If you’re a creative writer you’re probably already familiar with “writing prompts,” those little tips designed to boost your literary engines. Prompts often come in the form of a first line, which is helpful because that’s the hardest to write, but they’re often way too conventional to give your imagination the kind of double-take it needs to set its wheels in motion.
As Jacques Maritain pointed out, it’s then the work itself that dictates how it’s to be written, establishing its own rules — which you can discern, if you’re mindful enough, and follow if you’ve a speck of self-discipline. But you still need that first step.
For this reason I’ve created a set of prompts for your next creative writing project. Some of these have been tested, others are waiting for you to test them. One of creativity’s best friends is chance, and you’ve probably been amazed at the ideas that appear to come out of nowhere but that were in fact prompted by an unusual event; I’m going to try to simulate that process by presenting you with bits of hypothetical weirdness.
Both Rilke and Louis L’Amour agreed that the best advice for a writer was simply to get to work. No time is wasted! The notes you scribble down today and reject tomorrow may emerge five years down the road to inspire the next hit movie or top forty song. So pick one of these and get cracking.
- If you keep a journal (almost a necessity for a creative person) you can do the “lucky dip:” Close your eyes, open it to any page, and put your finger down. The phrase you land on will be the opening line of a new work. (This tip was given to Judy Collins, who used it to write the song “My Grandmother’s House.”)
- Write something based on a typical daily news event, that is, a headline, story capsule, a bit of investigation, some expert analysis, and then before you hear the end of one story you move on to another news cycle. Repeat until a kind of story emerges, and phrase the ending as a new headline.
- Open Google Scholar and type in “psychopath.” Pick a number from one to seven and count that many items down. Open the research, read it, and base a piece of writing on it.
- Find a child under the age of five and ask them what makes them angriest, then imagine that happening to an adult and how they would react if that thing happened.
- Find a homeless person and offer them five dollars if they tell you what they plan to do with the money.
- Remember an unfortunate incident from your life that still haunts you. Write it up but change the gender and ethnicity of each character and completely alter the setting.
- Write an angry letter to someone you despise. Let it all out, but don’t name them and don’t sign it. Now imagine what would happen if this letter made its way accidentally into a police detective’s office during an investigation of that person’s murder.
- Write about what would have to have happened for you to have avoided the biggest mistake of your life.
- Your main squeeze is trying to break up with you, but there’s a lot of noise in the bar. They say, “It’s not working,” but you think they said, “Let’s start twerking,” and you do. What’s next?
- Think about writing ruining your life, and then try to imagine how that might happen.