These days it’s not uncommon for writers to use a prompt of some kind to get the ol’ creative juices flowing. It’s often part of a writing exercise, but sometimes it’s an element of a writing contest or even a short story submission. But are writing prompts useful to authors, especially authors looking to produce publishable stories? Let’s talk about that.
Before we get started, I’m gonna go ahead and state my bias up front. Some forty of my published stories began life as part of a prompted exercise, so I definitely find them useful, and this post will largely focus on why they are useful to me. That said, there’s some nuance to my love of prompts, and I have reservations about some of them.
First, let’s define what a writing prompt is. In my experience, they fall under the following broad categories.
- General Theme. These prompts are an overarching theme or subject the story must encompass, sometimes within a specific story length, like flash fiction. You could argue that something like “zombie apocalypse” or “ghost story” isn’t really a prompt at all, but in my experience they do work like writing prompts and get your brain moving along a certain creative path.
- Inspirational. The second type of prompt is the one I’m most familiar with. It’s a photo, illustration, or even a word or phrase that is meant to inspire the author. That inspiration should be obvious in the story, but specific elements of the prompt, like the subject of a photo, for example, do not have to be present.
- Specific. These prompts call for a specific location, item, or a word or phrase that must appear in the story (usually combined with an assigned genre). I see these most in big writing contests, like the New York City Midnight challenges.
Category one is certainly the easiest to write, and, again, you could argue calling it a prompt is a stretch. Still, I find simply setting my brain to write on a certain theme is helpful. My experience with this kind of writing prompt is mostly in flash fiction contests from publishers like The Arcanist and The Molotov Cocktail. I’ve done well in those, and even if a story didn’t place, I’ve often been able to sell it elsewhere. You also see prompts like this in themed anthologies.
Category two prompts are my favorite. For many years, I’ve been part of a one-hour flash fiction writing contest/exercise that uses inspirational prompts. These exercises have produced the bulk of my published works. Some have remained at flash length, while others I developed into full-fledged short stories (and, currently, a novel). I’m not sure why this type of prompt works so well for me. It might be because I tend to cleave to fairly traditional tropes when left to my own devices. A prompt and a time limit forces me to write outside my comfort zone, which has led me to some fairly original ideas (or at least twists on old ideas) and a bunch of publishable stories. Like category one, it’s not uncommon to see inspirational prompts in a themed anthology with a slightly narrower focus.
Category three prompts are the hardest to write in my opinion. Sometimes that’s by design as a way to add difficulty. For example, in the NYCM flash fiction contest you’re assigned a location, an item, and a genre. The location and item MUST appear in the story. If you get a real oddball combination it can make writing incredibly challenging, which I guess is kind of the point, but the story can come out feeling a little contrived. For the most part, I find these prompts to be somewhat stifling.
For me, the first two categories of prompts, especially category two, inspire me to write outside my comfort zone. I believe they help me produce stories I might not have on my own. You might call that a crutch, but I’m fine with that because I end up with publishable work (or work with the potential for publication). Category three prompts are less useful to my goal of writing sellable stories. When the prompts is very specific, I find the story is a tough sell to readers who lack the context of the prompts and contest. Of course that’s only how my stories turn out. I know folks who regularly compete in NYCM and go on to sell those stories, sometimes to pro markets.
So, are writing prompts helpful to authors? I’m gonna hedge and say they’re useful to some authors. This author, for example. But there’s another side to this, and I know authors who find writing prompts to be a huge limiting factor on their creativity. Instead of taking them by the hand and leading them to a new and exciting story idea, the prompt acts like a big ‘ol wall of writer’s block. That sure as shit ain’t helpful, and if that were my experience with prompts, I’d avoid them completely.
To sum up, and to hedge yet again, writing prompts are both stirring and stifling, depending on the type of prompt, the author, and the context. If you haven’t used them before, I’d urge you to give them a try. They might just shake loose something new and exciting. 🙂
What are your thoughts on writing prompts? Do you use them? Tell me about it in the comments.