Everyone has a story to tell, whether it’s one that’s lifted from their own lives or made up out of whole cloth. And yet, if you’ve ever tried to sit down to write, you know how easy it is to feel stumped. “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 that much harder to get started.
That’s why so many writers rely on creative prompts; they provide a great framework to fire up the creative 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’re feeling stuck or intimidated by a blank page, try a few of the creative prompts below. You’ll be in the “flow,” and telling your story in no time.
Creative Writing Prompt 1: Find Inspiration in Photographs
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...jog your memory.” Riffle through old albums or browse through photos online; each picture can help you conjure a piece of the story you want to tell. If you’re writing non-fiction, photos can also be useful in verifying facts, Gay says. Objective sources like photographs, diaries, even old emails or blog entries can help keep your writing truthful and accurate, something that is especially important if your work contains emotionally fraught content. If you’re writing fiction, real-life images can give you a great jumping-off point while also helping to keep your work grounded.
Creative Writing Prompt 2: Share a Secret
Emily Dickinson once wrote, “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” because 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, challenge yourself to find a “unique fact or secret” about yourself, and then write a fictional character who shares your secret, but is otherwise totally distinct for you. How does the secret affect their goals? Struggles? Joys? How do they handle their unique fact in a way that is different - or similar - to the way you have in your own life?
Use poetic license, there is no need to stick too close to reality. Instead, challenge yourself to change whatever else you’d like about the character and their context. Giving just one real-life experience to an otherwise total work of fiction will ground your piece of writing, and 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 who creates spaces for self-healing, advises writers who are feeling less-than creative to pen a note to the younger versions of themselves. It teaches empathy, she says, which is an important implement in any writer’s toolbox, and allows you to find grace, compassion and ultimately, 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, and take time to explain how your circumstances direct result of decisions you’ve made in your past. Compare what you believed as a younger person and what you believe now, who you were then, and who you’ve become. Take time to reassure yourself about mistakes you may have made, and to share with yourself all the ways that those mistakes turned out fine (or even great!) eventually. Ask yourself what you might do again, and what you might do differently, always with an eye for self-forgiveness; 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, or heartbreak, or joy, or excitement. So when I hear those songs again, it sort of transports me back into those places.” If you are writing fiction, you can also use music to help you conjure a fictional mood, one that’s wholly different any lived experience, but feels authentic to the character.
To start, round up 5 songs that create the same specific emotion for you; they can make you feel nostalgic, angry, desperate, or another emotion entirely. After you take a moment to feel their effect, begin to describe you how feel on the page.
Why you describe your reaction, ask yourself some concrete questions: what particular places do these songs remind me of? What smells or tastes can I connect with them? What kinds of conversations have I had when they were playing in the background? What kind of characters have I listened to them with? Accessing those kinds of details, whether fictional or non-fictional, can add flesh to the emotional bones of a future 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,” in a single paragraph, he says. It will help you organize your thoughts and create a framework to build upon down the road.
To start, ask yourself: what kind of book is this? Is it a romance, a fantasy? Who is my main character? Where and when do they live? Begin your summary with a sentence about what physically happens to the character, then follow it with a sentence that reveals how your character feels about what happens to them, or what motivates them. 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 your computer casing – somewhere you can’t miss it. As you work, glance at it from time to time so that it becomes your embedded in your brain. That way, even when you’re not writing, your subconscious will continue to work out story, plot, and character details.
No matter how stimulating, prompts and exercises can’t write your prose for you. But inspiring calls to action can certainly help you, per Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to put “the words in their best order.”
Skillshare has dozens of classes that will help you explore creative writing. Find one that fits your needs by clicking here.