Everyone has a story to tell, whether it’s one from your own life or made up out of whole cloth. Yet, you probably know how easy it is to feel stumped when you sit down to write.
“Every writer I know has trouble writing,” famed author Joseph Heller once said. When you’re staring at a blank computer screen or the empty pages of a journal, it can be hard to get started.
That’s why so many writers rely on creative writing prompts for help writing a story. Storytelling prompts can provide a great framework to fire up your imagination, make writing feel more playful, and most importantly, get words on the page. “Start writing, no matter what,” Louis L’Amour once said, “The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
If you need help writing a story and the words aren’t flowing, we’ve collected a few of the best story prompts below, as well as a look into why storytelling prompts for adults can be so helpful.
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Are Writing Prompts Good?
Creative writing essay prompts can be incredibly helpful for writers. Writing prompts give you an idea to start writing about immediately, rather than spending hours of unproductivity looking for that idea.
Both nonfiction and fiction prompts can unearth creativity and story ideas you wouldn’t have otherwise considered. They may spur you to think of a new situation or see the world in a different light, ultimately giving you a different perspective for your writing. And once that creativity begins flowing, it can be easier to go back to your original idea or current project and make progress there, as well.
Convinced of the benefits? Get started with one of the following creative writing prompts.
Creative Writing Prompt 1: Find Inspiration in Photographs
Have you tried using pictures to inspire creative writing? In her Skillshare Originals class “Creative Writing: Crafting Personal Essays with Impact,” writer and editor Roxane Gay talks about the how images from the past can jog your memory. So before you pick up your pen (or open your computer), rifle through old photo albums or browse through the photos on your computer.
Every picture has the potential to prompt a piece of your story. If you’re writing nonfiction, for example, photos can be useful in verifying facts, Gay says. Objective sources like photographs or captions in a photo album can help keep your writing truthful and accurate. If you’re writing fiction, real-life images can give you a great jumping-off point for a new story. Rather than re-telling the story depicted in the image, challenge yourself to come up with a new tale behind the photo.
Creative Writing Prompt 2: Share a Secret
Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” In her opinion, the truth is too overwhelming to be captured directly. She considered indirect, circuitous storytelling easier and more interesting to absorb.
Skillshare teacher and creativity expert Tatiana Ambrose builds on that concept by prompting her students to write about their secrets in a roundabout way. To begin, identify a unique fact or secret about yourself. Then, write about a fictional character who shares your secret, but is otherwise distinct from you. How does the secret affect his or her goals? Struggles? Joys? How does he or she handle that secret in a way that is different—or similar—to the way you have in your own life?
Remember that you have creative license. In other words, there is no need to stick too close to reality. Challenge yourself to change whatever you’d like about the character and his or her context. Giving just one real-life experience to an otherwise total work of fiction will allow you to explore new and uncharted creative territory.
Creative Writing Prompt 3: Write a Letter to Your Younger Self
Yasmine Cheyenne, a writer, spiritual teacher, and speaker, advises writers who are feeling uninspired to pen a note to the younger versions of themselves. This teaches empathy, she says, which is an important implement in any writer’s toolbox. It allows you to find grace, compassion, and even forgiveness for the characters in your life—including yourself.
“One of the things that this prompt allows us to do naturally is cultivate self-forgiveness. It keeps us from vilifying ourselves. Instead, we begin to accept our human experiences and realize that much of what we do will turn out okay,” she says.
Begin your letter by sharing detailed information about your current life. Take time to explain how your circumstances are a direct result of decisions you made in your past. Compare what you believed as a younger person to what you believe now, as well as who you were then to who you’ve become. Reassure yourself about mistakes you may have made, and share all the ways those mistakes eventually turned out fine (or even great!). Ask yourself what you might do again or do differently.
Throughout the exercise, however, continue to embrace self-forgiveness. Otherwise, blaming yourself for “mistakes” can block your creative impulses instead of unleashing them.
Creative Writing Prompt 4: Create a Playlist
In her Skillshare Originals class, “Creative Personal Writing: Write the Real You,” writer and speaker Ashley C. Ford recommends using music as a path to recovering memories and inspiring new stories. She creates playlists that reference certain periods of her life so that she can nudge her memory.
“There were certain songs I listened to when I was feeling a particular kind of sadness, heartbreak, joy, or excitement. So when I hear those songs again, it sort of transports me back into those places,” she says. If you are writing fiction, you can also use music to help you conjure a fictional mood.
To start, gather and play five songs that generate a specific emotion for you, whether it’s nostalgia, anger, desperation, or something else. As you take them in, put your pen to paper and begin to describe how you feel.
Ask yourself some concrete questions: What places do these songs remind you of? What kinds of conversations did you have in those places? Who were you with when you heard these songs? What smells or tastes do you connect with them? Accessing those kinds of details, whether fictional or non-fictional, can add flesh to the emotional bones of a story.
Creative Writing Prompt 5: Write a Summary
Author Steve Alcorn advises writing a short summary of your story before you begin to write it in earnest. “Try to explain what happens and why it happens,” he recommends, noting that the summary should only be about a paragraph. This will help you organize your thoughts and create a framework to build upon.
Need some help narrowing down the summary? To start, ask yourself a few key questions: What kind of story am I writing? Is it a romance, a fantasy, a memoir? Who is my main character? Where and when does he or she live?
Begin your summary with a sentence about what physically happens to the character in the story. Then, follow it with a sentence that reveals how your character feels about what happens to him or what motivates him. Edit until your two sentences become one. Then write that sentence on an index card and tape it on the wall of your office or computer—somewhere you can’t miss it. As you write, glance at it from time to time so it becomes embedded in your brain. That way, even when you’re not writing, your subconscious will continue to work out story, plot, and character details.
Creative writing prompts and exercises can’t write your prose for you. But they can certainly get your creativity flowing and, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge says, put “the words in their best order.”
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