat. Then, craft a story about what’s happened there. This one helps me get out of my comfort zone quite a bit. I tend to write romantic stories set in places I’ve lived in or visited before– New England, California, etc. All very basic. All very familiar to me.
Using the same settings over and over again puts your brain on autopilot, creating stale scenes and dampening characters’ abilities to stretch and come alive as I try to form-sit them into a place I’ve written about a million times before. Attempting to navigate and bring to life a place you’ve never actually explored before can open up a whole realm of intriguing possibilities.
Focus on a color.
Colors provide a powerful source of inspiration because they’re pretty loaded elements. Each one has its own symbolism and is pre-packaged with psychology. For instance, red is anger and fury, bringing to mind a passionate but jilted lover or a bad guy dressed all in red. Blue is calm and chilly, which makes me think of cold shoulders and isolation and icy tundra.
By focusing on a color, you can provide yourself a good foundation for a three-dimensional character with emotion, viewpoint, and a little bit of backstory simply by layering different elements of the color on top of each other. It provides a track for you to get started on but with enough leeway to still provide room for discovery and surprise while working through the writing prompt.
Grab a dictionary.
This one is maybe the most traditional of the writing prompts I use. This is my go-to writing exercise when I’m feeling particularly uncreative and low-energy. Like I’m tired or overly stressed and the words just aren’t coming and I just really, really need a starting point. Many writing exercises are too open-ended to be helpful when I’m at a creative low point. Best of all, this exercise super simple.
Step 1: Find a dictionary. (This works best with a physical dictionary, but you can use a random word generator online too.)
Step 2: Flip to a page, close your eyes, and point to an entry.
Step 3: Repeat nine times with nine different pages.
The goal is to use all ten words as quickly as you can while still making logical sense. Often, you end up with some familiar words that easily connect together to help you get something down on the page. And then there’s usually one or two words that you must build towards. Having points A and C, gives you guideposts to discover point B in the middle, and that’s where you tend to play around and get creative as you try to pull these puzzle pieces together.
Now go forth and write.
Whatever you choose for a creative writing prompt to get you started, the most important thing is to keep the words flowing as you go along. I find the best way to do this is to ask myself questions.
Taking my examples from the color prompt, let’s say my character wakes up in the middle of said icy tundra. There’s nothing she can see in any direction. No landmarks. No people. She’s all alone in the middle of nowhere. Why is my character in the middle of a frigid, snowy landscape? Are they familiar with the land or totally out of their element? Are they dressed for the landscape or completely unprepared? What are they trying to get back home to? Or are they running away from something?
Think of creative writing prompts as a form of improv: just say “yes, and” and see where your creativity can take you.
Photo Credit: Deposit Photos – 12297523