Some of you know that I use art to relax from writing. This week we’re going in reverse and use art to energize writing. This all started back in September 2009 when I read a Cloth Paper Scissors article by the Portland, Oregon artist Robin Olsen. In “Spontaneous Combustion: Using Prompts to Spark Design,” Robin wrote about using prompts to take her quilting in new directions.
She printed about fifty prompts, cut the page into small pieces, folded the papers, and threw them in a bowl. When she wanted to stretch herself to try something new, she drew a prompt, did it, drew another, did it, and so on until she felt the piece was finished. Sometimes she used only a few prompts, sometimes as many as ten. She also used a single prompt when she felt stuck about what to do next about a piece.
I loved the idea, but no way were folded pieces of paper going to work in my office. I’d lose them or they would disappear amid the mounds of paper I collect.
What I did instead was print prompts on tissue paper and glue the strips to colored popsicle sticks. The jar in the photo started life as a vitamin bottle, before it was covered with paper clay and painted. I’m on the look-out for another vitamin bottle so I can have a can of writing prompts as well as these art prompts. Since we’re doing writing today instead of art, you don’t have to go to that length (unless you really want to).
You can also number your prompts, print them on a single piece of paper, and role dice to generate numbers randomly for which prompts to use.
The first thing you’ll need is a list of prompts. To start you off, I’ve given you twenty-five, but I’m sure you can thing of a lot more. Feel free to copy-and-paste this starter to a word processing document so you can print them out. As you think of a new one, write it on a piece of paper and toss it in your bowl or add it to your list. I've found that quirky or funny premises work better for quick exercises than dark serious stuff, but as they say in the ads, your mileage may vary.
The setting is a place you’ve visited, but didn’t like.
No more than 5% of the words can be “the.”
The protagonist comes from a ethnic background different from yours. (Yes, research will be involved here.)
Two characters communicate an important message without words.
The protagonist is a fish out of water.
A mini-story of 100 words.
The heroine gets what she wants but it turns out not to be what she wants.
A page of dialog filled with technical jargon.
Missing an opportunity turns into disaster. Then turn it around: taking advantage of the same opportunity turns into disaster.
Characters go on a road trip.
An unlikely male thinks of himself as a dark and dangerous hero.
An unlikely female thinks of herself as a dark and dangerous heroine.
A character thinks up a quirky cover story that has unexpected consequences.
Phone sex, and it’s a wrong number.
A package is passed from character to character and each one thinks he/she know what’s inside, but all are wrong.
A familiar fairy tale told from an odd perspective (Cinderella from a feminist perspective or Jack and the Beanstalk as told by a corporate executive, etc.)
Being nibbled to death by ducks. The protagonists are out to save the world, but mundane details of daily life get in their way.
Kidnappers discover they have the wrong person for the right reasons or the right person for the wrong reasons.
The first person you see tomorrow after walking out your front door becomes the protagonist.
Rip a story from today’s headlines.
It’s a “one day we’ll laugh over this” story.
A story composed entirely of cliches.
Welcoming someone home goes terribly wrong, but is funny at the same time.
How to use prompts for writing exercises:
1. Start with the blank page.
2. Draw or randomly roll dice to select at least 3 to 5 prompts.
3. Weave them together into a scene or story.
Quote for the week:
Creativity likes constraints and specifics. … it is both beautiful and ironic that constraints can actually give you more freedom. They activate your imagination.
~Bert Dodson, painter, teacher, author and illustrator, Keys to Drawing with Imagination