3 Writing Prompts to Tap Into Your Creative Well

by Jeff Elkins | 18 comments

Sometimes the hardest part about writing is coming up with the initial story idea. Once the spark of creativity is lit, the story will flow. All it takes to get moving is a strong title, inspiring image, or moving concept.

Writing prompts are wonderful tools to get the words flowing. Today we are going to look at three tools you can use to get your creative juices going.

3 Writing Prompts to Tap Into Your Creative Well

Creativity is like a muscle. If you haven't used it in a while, it can become stiff and sore when you try to work it out.

Between my full-time job, my children's activities, and various family get-togethers, finding time to write can become difficult. I'll get a thirty-minute window to write, sit down to type out a story, and waste all my time trying to figure out what to say.

This is why I surround myself with tools that help me get started. I've written before about how I use Grimm's Fairy Tales to beat writer's block. Here are three other writing prompts I regularly use to prompt stories.

1. Oblique Strategies

The Oblique Strategies were created by musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt. Originally they were a deck of cards with sayings on them. Eno and Schmidt both used the sayings to push through the stress of creativity. When either found themselves frustrated and their creativity stalled, they would draw a card and ponder the thought.

The sayings are quirky and weird, and will absolutely force you to think. Here are a few examples:

  • Go slowly all the way round the outside
  • Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities
  • Lowest common denominator
  • Imagine the piece as a set of disconnected events
  • Destroy—nothing—the most important thing

When I am stuck for an idea, sometimes I'll go to the Oblique Strategies for inspiration. For example, yesterday I was unable to come up with something to write about, so I turned to the Oblique Strategies. I received the phrase, “Breathe more deeply.”

I sat for a moment with my journal in my lap and thought, “When would someone say that?” After a few seconds, the image sprang into my mind of a man trying to use his yoga instructor as his therapist. I imagined my main character droning on and on about his problems while the instructor continued the yoga session saying only, “Breathe more deeply.”

With the idea for the story in place, I was able to spend the next forty-five minutes carving out a rough draft.

If you are a purist, you can order a deck of the cards on Amazon. I have a $0.99 app on my phone that gives me a saying at the click of a button. There are also several free versions online.

2. Unsplash + a Random Number Generator

One of the best ways to find inspiration for a short story is by meditating on a picture. Think of the picture as what your protagonist is seeing at the moment the scene you are writing is happening. When I do this, I like to ask the following four questions of the picture:

  • What's happening right now?
  • Why is my character here?
  • Where did he/she come from?
  • Where is he/she going?

One of my favorite short stories came this way. I saw a picture online of soldiers in a trench. As I meditated on the picture, the idea of a time traveler who'd accidentally jumped into one of the worst moments in history came to mind.

I recommend finding a picture to mediate on at Unsplash.com. Every day there are new amazing pictures posted on the site. As a bonus, all the pictures are free to use in any way you like. This is great because if the story you write is worth publishing, you already have a picture to accompany it.

To make the exercise more fun, add a challenge to it. Head over to this random number generator. Have it select a number for you between 1 and 20. Then head back to Unsplash.com and count down the pictures on the front page until you reach your number. That's the picture you should write about.

3. Randomly Generate a Title

Sometimes all you need to get a great story going is a title to bring you inspiration. A strong title, like a powerful picture, can spark inspiration. It can serve as a backbone to a great story.

One of my most successful short stories, “The Window Washing Boy,” was spawned from a random title given as a prompt I read on a blog. I knew I wanted to write a scary story before I grabbed the title. Having those two elements allowed me to piece together a main idea to write to: you're at a gas station, a boy offers to wash your car windshield, then you are attacked. Once I had the idea, the story came quickly.

To find a random title to you can build a short story off of, go to a random title generator. There are several online. The one I've used in the past gives you six titles. Click it once and go with one of the first six titles you get.

Get Your Ideas Flowing

Writing prompts are a fantastic way of getting our creative muscles working. After a break from writing, they can get the words flowing again. Don't hesitate to pull one out when your writing gets stuck!

How do you get your creative muscles working after a break? Are there other places you find inspiration? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

For today's challenge, use one of the three methods listed above to inspire fifteen minutes of writing. When you're done, share in the comments what method you used and post the writing it inspired. Don't forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

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Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."

18 Comments

  1. Gary G Little

    I liked the unsplash.com site. I went there and drifted through several scenarios, when it suddenly dawned on me that my Mac has some of that built in. I typically have a beta on my MacBook Air … unless you are, or were, a developer and know how to spell beta, I do not recommend that. But, because I do that, I have TONS of background and wall paper photos that are absolutely gorgeous and trend from nature scenes to what I am currently looking at: swirls of red topographically fading to blue.

    Next time I’m stuck, I’m going to a blank desk top and shift through my background and wall papers. Thanks Jeff.

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      Unsplash it great. Sometimes I’ll go there just to look at pics for fun. I’ll also use the site to stalk photographers.

      The wallpaper idea is awesome. Something close at hand like that is perfect.

    • Jonathan Hutchison

      Gary, I have an idea that what you are describing is beyond my latent Luddite tendencies. For now unsplash.com works for me although that is not the strategy I selected for this exercise.. I also cruise pixabay.com. I am always amazed at the pictures it selects for me when I put in a search phrase. That in itself could be a good prompt.

  2. Jonathan Hutchison

    Oblique Strategies 15 Minutes

    Take a Break

    I really work too hard. I never stop to smell the proverbial roses. I need to take a break. But quite frankly, the prospect of taking a break fills me with dread. I already have myriad ways to avoid writing. I am afraid if I take a break, I will never start again.

    This assumes, perhaps erroneously, that taking a break implies taking a break from writing. In fact, for me taking a break may mean, taking a break from whining, from complaining, or from procrastinating.

    Let me resolve that the Oblique Strategy – Take a Break – suggests take a break from all the distractions and excuses I allow. I need to get to writing.

    I think I should take a break to ponder this revelation. A small bit of humor.

    Nuts, I am at it again, obfuscation abounds. Take a break Jon and get to writing.

    I just wrote a short story for the winter writing contest about two men from different worlds who come into conflict with one another, resolve the conflict in a somewhat tender way, and offer the reader a possible peek at the future. I like this short story and I think it has possibility for something a bit longer. I might even combine it with another short story I have written. Duh, I could write a collection of short stories.

    I wonder how many short stories one needs to compose to prepare a book length magnum opus. Are all books 50,000 words in length like some NaNo clone?

    This idea of writing a collection of short stories is intriguing and perhaps has broken my creative block. Taking a break allowed me to think outside the box.

    The app that generates Oblique Strategies already has a new convert. Many thanks Jeff for your suggestions. I also looked at unsplash.com. I can see some possibilities there too. The title generator may work but for now, my new app will be my MUSE.

    So with about three minutes to go, I am strangely peaceful. If I combine this technique with a renewed commitment to write 500 words each day I will churn out some copy. Now if I can only learn how to write to impress potential publishers. One thing at a time.

    This was a great article and exercise. Thanks. I hope you all have as much fun with your fifteen minutes I have had with mine.

    Reply
  3. Michael Vorsaa Solander

    Hi Jeff. Just signed up here and decided to take the challenge.
    I also went for Unsplash were my eyes fell on a cute little fox. This is the words that image inspired (dirty first draft, but here we go;-)):

    When I met Red I was cold and wet
    Gasping for breath I struggled through the thick cover of snow. Branches scratched my face as I pushed on unrelenting. I didn’t feel the pain because my exposed skin was numb from the freezing cold.
    With sodden boots and trousers wet up to my thighs I wondered how I could continue. I guess fear serves as a catalyst to find that extra strength you didn’t know you had. I looked over my shoulder to find out if they were still trailing me. My heart skipped a beat when I saw dark shadows far behind me but clearly moving in my direction. The realization that they would never give up but continue coming sent a renewed jolt of utter terror through my body and rewarded me a short sensation of relief and warmth as I pissed myself. The heat was pleasant but didn’t last long and served only to intensify the cold around my balls.
    Darkness was slowly creeping over the horizon. I knew the dark would be no obstacle for my pursuers since they trusted more on scent than on sight. With my stink of sweat, blood and piss I was as a bright beacon for them – whether it was bright or dark. My mind raced. How could I hide and obscure my smell?
    The wood I was moving through got denser and the treetops came together as a brown and yellow roof above my head. The sight would have been breathtaking with the splendor of colors tinged with the rays of a descending sun – if I had had any breath to spare. At least there was less snow here and I could move more quickly.
    As I pushed through a thick cover of branches I found myself face to face with the first living thing I had seen for days, or was it weeks? A small fox, who clearly hadn’t fed for days and with faded fur stared back at me with fear in its eyes. I stopped dead in my tracks and stared back at the shivering creature. An idea came to mind as to how I could hide from my followers.
    “Hey there, Red. Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you” I said in my most soothing voice. From my left jacket pocket, I fished a piece of jerky I had been saving for later. I had found it on the floor beneath some shelves in a store that had been ransacked. It was my little prize I had been saving for later. The fox looked hungrily but uncertain at the piece of dried meat in my hand. I heard a guttural howl not so far away and I knew time was short before they would catch up on me.
    “Come on, Red. You know you want it”. I inched a little closer. Apparently Red decided to trust me and moved forward to take the meat. The second his teeth closed around the meat I made a swift movement and grabbed him by the throat. He howled loudly and the creatures stalking me responded immediately with howls of their own. I quickly drew my knife with me free right hand and ended Reds life with a stab to the chest.
    I moved quickly as I gutted the fox right there on the ground. I smeared his blood over my body and clothes and draped his intestines around my neck as a gruesome necklace. I fastened his dead body on my jacket and quickly scanned my surroundings. I could hear their footsteps and rasping breathing now. They were so close.
    In a swift decision, I climbed up the nearest tree and sat still about 12-15 feet from the ground. And then they came. There must have been at least 20 of them. Undead, un-thinking creatures. Moving purely on instinct with only one purpose: To feed on human flesh. I had seen the go straight by dogs and other animals and I was betting all I had that they would ignore me if I smelled like a dead fox.
    The horde of zombies paused beneath the tree, clearly confused because they had lost my sweet, meaty stench. They howled in frustration and sneered at each other and then plowed on further into the forest.
    When the sound of the creatures had faded, I said a silent prayer. I lifted the head of the fox’s cadaver and looked into its dead eyes. I imagined I still saw his fear there.
    “Thank you, Red” I whispered.

    Reply
    • Jonathan Hutchison

      Great piece of writing. I don’t imagine you have much difficulty with creative lapses. Can zombies climb trees? Oh by the way I saw the fox on unsplash you mentioned. I almost selected that picture. The fox was hiding from hunters. Not very creative so I just dropped it .
      Thanks fir a good read.

    • Michael Vorsaa Solander

      Hey Jonathan. Thanks for your words. I don’t really lack ideas to start a story – it usually starts with a scene like the one described above. But when I return to the story later to build it into something more – nothing. My mind is numb.
      I tell myself that it’s because I do my writing late in the evening (with a full-time job, kids and other obligations – writing is done when I’m pretty darn tired). But I want (and need) to write – så I’ll try Jeffs suggestions to see if I can start a fire in the ashes of a fatigued mind 😉

    • Ashley Hampton

      Love the story! And like you I usually do okay with starting the story, but coming back later and building on that story is where I have my difficulty. With that being said, I really hope you intend to finish this story. I’d love to read the finished copy!!

    • Michael Vorsaa Solander

      Thanks Ashley. At first I considered this story to be nothing more but my entry to this challenge – but the comments here kicked my inspiration into action. Maybe I’ll build on it a bit further anyway;-)

    • Agomonee B Chetia

      I’d have loved to have a Like button here. Your story was really good.

    • Michael Vorsaa Solander

      Thank you – it means a lot!

    • Katy

      What?! You killed the fox!

    • Michael Vorsaa Solander

      Sorry – yearh I did…. But here is the story again – with a different outcome you might appreciate more. Just for you 🙂

      When I met Red I was cold and wet

      Gasping for breath I struggled through the thick cover of snow. Branches scratched my face as I pushed on unrelenting. I didn’t feel the pain because my exposed skin was numb from the freezing cold.

      With sodden boots and trousers wet up to my thighs I wondered how I could continue. I guess fear serves as a catalyst to find that extra strength you didn’t know you had. I looked over my shoulder to find out if they were still trailing me. My heart skipped a beat when I saw dark shadows far behind me but clearly moving in my direction. The realization that they would never give up but continue coming sent a renewed jolt of utter terror through my body and rewarded me a short sensation of relief and warmth as I pissed myself. The heat was pleasant but didn’t last long and served only to intensify the cold around my balls.

      Darkness was slowly creeping over the horizon. I knew the dark would be no obstacle for my pursuers since they trusted more on scent than on sight. With my stink of sweat, blood and piss I was as a bright beacon for them – whether it was bright or dark. My mind raced. How could I hide and obscure my smell?

      The wood I was moving through got denser and the treetops came together as a brown and yellow roof above my head. The sight would have been breathtaking with the splendor of colors tinged with the rays of a descending sun – if I had had any breath to spare. At least there was less snow here and I could move more quickly.

      As I pushed through a thick cover of branches I found myself face to face with the first living thing I had seen for days, or was it weeks? A small fox, who clearly hadn’t fed for days and with faded fur stared back at me with fear in its eyes. I stopped dead in my tracks and stared back at the shivering creature. An idea came to mind. Maybe the fox would be prey enough for the demons behind me. Or at least buy me some time.

      “Hey there, Red. Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you” I said in my most soothing voice. From my left jacket pocket, I fished a piece of jerky I had been saving for later. I had found it on the floor beneath some shelves in a store that had been ransacked. The fox looked hungrily but uncertain at the piece of dried meat in my hand. I heard a guttural howl not so far away and I knew time was short before they would catch up on me.

      “Come on, Red. You know you want it”. I inched a little closer. Apparently Red decided to trust me and moved forward to take the meat. The second he was withing range I aimed a heavy kick at his head – and missed with a few inches. In a flash he bared his teeth and lunged at me. I screamed in pain as he sunk his teeth deep into my calf and the creatures stalking me responded immediately with howls of their own.

      I fell face first, tired and hurt. The fox moved switfly and tore into my skin on my arms, legs, face – it was all over me. I could hear stumbling footsteps in the surrounding undergrowth. They were so close.

      With my last strength I pushed the fox away and got on my knees. Red came bolting at me like a dusty, red lightning and jumped straight at my neck. His teeth penetrated skin, tore at flesh. Blood squirted onto the ground as his bites opened my throat. I fell again, dizzy and in pain and rolled onto my back.

      I looked up at the beutiful canopy above me. Shimmering gold in the light of the setting sun. Seconds later my vision was obscured by the shuffling zombies that had finally caught up with their prey. My life ebbed away – now nothing more but a meal for cannibal undead and one little, red fox.

  4. TerriblyTerrific

    Thanks for the support!

    Reply
  5. Paula Milner

    I went to upsplash and I love this website and there is great inspiration there.

    Reply
  6. Karley

    The oblique card website gave me the phrase ‘voice your suspicions’.
    “I’m only telling you all of this because I know I’d go completely crazy if I kept it to myself for even a moment longer.” She paused politely, allowing her listener time to digest the information she’d just unloaded before him. It was the proper thing to do in such a situation as this.
    He sat across from her with a furrowed brow. It was (what felt like) hours before he changed the expression on his face, and a lifetime before he decided to respond.
    “Let me get this straight…” he said as he struggled to find some words- not the right words, but really just any words at all. A few minutes passed by awkwardly and not without notice from both parties.
    “So- you are telling me,” he finally continued, “That your neighbors- the people who have lived next to you for all these years- were not only hand-selected by the government to live in close proximity to you…but also, to surveillance, follow and report on your daily activities. And you are unsure who is relentlessly seeking this information about you. Is this correct?”
    She released one subtle, stoical nod.
    He stared deeply into her eyes, desperately searching for the answer to his next question in hopes that it might not have to be asked at all. Could such a normal, beautiful girl fly off the handle like this? He searched and scoured and rummaged through her incredible green eyes before succumbing to reality.
    “Libby, honey, you can’t possibly believe that….” His voice trailed off somewhere far away. Perhaps to a world where all of this made sense.
    They both realized that his statement was neither a question nor the comforting, understanding response she was hoping for with her confession.
    A few more moments of silence, and she escorted him to the door. No words needed to be said. Already, it had become obvious that they were worlds apart.

    Reply
  7. The future

    Cole loves me, he hates me, Cole loves me, he hates me. Oh forget about that! I thew the rose into the waste bin, and withdrew my phone from my pocket. 561-0104, is his number I typed in, before waiting anxiously for home to pick up.
    My heart skipped a beat when he did. “Hello?”
    “Oh hey Cole. I was wondering if, uh, you know, you still love me.” Wow, smooth going hay hay.
    His response was immediate. “Of course I do. With all my heart.” He paused. ” but didn’t I tell you yesterday not to call me while I’m watching snatchball?”
    What is he talking about? We haven’t spoken to each other for seven days. “Uh…”
    He sighed. ” look water babe, I’ll call you when the commercials play. Okay?”
    Water babe?
    “Okay, okay, I know, bad pun. I’ll just stick to calling you river.”
    Anger boiled up inside me. “Oh, that’s where you’ve been for the past week? What River? Well guess who this is Cole! It’s Haley! Your old girlfriend.”
    He stayed silent after that. Only the sound of his friends laughing like lunatics in the background. I could almost see him chewing his upper lip, like he does when he’s nervous. If he was here, I would punch him like the way I did to river when she went threw my texts on my phone with her friends. I settled on just hanging up.

    Reply
  8. The future

    Hey. Can someone please tell me if the short story is any good? I’m 13

    Reply

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