Writing Prompts: Stirring or Stifling?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

10 Comments on “Writing Prompts: Stirring or Stifling?

  1. I’ve placed quite a few stories with themed anthologies—both invitation-only and open call—and I’ve placed several more that were promoted by an anthology’s guidelines but which didn’t make the cut or were finished too late to submit to the original project. I’m not sure which version of prompt an anthology call would fit into—some combination of the three you write about, or a separate fourth category—but guidelines for themed anthologies work as prompts for me.

    • In my experience, themed anthologies generally fall into category one or two (general theme or loosely inspritational), but I’d defer to your considerable experience there.

      You also bring to my attention that I should have mentioned themed anthologies in my write-up. Gonna go fix that now. 🙂

  2. This is one where I agree with your hedging. I personally feel like prompts can lead to great stories and publishable material, but one should never approach them that way. My experience has taught me that their value is in letting go of the critical voice and exploring something new, whether vague or specific, to see where it might lead. Mostly I treat them like a creative challenge to see if I can come up with something entertaining within the confines of the prompt.

    However, if a story comes to a writer unbidden from the ether, then by all means, grab that sucker by the horns and ride it! I feel that’s what you’re getting at. One should be open to both sources for creative material.

    • Absolutely. I didn’t mean to say that authors should ONLY use writing prompts (even me, who has had a lot of success with them), but that they can be a useful tool. Stories that come to you from that dim misty place in your brain that creates ideas when you least expect are awesome, and I definitely cherish those moments.

  3. So true.
    The 2nd kind of prompts is my favorite, too. I feel like I’m just getting started with them. There seems to be no limit to what one can come up with.

  4. I’ve worked with all three of the prompt ‘types’ that you’ve described, and the quick-write photo or expression works best for me as it often produces work that might sell. The NYCMM type prompt is mentally challenging and I enjoy it. But it often produces a story that’s hard to place because the story arc has had to accommodate some strange combinations. A too-wide prompt doesn’t do much for me, although I know it works for some people. Even without someone else setting a prompt though I find an overheard conversation, the lyrics of a song, even an object can provide a prompt (often unexpected) that leads to a story. I guess that’s where our our writer’s notebooks prove good value for new material.

  5. I have a love hate relationship with prompts. They work; I immediately start thinking up a story. But that’s why I hate them too. A prompt will often distract me from my writing currently underway. That’s why I usual avoid prompts until I’m looking for a new idea.

    That said, my first professional sale (due out in Sept) resulted from a prompt. The prompt was type 3 on your list, and that market rejected my story. So a changed a couple things, and a year or so later now it sells. This is an odd game we play.

    • Heh, yeah, it is certainly an odd and often frustrating game we play.

      Congrats on the sale. I’ve yet to sell a story that began life as a category three prompt, though I haven’t written too many of those.

  6. Some prompts can be inspirational, depending on whether that prompt triggers something from within. It’s about finding the write/right key to open the imagination with the write/right prompt for me.

  7. Pingback: Repost: Writing Prompts: Stirring or Stifling? | ARMAND ROSAMILIA

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