The Mark Blog

PROMPTS

I know they aren’t cool, and I know a lot of writers hate them, but I'll admit it: I love writing prompts.

I can understand why many literary folk roll their eyes at them. Why would you want someone to tell you when and what to write about?

There are two main reasons that I dance a little on the inside when given a good writing exercise. The first is their playful nature. A prompt is a game of sorts. You take an idea that someone's handing you– an interesting scenario or character trait, an image or conflict– and tinker with it. You emerge with a creation born of the original idea, but now different, on the other end. The transformation process– like dress-up, or performing a play, or pulling a prank– is, inherently, fun.

Secondly, an exercise asks something specific and objective of a writer. It's pre-defined: this is the task that must be accomplished; this is the place at which to begin; this is the character whom you follow; this is the amount of time or space you have to write. In a field where we so often dwell in subjectivity, it's a nice variation to latch onto something definitive and factual. At the same time, a prompt can evolve into an infinite number of stories. Possibilities are simultaneously limited and boundless in such a way that, perhaps, frees one from regular habits and limitations, while still applying pressure to the writing. I believe that pressure and play are healthy for the imagination, and exercises ask both of a writer.

Gathered from my some of favorite craft books, here are a few writing prompts. I'm going to do some this week and, if anyone wants to be un-cool and do some too, I'd love to share and compare notes!

Ten Prompts

1. The Non-Apology: Write an exchange that begins "I'm sorry, but..." Have the other character answer and then in the ensuing back-and-forth reveal the circumstances that got them into this situation. --from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway

2. Write about something you know absolutely nothing about. Make all of it up. --from 642 Things to Write About, by the San Francisco Writers' Grotto

3. To learn more about your character, write down two lists: one of the sins of omission (the things the character didn't do) and one of the sins of commission (what the character did do) that are on his or her conscience. --from Method and Madness: The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante

4. Write down ten things about yourself that are quantifiable in some way (i.e., can be expressed with numbers). --from Method and Madness: The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante

5. Imagine a moment just after some major historical event... It may be that these people have no idea what has just happened. --from The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction, by Brian Kitely

6. Write a short story on a three-by-five card or the back of a postcard. Notice that if you're going to manage a conflict, crisis and resolution in this small space, you'll have to introduce the conflict immediately. --from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway

7. Write a scene in which two people leave believing opposite things are true. --from 642 Things to Write About, by the San Francisco Writers' Grotto

8. Think about a time when you lost something and were inexplicably upset about it. That is, the emotion was out of proportion with the thing lost. Write the story, concentrating on concrete details and immersing the reader in the experience rather than summarizing it. --from Method and Madness: The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante

9. Write down three pieces of dialogue that you hear from three different conversations. Put those bits into the same conversation. Take it from there. --from 642 Things to Write About, by the San Francisco Writers' Grotto

10. For one of your stories, write three different endings, each one showing, in some way, how your main character has been changed by the action in the story. Think about what is resolved and what is left unresolved with each ending. Then ask yourself what really need to happen, emotionally, to your character by the end. --from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway