While writing inspiration can strike at any time in your everyday life, there are many things we can do to get our creative juices flowing or stir up some story ideas when the dreaded writer’s block kicks in. Fiction writing isn’t like other pursuits that we can train for by lifting weights or running laps, but that’s not to say that we can’t flex our muscles and sharpen our writing skills with a good old writing exercise every now and then! There are lots of resources to dig into on how to write a novel.
It’s worth pointing out that feeling blocked isn’t necessarily a cause for alarm – it’s all part of the non-linear rollercoaster we call the writing process. There are some great stories that were inspired by simply reading a poem; others were sparked by a chat over a cup of tea with a family member.
Sometimes the complete opposite is true: a writer spends years fleshing out an alternate universe or ruminating on something they’ve observed about today’s society – climate change fiction, for example, is very much on the rise. Often, it’s just an unusual place or a cracking main character that sets loose a flurry of writing ideas in someone’s imagination.
The point is, if you sit around waiting for a bolt of divine inspiration to strike, you might be waiting your entire life. The only person who can get you to write a story is you.
Persuasive prompts can stir the creative juices
Creative writing prompts can be great story starters and a good way to use your writing time when you need a change of pace or scene. They can generate brand new book ideas, give you a fresh insight on a narrative you’re crafting, or even generate a separate short story – or inspire you to write a poem.
One writing prompt often won’t inspire the same story twice
The interesting thing about writing prompts is that they’re nowhere near as prescriptive as they might seem.
In fact, the best story writing prompts can be taken in all kinds of directions: one single exercise could inspire a fantasy story for one writer, a horror story for another, a love story for a third, a historical novel set in the world war, a dystopian battle waged by your future self, a coming-of-age tale in a rural middle school, a crazy adventure in a magical world, or even a non-fiction diary entry for you to process things that might be happening in your life.
In short: truly inspiring, persuasive prompts can be taken in whatever direction each writer desires.
Writing prompts from the home of happy writing
So if you love writing and want to try and get into a different kind of creativity flow, try your hand at these writing prompts provided by our very own writing coach Mahsuda Snaith. At the very least, they should get your creative juices flowing, and they might even spark writing ideas that turn into your next favourite story.
And rest assured, Mahsuda is no stranger to finding stellar writing ideas and helping others to refine their writing skills! Her debut novel, The Things We Thought We Knew, was released in 2017 to great praise and her second novel, How to Find Home, was chosen as a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’. She’s also a master of the short story form as shown by her successes in writing competitions – she won the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2014 and the Bristol Short Story Prize 2014.
When it comes to helping people refine their fiction writing process and stir up fresh story ideas, Mahsuda has a wealth of experience. She has led creative writing workshops in universities, hospitals, schools and a homeless hostel, and worked as a writing mentor for a variety of writing organisations – as well as being a writing coach here at The Novelry.
Without further ado, let’s hand over to Mahsuda for her writing prompts!
The importance of using creative writing prompts to develop your writing style and craft
No matter what genre you’re working in, whether you’re writing a novella-length novel or an epic doorstopper, there is always one thing you can work on to become a better writer: writing craft. The way you place your words on the page, the sound of them, the pacing, getting across an idea or image as quickly as possible, are skills that can be practised and honed by any writer.
Having taught writing workshops for over 10 years (and having taken part in them for years before that) I’ve seen for myself how a small writing prompt can lift a writer out of a slump, help them connect better to their characters and sharpen their writing tools. All of this in just ten minutes or less.
The way you place your words on the page, the sound of them, the pacing, getting across an idea or image as quickly as possible, are skills that can be practised and honed by any writer.
And because they’re so adaptable, you don’t necessarily need to hunt specifically for romance writing prompts, horror writing prompts, sci-fi writing prompts, thriller writing prompts... You get the idea. Fiction writing across the board – including short stories – can be inspired by a few simple nudges. You might even find these work as poetry prompts! However you want to write a story, these story starters are a great place to begin.
What you’ll need for these creative writing prompts
To get the most out of these writing prompts you will need three things: a timer, a pen and paper/your laptop, and a willingness to allow the words to spill out on the page.
The timer is important because when your mind is given a limited time, there is no space to ruminate and dawdle – you have to choose something to write and commit. This works effectively in a writing workshop environment because there is no space to distract yourself, so if you’re trying this on your own make sure that you are strict with yourself.
The timer is important because when your mind is given a limited time, there is no space to ruminate and dawdle – you have to choose something to write and commit.
Be reassured that when most writers first hear writing prompts, they have no idea how to approach them, but once they start, they always find a way. I have never had a writer left with a blank page after being given a prompt. Even if they didn’t quite ‘get’ what they were meant to do, they always produce a creative piece and, more times than not, something even better than if they’d followed the prompt by the letter.
The willingness to experiment without any fixed goal is also vital. At The Novelry, I run a monthly creative writing workshop called ‘Let’s Play Writing’. It’s called this because that’s really what writing exercises are about: playing.
But don’t let the play aspect fool you. By allowing themselves to just write something without any clear purpose other than to have fun, I have often found writers create the most amazing pieces. It has often helped them get over a problem in their novel that they’ve been struggling with for months.
With play comes freedom and with freedom there is a world of possibilities. That’s why we swear by our philosophy of happy writing above all else.
With play, comes freedom and with freedom there is a world of possibilities. That’s why we swear by our philosophy of happy writing above all else.
Creative writing prompts to try right now
Below are some writing prompts that I’ve found have been great ways of adding skills to the writer’s toolbox, from writing short descriptions and avoiding clichés to using language in unexpected ways.
The last exercise uses free-flow writing and is something I’ve incorporated in all my recent workshops. I find free-flow opens up so much for the writer and also gets them to realise what they can truly create with a simple prompt and very little time.
No matter how impossible it seems, your mind will always create a story... This always reinforces to me that humans have storytelling written in our DNA.
What I particularly love about this technique is that, no matter how impossible it seems, your mind will always create a story. Even when the aim isn’t to create a story, it will create a story! This always reinforces to me that humans have storytelling written in our DNA, and an entire world at our fingertips when we put proverbial pen to paper.
Creative writing prompt 1) Life is Like a Box of Chocolates
You may have heard this line from the film Forrest Gump, ‘Life is a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.’ I want you to replace ‘chocolates’ with something else life could be compared to, and then write a short sentence to explain why. You could spend your whole life ruminating on what life is really about, but for this prompt just let your ideas flow as they come! That’s what writing prompts are all about.
- Life is like a box of drawing pins; they can be useful but, if you plunge your hand right in, sharp and painful.
- Life is like a box of snowflakes; dazzlingly beautiful but short-lived.
- Life is like box of lightbulbs; you can never find the right one for the light you need.
Write as many of these as you can.
Timer: 10 minutes.
Creative writing prompt 2) Adjective Overload Exercise
One particular bone of contention across lots of writing classes and groups is the question of descriptive language. Us writers love words, and often want to indulge in richly descriptive passages laden with adjectives.
Well, now’s your chance to luxuriate in those writerly impulses! Yes, there are writing prompts designed to let your penchant for descriptive language run free.
Here’s how it works: write ‘She wore a jacket’. Now think of as many adjectives as you can to describe that jacket (blue, red, leather, torn).
Timer: 5 minutes.
Now choose just one of those adjectives. Finish off the sentence. (She wore a ______ jacket and/with...).
- She wore a vintage jacket with a sapphire broach pinned to the lapel.
- She wore a torn jacket and a sly smile.
If you finish one, move on to another.
Timer: 5 minutes.
You should now have a selection of very brief character descriptions.
Creative writing prompt 3) A Void in the Journey
The whole of George Perec’s novel A Void is written without using the letter ‘e’ (I always feel sorry for the translators of this French novel!)
Now it’s your turn: write about a journey either you or one of your characters make/could make. It could be to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere, or to visit their next-door neighbour. Whatever journey you choose, just don’t use the letter ‘e’.
Timer: 10 minutes.
Creative writing prompt 4) Mixing Up Metaphors
Another opportunity to exorcise some of our pesky writerly impulses!
Write a list of every overused metaphor or simile you can think of (quick as a fox, strong as an ox, cold as ice, etc.).
Timer: 5 minutes.
Now erase the last word and replace it with something unexpected.
- Quick as a sprinter
- Strong as a diamond
- Cold as a doctor’s hands
This exercise is particularly good at teaching you to avoid clichés.
Timer: 5 minutes.
Creative writing prompt 5) Free-flow writing
Here’s where we start to really dig in and write a story.
Using the following story opener, I would like you to free-flow write for 10 minutes. In free flow, we do not go back and edit. We allow the words to come and the story to go where it wants to, even if it doesn’t make complete sense.
Story opener: They were coming over the hill.
Timer: 10 minutes.
Resources for creative writing prompts
If your appetite for creative writing prompts and exercises has been whetted, here are some more resources for you to keep playing with. Whether they inspire you to write a story, write a poem, get to know your main character better or empathise more deeply with your best friend, they’re a great way to flex your writing muscles and think about things from a different angle.
The Writer’s Block by Jason Rekulak
This book literally comes in the shape of a block and is filled with numerous writing prompts, from one-word ‘spark words’ to help you find a new story, to small exercises that make you go more in-depth.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
For the lengthier, and slightly more philosophical writing prompt, this is a winner. Short musings and writing lessons sit alongside writing exercises that make you go deep.
Creative writing prompts online
This website has a lovely range of randomised prompts from first lines, to random scenarios and even a ‘Murder Plot Generator’, perfect if you like your writing prompts with a side of serial killer.
Writing prompts should always inspire happy writing
Remember, above all, to just have fun with your writing prompts. The beautiful thing about them is that the pressure is completely off. You have the blank page and nothing to fear about it; nobody need ever read a single thing you put down – yourself included!
You can jump between past and present timelines, write about a time or place you’ve never experienced, experiment with the short story form, foray into the world of science fiction and computer simulation, or write a story about your middle school best friend discovering some form of miraculous plant life. You could even write a poem!
By approaching writing prompts with an open mind and no judgment, you can really hit upon gold.
Members of The Novelry enjoy a monthly ‘Let’s Play Writing’ workshop with Mahsuda Snaith, full of writing exercises, character games and writing prompts. It’s a great way to meet your fellow writers and let loose with words! All of our live writing classes and fiction workshops are included in your Membership when you join us for a writing class.