Writing Prompts and How to Best Use Them
By Ishita Shah, Manal Nadeem, and Kyra Chiller
I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that your creative process is anything but linear. Rarely do us writers conjure up an idea and stick with it from start to finish. Instead, we make alteration after alteration, stumbling through plot twists, side stories, and new endings until we hit the sweet spot. Of course, it is impossible to follow a multistep process such as this one if we place bounds on our creativity; successful writers are those who are flexible in their work, who are willing to rework (or even restart) entire pieces when necessary.
For this reason, many of us writers have one perplexing foe: writing prompts. Ironic, isn’t it? Writers, arguably the best at transforming thoughts into words, go blank when guided to shape their ideas in a specific way. And that is because most of us see prompts as a bound on our imagination. Nevertheless, there are both good and bad ways to use a writing prompt. When used correctly, a prompt can function as a powerful tool to stimulate your creativity.
Think of a writing prompt as a starting point. If a fiction prompt simply asks you to start your short story with a regular teenage girl who wakes up on a hospital bed, there is nothing stopping you from twisting this into the fantasy tale you’ve been aching to write. Non-fiction is a bit more tricky. If you are stuck with the ever-loathed “write about someone who inspires you,” you can again tackle the question with some creative exercises. Make a list of traits you admire, television characters you have grown fond of, or ideas that you are passionate about. Attempt to dissect the prompt without directly addressing the question. Once the artistic juices start flowing, you will be able to build your way, step-by-step, to an answer to the prompt.
A strategy I commonly utilize is working backwards. Before I take my first glance at a prompt, I solidify my own ideas. Who and what do I want to write about? Is this a horror story or a romantic poem? How do I want to start? Once I have some idea of how I want to go about a piece, I take a look at the prompt. Then, I try to fit my ideas into the constraints of the prompt. Initially, the pairs of perhaps clashing ideas may seem too far-fetched, but with an open mind and some reworking, you’ll likely end up with a creative combination that you could never have arrived at without the aid of the prompt. If I wanted to write about a compulsive liar, for example, and a prompt asked me to start my story with a character who receives a cryptic text message, what’s stopping me from spinning my character into a blackmail victim who is offered thousands of dollars from her enigmatic iMessage buddy to make preposterous statements on television as a reporter?
One last thing to remember: The prompt is only a guide. Your creativity is by no means limited. The beauty of writing is that you can, quite literally, say anything you want to say - even if it makes no sense (welcome to science fiction). A prompt offers a place for you to start when you have none, and from there, you can introduce whatever unorthodox storyline you want to.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not the biggest fan of prompts. Or, at least, I wasn’t always. They just weren’t my jam. Something about them always put off the writer in me; they felt like a diktat, like a creative straitjacket of sorts. To me, following a writing prompt meant having to operate within artificial constraints. How, then, did I make my peace with prompts?
A while back, I started looking into online writing magazines and competitions. Unsurprisingly, I took an immediate liking to platforms that were prompt-free. But, every now and then, I would turn a corner, load a sleek new magazine on my laptop and there it would be: full-fledged Prompt Gear. Themes, word limits, and ‘some ideas to get you going’. Seeing how unavoidable prompts were, I decided, rather reluctantly, to give them a try. I began—I regret to inform you, reader—Following Prompts (*dun-dun-DUUUN*).
The answer, I realized, lay in learning to see prompts afresh and anew. It all became, really, a matter of reorienting my approach. Prompts feel constraining? Well, what if I were to see them as more of an open invitation? Take this prompt, for instance, from Young Poets Network: ‘Write a poem placing historical figures in unexpected new contexts.’ Well, let’s parse that prompt for a bit. We’ll start with ‘historical figures’. What historical figure could I, Manal Nadeem, possibly write about? Churchill? Vasco da Gama? Sounds dull. But what if I were to perform a mental pivot? What if, instead of thinking of history as a bunch of ancient dudes with questionable ethical records, I were to think of something more personal, something more exciting and electrifying to me, something closer to my heart and home? Say, perhaps, the more enthralling, the more vibrant Frida Kahlo. Or maybe the first women to take to the skies and, even beyond, to space. Now, those I like. A lot.
And, as for the second part of the prompt—‘unexpected new contexts’—try reapplying and repeating: toss out the distant and dull, and resituate the prompt in a more personal context. What do I find exciting? What is relevant and relatable to me? What can I write about with conviction? By posing these questions, I’m still following the prompt, but I’m also treading into entirely new territory. Suddenly, I’m using what I have to write about as a gateway—or really, an excuse—to what I want to write about. The prompt is no longer a diktat, but merely a launch pad, an open invitation to interpret and innovate a regular old prompt with fresh and personal meaning. This is all a way to say, of course, that I took that sample prompt and made it mine: Reader, I—Manal Nadeem, Sworn Nemesis of Prompts—wrote a prompt-inspired poem about a pilot and the patriarchy—and I had roaring, rousing, riveting fun with it. You can too.
Writing prompts have never failed to fascinate me. They do not require a specific storyline or genre to be maintained; they only categorize a piece into fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. While it is up to YOU what you make out of the prompt, your work will depend on this categorization. A fiction prompt likely requires some sort of plot line, while a nonfiction prompt requires a piece to be informative, precise, and, most importantly, true. Poetry is entirely variable. Let’s take a look at a few prompts and individually explore these three possible options.
Say you have this fictional prompt: “The world is nearly destroyed and the last hope of humans is to slay the king of dragons who is ruling the world. You are picked to do the task.” You can begin by introducing the situation of the surroundings and that of the protagonist. Eventually, you can build up the plot and end with the resolution. Here, you can write anything. It is, after all, fiction - you can use your wildest imagination. The only conditions of a fictional writing prompt is to ensure that the story has a complete relation to the given prompt. The story may have twists to it, but there must be some compliance with the basic idea only.
Another way of expressing a fictional prompt is to add an ambiguous essence to your story in order to address something else you wish to write about. You can write the story in such a manner that it relates to a subsequent story and is a different visualization and expression of it. For example, with the given prompt, you can write about the tension and pressure building up inside of you to slay the dragon, which will actually be the correlation of a subsequent story where you are supposed to overcome the negative force of your step- mother. This way, the prompt is still addressed, but you still get to write about what you want to. All that the subsequent story needs is a base for correlating the two stories, the characters and their roles, and some necessary information. Clearly, in no way is the prompt a barrier to your creativity.
Nonfictional writing prompts are, well, more difficult to write. While writing nonfiction, keep in mind that your work is articulate. You need to identify the question being asked in the prompt. Prompts may not necessarily ask you a direct question, but they certainly have one hidden. The strategy that I use to find the question of a nonfiction prompt is to question myself with context to its title. Your work should furthermore, be the indirect answer to the question. For example, if the theme of a prompt is “truth is stranger than fiction”, I would question if I have ever encountered such a situation where I found truth stranger than fiction. My work will now consist of my experience over the subject, its effect on me, and its significance. Start with introducing your relation to the idea and then break down the main subject in the body of your work.
Lastly, poetry is perhaps the most creative form of a writing prompt. Here, you have unlimited autonomy to express your thoughts and creativity - your poetry may directly express the prompt’s idea, or it may be ambiguous. The key to succeeding with a poetic prompt is to ensure that your ideas express what needs to be expressed. They must, in some way, relate to the prompt’s central idea, and the rest is simply your thoughts and compassion bleeding on paper.
The final strategy I have is to frame ideas as though they are already part of the prompt. This magnified my stories greatly! Writing prompts are simply a key to our thoughts and creativity. They never limit our potential - they only call upon the ideas which we already have.
Ishita Shah is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Manal Nadeem is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Kyra Chiller is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.