5 Writing Prompts to Overcome Writer’s Block

by Joe Bunting | 39 comments

Today, I'm excited to introduce our guest, Heather Marsten. I asked Heather to write a post after she mentioned a technique she learned from her writing teacher. I'm glad she agreed because I think you'll enjoy this. Heather writes two blogs, one about healing from abuse and another on Xanga. You can read more about her at the end of the post. Take it away, Heather!

Have you ever sat at your desk, fingers on the keyboard, ready to type your manuscript, and no words come? How do you battle writer’s block? Books suggest techniques such as writing junk prose, reviewing the previous chapter, and brainstorming.

Forgotten Typewriter

Photo by Pete Simon

Sometimes authors use writing prompts gleaned from books and websites to unleash their prose, but these prompts are unrelated to their stories and do nothing to help finish a manuscript. It is possible to utilize writing prompts that enrich your prose and advance your story.

Martha Frankel teaches a writing class near Woodstock, New York, called, “Write As If No One Is Looking Over Your Shoulder.” The title of her class, by itself, is an excellent writing prompt. So often we censor our writing and imagine others might read and criticize. It is freeing to just write and let censoring and editing come later.

Consider enhancing your manuscript by trying some of the following prompts she used in her class.

1. Write two pages of your story and incorporate all five senses.

Adding the senses to descriptions helps show the story to the reader and makes dull passages come alive. Readers want to be involved in scenes. Using senses adds plausibility and immediacy to the story. When a passage seems flat, check that some of the senses are included.

2. Write two pages that begin with the phrase: Nobody knows this about me …

The emotional content of the manuscripts that were brought to class from this prompt showed how valuable it was. Nothing gets to the heart of emotions like confession. All the characters, even in fiction manuscripts, have things to confess.

3. Write a typical day.

Not every aspect of your story needs to be sensational. Characters are developed through typical day-to-day interactions. Readers want to draw their own conclusions about characters through action, not author’s descriptions.

4. Write a passage entirely in description, then the same scene only using dialogue.

When dialogue is included in a story, the scenes are more immediate and interesting to the reader.

5. Write your last chapter.

Where is your story going? Every story needs an ending. Knowing the ending causes you to focus on the paths you need to cover to attain the resolution of your story.

If these suggestions don’t target the problems in your manuscript, you can devise your own prompts. Sometimes Martha gave individual assignments to class members to help expand a weak story plot and make the writing stronger. Some class members needed to revise chapters or introduce different characters to the reader.

Prompts can be adopted to fit the part of the story you are working on. Using them can make your writing stronger and help to advance your story or combat writer’s block.

How have you used writing prompts to advance your manuscript and writing techniques? What prompt can you use today to make your story stronger?

Heather Marsten is a happily married mom of three young adults. A survivor of incest, she is now working on a memoir of her healing journey. She maintains two blogs Wondering04 and Healing from abuse. She can be reached at heathermarsten (at) gmail . com.


Joe here. Writing with all my senses is my favorite way to write, so let's take Heather's advice and practice using prompt number one. Spend some time in the world of your work in progress (and if you don't have a work in progress, write about your own personal world).

Make sure to write using all five senses.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, post your practice in the comments.

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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  1. Patrick Ross

    These are great tips. I particularly like the idea of doing a scene totally in description, then in dialogue. It opens the creative floodgates while also illuminating the best points of conflict.

    • Joe Bunting

      Hey Patrick. Thanks for swinging by. I’ve never thought of dialogue as being a tool for conflict and description for creativity, but you’re right. That’s how it is in my own writing.

      It would be interesting to write a scene focusing on dialogue, then description, then action, then inner monologue. I love that kind of deliberate focus.

  2. Nora Lester Murad

    I wrote for more than 15 minutes and — oh no! — SO few senses came out. I tried to put them in later and they seemed contrived. Here’s what I did:

    Deception isn’t immoral or undignified. Deception is clever and judicious. It is survival. That was the life lesson Jehan learned as a child, and she learned it well.

    Her mother died when she was six. No one explained what happened. Was she in the wrong place at the wrong time when a crime took place? Was she targeted for political reasons? Or had she been sick? It was the beginning of the Salvadoran civil war. Increasingly, people went out to buy bread or visit a relative and didn’t come back. These things were better not discussed.

    Jehan didn’t grieve per se but rather felt she’d been splashed with cold water. All the soft lines in her life became sharp. The frilly pink curtains in her bedroom appeared faded. Her breakfast smelled greasy instead of appetizing. Though a mere child, Jehan saw life for what it was: a challenge to be conquered. There was no place for sentimentality.

    She became a keen observer of the strategizing that took place around her—the way the driver arrived late every day for a week before he asked for a raise so that her father would appreciate his value. The way her father berated the maid in front of the gardener so that he wouldn’t have to berate the gardener as well. Jehan was a quick study. She learned to coerce by fixing on the goal she wanted in her mind and then taking for granted that it would be so.

    When her father left on long trips, Jehan took whatever self-doubt she felt and twisted it as if wringing out a towel. “He trusts me,” she would say into the bedroom mirror. “He knows I’m old enough to take care of myself,” she would say into the bathroom mirror. “I am the mistress of this house,” she would say into the mirror in the salon. She said it to the maids, too, and they believed her.

    (obviously, this isn’t finished)

    • Nancy

      It may not be finished, but it’s a good start. I felt like you took the five senses and applied them to her internal experience more than her external. It’s a clever way to go.

  3. Rachel Castleberg

    I always use confessional writing to get the ball rolling if I’m having trouble. I just thought it was because I’m self-centered.

    I may have gone a couple of minutes over the time limit. As a perfectionist I had trouble putting the pencil down at the end of tests. That is my excuse. Here is the result:

    She could feel the roughness of his hand in her hand. The smell of French toast still lingered around his collar as they ambled down the street.

    “Why do you insist on coming to this part of town to buy, well, anything really, but particularly eggs?”

    “They’re fresher here,” she replied as she let go of him. “I buy my produce here too, by the way.”

    “I don’t see anything fresher here,” he replied, eyeing the faded floral mumu that a stallkeeper was wearing. “Do you think they wash?”

    She elbowed him in the ribs. “That snobby runs in your blue brackish blood is not an excuse to be hurtful. And you have hands like the rest of us now.”

    She spotted a stall using a giant bright green umbrella as roof just up the street and grabbed his roughened hand again. “Come on, I’ll show you what fresh is.”

    He stumbled along behind her, his face a determined grimace.

    “This is where I buy the strawberries that I always serve with French toast,” she declared, coming to a sudden stop in front of the stall. “This is Paolo. He sells them.”
    “These are not the strawberries that you’ve fed me.”

    “Say hi to Paolo, please. And yes, these are the strawberries I fed you. Eat one,” she commanded, picking one up and presenting it to his face.

    “Good afternoon Paolo. But they’re not clean.”

    He bit off the end of strawberry. It was sweet, completely sweet, and not a bit of its of flesh was bland or tart. It was a French toast strawberry.

    “Just because it’s fresh doesn’t mean I didn’t just ingest E.coli.”

    • Marianne

      Ha! That’s good. It kind of shows both the true senses, like eating the strawberry, feeling the rough hand, smelling the french toast, but you also have his imagination of what germs or dirt might be in the market and that has an impact on the reader too. Thanks.

    • Joe Bunting

      Hey Rachel. I really liked this. From the first line, you had me. They looked like two movie actors ambling down a farmers market in Manhattan or London on a Sunday morning.

      One thing, you go from her point-of-view to his right at the end, which is called “head hopping” and is a no-no. We still haven’t written about it on The Write Practice (mental note to get on that), but here’s a good resource for you on the subject:


      Still, that’s one thing in a very nice scene. Is this part of your work in progress. I hope we get to hear more about it in future practices. 🙂

      Thanks Rachel.

  4. Tom Wideman

    The smell of fried catfish lingered long after the dishes were washed and put away. Gran opened the kitchen window in hopes of fumigating the house, but it was so dang humid outside, it only made matters worse.

    I went to my room for refuge, but the smell and heat followed me. I ripped off my smelly t-shirt and used it to wipe the sweat off my face before tossing it in the corner. I dropped my drawers to the floor and grabbed my latest edition of “Batman” before collapsing into bed. The hot sheets provided no relief. The pages of my comic book stuck to my sweaty forearm causing the pages to rip as I moved my hand to wipe the sweat. I sent the Caped Crusader hurling across the room and headed to the bathroom. I needed a shower.

    I turned the cold water on and jumped in. Even without hot water, the shower was lukewarm at best, but if felt good on my face none-the-less. I felt a faint shiver as the water ran down my back. I poured a glob of Gran’s expensive shampoo in the palm of my hand and went to work. I covered myself from head to toe with the flowery scent of freesia, whatever the heck that is. I stood there for a few minutes letting the water and shampoo cascade off me. When was the last time I had taken a shower? Gran was constantly on my back trying to get me in there, but what all-American kid had time to take real showers? I had found it more beneficial to just run the water and wet my hair to keep her off my case. But now that I was getting older, I thought I might actually start taking real showers from now on.

    As I toweled off and opened the bathroom door, I was greeted by a cool breeze flowing down the hall. Gran had turned on the attic fan. Jumping back in bed, I noticed the smell of dinner had begun to fade. I could hear the cicadas’ night music over the comforting hum of the fan. I sunk into the coolness and fell asleep.

    • Marianne

      That’s beautiful Tom. I can really feel the sticky, humid air, and then the cool, clean air after the shower. The sentence where the comic book pages stick to his arm is especially good I think, a detail that anyone who has lived in a hot humid climate, without AC can relate too.

    • Nancy

      Great scene, Tom. Nothing more disappointing than warm sheets on a humid night.

    • Casey

      Cooking smells are very evocative for me. They can color a mood.

    • Joe Bunting

      Nice, Tom. Is this the kid in your novel?

      I like how you enter his head here. You’re seeing the world from his eyes, which is so important, even to the extent that you know whether he took “showers” or real showers.

    • Tom Wideman

      Yes, this is Tyler Colton from my novel. He’s a piece of work, isn’t he?

    • Joe Bunting

      He’s great. I can’t wait to read a full story about him!

    • Jordon

      This is awesome. The descriptions are really detailed and I feel like I’m there..

  5. Donna

    This what came after reading the post. My sight, sound and smell senses are all “in my head” this morning!

    ‘Insanity. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.’

    I woke up with that quote in my mind. And in my chest. ‘Who said it again?’ The only name I can think of is Frankenstein. On a normal morning, waking up and attributing an Einstein quote to Frankenstein would make me laugh. I’d roll over and tell Jim. If he was asleep I might even wake him to share my thought.

    But this morning isn’t a normal morning. I awake feeling like I’m someone else. And Frankenstein isn’t some fictional monster in a castle in Romania; he’s real and he’s here in the room with me, in my body.

    I roll over to face Jim, to push myself into him. It settles my mind, slows my heart rate when a nightmare wakes me up. But Jim isn’t there. It’s 4:08 and he’s not in bed. I lay for a few seconds, fighting with myself: do I want to go deeper down the rabbit hole or do I want to rebalance? It’s a struggle. I’m in the feedback loop again. My mind is stuck on the dream. My body has responded with adrenalin. From fear. From anger. My body is telling my mind that the dream was real. And since Jim isn’t here my mind concludes, with an arrogance I despise, that it’s right. It tells me that what I saw as I slept wasn’t a dream; what I saw was what I’m unwilling to see while I’m awake. But it’s there. So, my heart rate rises some more and I start to sweat. My forehead, just on the left side, (how bizarre) starts to pound. I taste bile in the back of my throat.

    ‘This familiar feeling has just one trigger, Becka’.
    ‘It was just a dream.’
    ‘Your dreams are predictive, Becka, you know that.’
    ‘I don’t know that. Sometimes I project.’

    I spend minutes arguing with myself. Good cop, bad cop. Angel on my left shoulder, Devil on my right. And me, surrounded by a glowing blue light facing another me, prickly and red. My eyes are pressed closed so I can clearly see these characters who are arguing on my behalf. Who looks believable? Who’s just having fun at my expense?

    The bedroom doors opens. ‘Thank God!’ the good cop, the angel and the blue me all say as they, and their alter egos, bleed to white.

    I open my eyes.

    “You okay? You were moaning,” Jim says, walking to his side of the bed and taking off his sweatshirt.

    “I had a bad dream. What were you doing?”

    “I couldn’t sleep. Got up about an hour ago. Just reading,” he says dropping naked into bed and gently nudging me to roll away from him so he can wrap his arms around me and hold me.

    “You’re warm. It feels nice,” I breathe in his presence and am immediately comforted. The feeling is short-lived though. As soon as I close my eyes again, the bickering in my head starts.

    ‘I – am – going – insane.’

    • Tom Wideman

      Hey Donna, that’s good! I quote the Frankenstein saying all the time. I understand the feelings of insanity as well. Your story made that so vivid for me. I work with a bunch of guys in recovery from porn addiction. Your story seemed to touch on that kind of struggle, or maybe I just dreamed that.

    • Donna

      Tom, your reply actually sent a wave of nausea through my whole body, all the way to my fingertips. I’m not sure if I’m more pleased that I evoked your reaction, or scared that my experience is so transparent. Of course, I mean my character’s experience. I’m considering writing a memoir from the perspective of a (hopefully recovering) porn addict’s partner… and, your comment is like a check mark on the “for” side of the calculation. Thank you, I think…

    • Tom Wideman

      Donna, I tend to evoke waves of nausea often. Sorry about that. I truly hope your character and her husband find healing.

  6. Marianne

    The two horses, one palimino and one black with a white face, stood in the sun, their rough winter coats making them look shaggy and wild. We, my sister and I, wanted to get them in their stalls before the snow. The grass was crisp, crinkling under my boots. Goldie, the gelding, nickered when she saw us, but Snowball laid his ears back, threw his head up, and rolled his eyes so that the whites could be seen ringing his brown irises.

    I held a rein and a baggie full of celery stuffed with peanut butter. Sally, my sister, carried the bag of sugar lumps and a can of sweet smelling grain, corn and oats. Goldie was beside the gait before we got it opened, pushing her hard boned face against us. She smelled like the rusty mud that she often rolled in. Her coat was dirty. She found the bag in my hand before I had even opened it. She must have smelled the peanut butter.

    “Just lead her in. I’ll get Snowball,” said Sally.

    I went to the small red barn, crunching across the stiff grass and frozen mud, followed by Goldie who kept trying to grab the bag of celery sticks. I had been nipped by her before. I didn’t want to feel the sharp pinch of her big teeth again. Her hot, damp, breath fell on my wrist which was bare between the jacket sleeve and my glove.

    “Come on old girl, let’s get inside before it snows,” I said, and she nickered in response. I’ve never know a horse to “talk” as much as Goldie.

    When we got in I led her into the stall, he feet clunking against the wooden floor. I got the curry brush and started working on her coat, knowing that the soft sleek gold fur that she wore in the summer was not going to be found under he thick, rough, pale blonde winter coat. She liked to be brushed though, and turned to look back at me, lowering her huge head to look at mine.

    I head a yell from outside, sharp and high, an alarm. I rushed out to see, Sally, trying to ride Snowball bareback. He was trotting, and she was bouncing,

    Out of time.

    • Tom Wideman

      Marianne, my wife’s name is Sally and she LOVED horse books when she was younger. I wish I knew what happened to your Sally riding Snowball. It wasn’t looking too promising. Your writing was quite descriptive and I could “sense” the experience. Great job.

    • Rachel Castleberg

      Gah! Cliffhanger! I really loved your sense of smell in this. I knew exactly what you meant with the rusty mud and the sweet-smelling grains.

  7. Nancy

    Karen felt the majordomo’s soft gloved hand on the back of her elbow. He was directing her into the hall of mirrors and toward the seat on President Mobutu’s right. I’m the guest of honor? she thought. The boss is gonna love this.

    She stood behind her blue plush chair and traced her finger over the embossed fleurs de lis while the other guests were positioned. Cole was sent to the opposite end of the table. Looking beyond the crystal candelabras, Karen tried to see if a red-rimmed Limoges place setting awaited Mrs. Mobutu on the end. If not, it rendered her boss the absolute least important person in the hall.

    When the President didn’t arrive directly, General Bozubu pulled out Karen’s chair so that she and then the men could be seated. He took a swig from another beer and turned her way. Her chair bounced and jostled her when he dropped his arm on the back of it.

    “How long you stay in Gbadolite?” he slurred. His English had improved since the cocktail hour, but his puffs of stale beer and barbecued shrimp pierced her nose and tried to set her hair on fire. She leaned backwards just to the edge of subtlety and then picked up her wine glass to cover her mouth and nose. The chardonnay had lost its chill, but the fruity bouquet of apples and spice on her tongue brought instant relief.

    • Joe Bunting

      You were writing about your own personal world, right Nancy?


      You did well with this. I like how all the senses are represented subtly, as if the focus is still on the action in the story and the characters. The senses flesh out the action and the characters, though. They leave us with a full mental picture of a fascinating scene.

  8. Elaine

    She popped a slice of chilled beet into her mouth, savoring its slight sweetness and solid bulk in her mouth. She was into the rhythmic thunk of the knife on the cutting board, humming, nodding her head, and feeling productive.

    She felt the blood before she saw it–something warm running from her fingertip down to the base of her thumb, making a red rivulet down the meat of her palm and snaking down her forearm. All she could smell was the earthy odor of the beets, but her life fluid felt warmer and more viscous than the beet juice.

    She grabbed a dishtowel and held it against the cut on her fingertip. She’d just about sliced the tip off, but must have missed the nerves (or else she was in shock). Her finger didn’t hurt, but she knew for sure that this particular salad-making session was at an end.

    • Casey

      That was good, Elaine. The best part was the description of of the blood as it coursed down her hand. Very vivid.

    • Joe Bunting

      Nice. You’ve got taste, sound (thunking and humming), feeling (blood), sight (also blood), and smell. Besides, this just reads nice, has rhythm to it, is so vivid I can see it. I really like it, Elaine. That last half-sentence though, I don’t know why but I didn’t like that. Maybe because it was the first non-visceral thing in the piece.

    • Elaine

      Thanks for the comment, Joe. Funny about that last sentence–it was an afterthought. I find a tendency in my writing to want to tie everything up at the end with a bow. I guess sometimes loose ribbon-ends are okay.

    • Joe Bunting

      I think you can tie them up as long as you use imagery 🙂 But in general, images are ambiguous, so you’re right, loose ribbon-ends are best, in my opinion 🙂

    • Nora Lester Murad

      Besides being a very accurate representation of an experience that every cook has been through, I really like how you layered the feelings–you tasted then heard, felt before you saw, etc.

  9. Casey

    I have sat for just over an hour, and everything I write is clanking. There is a clank, clank that punctuates my every sentence.

    • Joe Bunting

      Ha. Well at least you have the sense of hearing well represented. 😉

  10. August McLaughlin

    Great tips! Going to share this with a friend of mine who just today mentioned her stuckedness. (What? Making up words is bad grammar?? ;)) Lovely post.

    • Joe Bunting

      Ha! Hey if Shakespeare could do it…

      (notice my bad grammar as I excused your bad grammar. Liz would kill me.)

  11. Angelo Dalpiaz

    I’m not presently working on a story, so I wrote about my day.

    I began my day working in the garage that has been converted into a woodworking shop. I have decided to build my kitchen cabinets instead of buying them already made. Although I haven’t done any woodworking projects for a while, I’m capable of completing this project, and I’ll save a few thousand dollars in the process.
    Once I got started I remembered some of the things I like about working with wood. For one thing, whenever I use my power saw to cut the oak, I love the sweet smell of the slightly-burned wood that fills the air. I also enjoy running my palms and fingers over a piece of wood that I just sanded smooth. The way my hand glides over the smooth surface feels great, and it gives me a sense of accomplishment, something I can actually feel.
    Of course, there are things I don’t enjoy very much, like hitting my finger with the hammer. I’m using small, finish nails so there’s not a lot of nail to grab on to. The thin wire nail presses into the skin of my finger as I hold it, and when the hammer strikes the small nail head I can feel the vibration in my finger. Smearing my finger in the wood glue is another feeling I enjoy. The glue is warm and smooth and sticky. But it doesn’t taste very good. I banged my finger with the hammer and immediately brought it to my mouth, but there was still some glue on my finger and I tasted the acid that is contained in the gooey glue. And sucking the sore finger doesn’t really make it feel better, but I’ve noticed that most people do the same thing when they hurt a finger.
    By the end of the day the garage is filled with sawdust. It coats everything, from the cabinets I’m building down to all the tools I’ve used during the day. There’s even a fine coat of dust on the table in the hall where the saw dust has worked its way under the door and into the house. A tack cloth gets it all up before my wife comes home.
    Before I close the garage door for the day, I look back and see the stacked cabinets, raw wood, nails still exposed, saw dust coating everything, and I get a great sense of accomplishment. I shut off the light and the cabinet silhouettes look like sentinels standing guard over the machinery.

  12. Sleepingmuse

    I like the last prompt…writing the last chapter.

    I’ve heard of authors doing this, and I think it makes sense to know where your going in a story, that way you can find a way to arrive.
    I’ve only written one novel-length story so, but I haven’t finished it yet. I got lost toward the middle of the story and I’m wondering if I should write a finish for the story, that way maybe I’ll find my way and will be able to finish what I’ve started.

    I’m new to this site and I’m enjoying it very much, even though I’m having some trouble maneuvering around. It will take a bit of time but I’ll figure it out.

    I appreciate the time everyone puts in to make this an interesting and informative site.


  13. Zeb

    Thanks for sharing, Heather.

  14. Laurenvk

    These “prompts” are so much more in-depth than the often prescribed brainstorming or backtracking. Thanks you–this is definitely being bookmarked for later!

  15. latetotheparty

    I read the label: Pomegranate and Currant. The wrapping paper he used was a Cape Cod Kettle Chips bag turned inside out and tied with a plastic streamer ribbon which made me laugh. Quickly, I turned the chuckle into an appreciative grin – so he wouldn’t think I was making fun of him.

    He took my hands and quickly let go. They must have felt like sandpaper to him. I noticed the skin starting to crack at my knuckle. “You’re freezing!” He said. “Are you cold?”

    My cheeks felt flush as I looked down and opened the kitchen drawer. I pulled out an old Bic click lighter. Holding it up I thought of how easy it was to display a flame – contained. He took it from me and lit the candle. We both continued into the silence, glaring into the heat of the dancing light. Closing my eyes, I tried to identify the scent.

    The pomegranates I remember were magical red seeds that made me pucker before being crushed like water balloons between my teeth. This scent was more Currant than Pomegranate. I thought about what it would be like to taste this scent. To drink it like a hot cider. It would be delightful.



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