Writing Prompts…and Why I Love Them

I love, love, love writing prompts. Any size, any shape, any source. To me, anything that sparks creativity is something to be cherished — even if it comes about in an accidental sort of way.

That was what happened to me as a child one day when I took part in a “Nosebag Dramatics” game. If you’re not familiar with “Nosebag Dramatics”, this is how it works. Someone gathers an assortment of items from around the house, throws them all into a bag, then passes the bag to the performer. In this case, it was “performers” (plural) and the skits were part of our Girl Scouts “Dramatics” badge.

Our group eagerly rummaged through the bag we’d been given. I don’t recall every item, but overall, the contents had to do with personal appearance. We had a hairbrush, lipstick, a mirror, mascara. Lots of little things. We also had a store receipt at the bottom of the paper bag we’d been given. That single item — when viewed in conjunction with the others — set my imagination spinning.

“Suppose we used all of these items for a make-over,” I suggested. “And then at the end, when our customer gets the bill, she decides being beautiful isn’t worth the cost.” My troopmates loved it. With little need to practice, we performed a truly memorable skit. At the end, the bill was presented, the customer threw a fit and did an Oscar-worthy performance of messing up her hair and scrubbing the make-up from her face. We were all in stitches.

Well, all except the troop leader. “That receipt,” she informed us, “wasn’t part of the items. It was just left-over.” So? We weren’t supposed to use it, we were told — in no uncertain terms.  We were only supposed to use what we’d been given. We had somehow broken some rule we hadn’t even known existed!

But, we’d come up with a mighty fine show, the one voted as “Best Skit” of the day.

Creativity is like that. It often means breaking — or at least bending — rules and expectations. It means staying open, being willing to make last-minute changes, and above all, leaving room for lots of fun surprises.  People who insist on rigid rules and structures can easily destroy the creative spirit.

Many of my novels have had “receipts” thrown in — in other words, something that maybe wasn’t supposed to be there, but which sparked my imagination and became an integral part of the story.

When I first began making notes for Summertimethe story of a young woman coming home to the small town where she’d been born and raised, I visited one of my favorite “prompt” sites and grabbed the first random idea that appeared.

Write about an opera singer.

I changed it a bit. Instead of grand opera, Linn Sparks became a celebrity singer and star of the stage at the fictitious “Crown Theater” in San Francisco.

CatskillsWhen I began putting ideas together for Irresistible, the story of a young woman with a gloomy outlook on life, my attention was caught by a beautiful picture as I browsed “Webshots” looking for inspiration and ideas. At once the story took on a new dimension. The central character would be an aspiring artist, a woman who had lost the ability to see beauty in the world. Her dreams had been taken from her. Could the beauty of the Hudson River Valley inspire her to paint again?

I especially love “people” prompts.

Write about a Native American healer, said one prompt. That came on a day when I was a little stuck for ideas on my own. The result: Eagle Feather, who appears as a minor character in The Wrong Woman. 

I love “first sentence” prompts.

She stood behind the counter giving him this root-beer float kind of smile. That was the prompt I drew one day from “The Writer’s Toolbox“. Just playing around. Just having fun. The result? Toots, a fun little story you’ll find at “Postcard Shorts”.

I love brainstorming prompts.

“Think of a character who would be the last person you’d expect to find in your story.” That was a suggestion from one brainstorming program I found. At the time, I was writing a children’s story called Herbert and the Bully. Who suddenly popped into my head? An adorable little ballerina in a pink tutu. Gracie added many new insights to the story. Without her, it wouldn’t have been the same.

And dialogue prompts? I adore them.

“I’m not a quitter.” That was a line of dialogue that inspired Love in Any LanguageI didn’t use it as the opening line of the story. There are no rules, remember, for when, where or how we use a prompt.

I could go on and on. Breaking Up is Hard to Do, another short story, was inspired by a prompt suggesting “write about the role of technology in our lives today”. Granny’s Promise came from another dialogue prompt: “You’re next.”  I have an entire collection of short stories that were inspired by single-word prompts. 

That’s all it takes, really. A single word. A picture. A simple sentence. All can spark the imagination.

Any time I begin to feel too sure of where I’m going in my writing, I run the risk of predictability. A quick writing prompt can turn a story in an unexpected direction, open my eyes to possibilities I’d never considered before, and give a scene a fresh, new quality.

You can find writing prompts everywhere.  You can get “story-starters”, character prompts, plot generators, and other assorted goodies with only a quick search online.  A Google search for “writing prompts” produced over 17 million results — in less than one second.  You can buy prompts, you can find them for free, or you can make your own.

Grab a dictionary. Open it at random. Or grab any book. Open it and let the first three words you see spark your imagination.

Want a prompt of your own to play with? I have my “Writer’s Toolkit” close at hand.

“My brother did this weird thing with turtles.”


OK, that’s your starting point. 

Where will you go? Who knows? But have fun getting there. That’s what writing prompts are really all about, I think. It’s about letting go of rules, forgetting logic for the moment, and heading off to a place we’ve never been before.

I’ve love to read any stories you come up with from the prompt!