Write It Sideways

Making the Most of a Writing Prompt

Today’s post is written by Tal Valante. 

I discovered writing prompts when I was learning coaching.

Students took turns opening our sessions with some guided activity. One chose dancing. Another chose making Fimo clay objects.

I chose writing. And in order to help my fellow students, who have never written fiction in their life, I chose to give them special writing prompts.

What was special about them?

Well, instead of just choosing a subject like “motherhood” or “freedom” and leaving my fellow students to shift for themselves, I helped them make the most out of each prompt. The results were magnificent. I got a mischievous gnome flash story about gifts, a poem about forgotten wind chimes, and a spellbinding tale of a woman in a strange city.

My fellow students rocked their writing prompts and enjoyed every second thanks to the method I shared with them:

Your First Idea Isn’t Necessarily Your Best Idea

Most writers approach writing prompts on a first come, first served basis. So after reading their writing prompt, whatever idea first pops into their minds, that’s the idea they’ll run with. That’s not (always) the best course of action.

The problem is, once an idea lodges in your mind it can be hard to displace it in favor of open, fresh thinking. That’s why, in the method I’ve developed, you don’t begin with brainstorming ideas.

You begin instead with brainstorming questions.

Brainstorming Questions

It may seem like a step in a strange direction, but out of strange things comes originality.

Consider your writing prompt, then start asking questions about it. Ask the interesting questions. Since there’s a plethora of them, and since unlike an answer, no single question is an immediate call to action, it’s easy to keep thinking up questions.

For example, let’s take a prompt of the kind I hate—the single word toss, like “Addiction.” Instead of staring at this word and waiting for a valid idea to pop up in your mind, ask yourself what you can ask about addiction.

Start with the simple Five Ws:

These are the easy ones. But notice how unlike ideas, each question calls out to more questions. For example:

Keep asking questions until you run out of them, and don’t worry about answers at this stage. You’ll get there in the next stage.

Brainstorming Answers

Answers are not yet ideas for stories, though they might spark ideas. But since you have a list of questions, and since every question has multiple possible answers, you’ll end up with a wide variety of ideas instead of locking on one.

The trick at this stage is to put aside all story ideas, and answer each question as if it’s the only one that exists at that moment.

Don’t come up with just one answer. Come up with as many options as you possibly can.

For example:

Compiling the Story Idea

Now that you have an entire page (or two) full of interesting questions and even more interesting answers, go over them with a highlighter and choose the most interesting combinations. Choose the options that excite you and make you want to write. Choose the unlikely ones.

Write about a mouse who’s addicted to the adrenaline rush of evading cats.

Write about the addiction of doctors to power and respect.

Write about a woman’s struggle to kick off her addiction to being shamed.

Write, write, write.

My fellow students wrote some amazing stories following their writing prompts, and now you can, too. If you’re eager to see some of the prompts I’ve used, check out this free compilation of prompts. They already come with a list of questions for your imagination to pursue.

Happy writing!