Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Writing Prompts for Getting Unstuck by Joanna Roddy

Photo Credit: Drew Coffman

My last post was about returning to the joy of writing--learning to play on the page and let go of the need for right answers. One of the underlying assumptions there is that you can actually show up at the page and free-write as an act of discovery. 

But I'll be the first to admit, sometimes the blank page is intimidating as heck and you just don't know how to begin. This is the time to pull some trusty tools from your belt in the form of writing prompts. Even a single starting phrase can be so helpful! Here's a roundup of some of my favorite prompts for fiction writing.

Style prompts:

1. Try it from another point of view or tense: This is pretty basic stuff, but if you're inclined to write from third person omniscient past or first person present (there are many others, but I won't go into them here), switching to another POV/ tense can give you tremendous insight into scenes and characters that you didn't have the other way. Even if you don't decide to stick with the new style, the occasional foray into a new point of view can be a wonderful exercise, keeping your writerly skills limber. 

2. Experiment with another narrative voice: Stretch yourself. If you tend to be flowery, channel your inner Hemmingway and write a scene like it's a newspaper article. If you prefer to be concise, think about how to make the writing more lyrical. You might even try writing it as a poem. Try out stream-of-consciousness, satire, humor, and literary voices. You can even use an author's voice you love for inspiration. At the end of the day, your voice is your own, but trying out other styles will make you better able to find the unique sound of your characters, and you might find something that works for you that you never expected. 

Character-based prompts:

1. Rewrite a scene from another character's point of view: This does wonderful things for your character development and might reveal potential plot possibilities as you get in touch with that character's motivation.

2. Try on a character's voice: In a similar vein, write a new scene from a character's POV you haven't tried yet. This is especially nice for a character whose voice you haven't found yet, or who's coming off as one-dimensional. Try it with your villain!

3. Base a character on someone you know. If a character's voice is difficult to hear, try to "listen" to someone whose voice you're already familiar with. Build in those quirks and mannerisms that create a personality. Just make sure it's not an exact replica, lest you commit libel.

Illustration by Agata Kawa from Le Carnet Rouge
This image is on my Pinterest board for my novel's main character.

World-building prompts:

1. Go on a research quest: Set a timer for an hour and go on a wikipedia stumble. If thar be dragons in your story (Yar!), for a broad example, start at the page on dragons. Let your whimsey take you to a link from that page and then another from the next page and so on. Gain inspiration from mythology, history, science, and real-world parallels to your story. Take notes. Bookmark pages. Save images that inspire you along the way (Pinterest is great for this). If you exhaust your first stream of research, start another. When the hour is up, stop and write a short scene, setting, or character sketch from what you've discovered. Make sure you limit your time researching (you could do this sort of thing all day!) and follow it with writing. 

2. Pull a magazine or Pinterest image and write about it: Find something that strikes you, that speaks to your project or a specific character. 

3. Create a detective file: If someone were to come upon your fictional world, what is some of the evidence they would find of your story? Are there letters, emails, books, objects, bills, texts or any other physical evidence you could write down or describe? 

4. Write a letter: In a similar vein, write a letter from your hero to another character in your story. See what you find out about how they see themself, the other character, and their situation.

Photo Credit:
One of the cards from Fiction Magic

And here are a few prompts inspired by Deb Lund, who recently spoke to my local chapter of SCBWI and is about to come out with a very cool product, a 54 card deck called Fiction Magic: Card Tricks and Tips for Writers filled with prompt phrases and a guidebook. I'll be the first in line to get one when they come out. And, no, I'm not related to Deb--I don't even know her! I just like to toot horns worth tooting. These mostly fall into the category of plot-development prompts:

1. Take something precious away from your hero: If you're relying on an object, relationship, character trait, or skill to save the day, see what happens when you take that away from your character. See what they have to do to get it back. Don't let them off easy!

2. Give more power to your villain while you hide your hero's strengths: The character and the reader need to feel that the stakes are high and the deck is stacked against them. Write a scene where your villain gets more traction. 

3. Make your hero disappoint someone: Whether they don't come through, break a promise, or shift their loyalty, see what happens when your hero makes a bad decision that hurts someone close to them. What are the relational consequences? What are the implications if that relationship stays broken? How will the hero have to alter course to repair the relationship? What will the plot consequences be because of that?

4. Consider an unlikely pairing: Think about how two opposite or unrelated characters might find their motivations to be mutually beneficial in some way. Bring them together and see what happens. Just think of some of the great examples of this in literature--Legolas and Gimli, Sherlock and Watson, Gollum and Frodo, even Hook and Tinkerbell, to name a few. 

That's a few to get you going. If you try any, I would love to hear how you get on with them. What are some prompts in your tool belt that you have found helpful? 


  1. These are great, Joanna! No excuses! I like writing (or sometimes just imagining) a scene that I know would never actually be in the book, but maybe it's a seminal event from way before the events of the book, or just seeing how a character would react if I throw them into something completely different. It can spark new things and each me things about characters.

    1. I love the idea of throwing something unexpected at your character! You could find out a lot about them from how they react.

  2. Great tips, Joanna! My current WIP started out 1st person present, and it felt stale and wasn't coming together. A switch to 3rd produced amazing results. I also like rewriting scenes so that the characters respond differently - instead of being angry, for instance, perhaps mc bursts into tears. It sometimes opens up new directions.

    1. This kind of goes along with Joy's comment too about throwing something unexpected at a character. I love the idea of trying out a few different reactions out of them to see what direction it takes the story and the character. I'm going to try that as an exercise!

    2. Bleh! Sorry for that proofing error ^. Should be, "trying out a few different reactions from them." (More coffee!)

  3. What a great guide. I need to bookmark this for the next time I'm stuck!

  4. Great list, Joanna! And I'm so honored to be mentioned in your post. We're getting closer to finalizing all the design and specific materials for Fiction Magic: Card Tricks & Tips for Writers, and I feel like a kid waiting for my birthday. I'll be offering pre-sale deals for people on my email list, which can be found at

    Stephanie, I agree, this site is worth bookmarking! Thanks again, Joanna, and best wishes on your writing.

    1. Deb, I'm so glad you found your way here. I'll get on that email list right away. :)

  5. Thank you so very much for this inspiration! I truly landed on the right page at the right time!

  6. Great tips, Joanna, and Dianne, I'm so glad you are sharing this post. It's excellent. Also, I'm anxious to see Deb Lund's Fiction Magic cards. Sounds fun and inspiring! I'll definitely keep track of this post.

  7. Lovely ideas, Joanna! And beautiful image!

    1. You mean the one by Agata Kawa? Such an amazing illustrator! I wish I could get her for my book. ;)


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!