Many, if not most prospective writers are born storytellers. Sergeant Friday would hate us because we rarely, if ever, stick to “just the facts, ma’am.” We love to recite even the simplest activity in narrative form. Whether it be a relatively mundane grocery list or a particularly memorable childhood trauma there must be action and there must be drama.
But what do you do when there is no story?
When you suffer a dearth of topic and are bereft of both hero and villain, the very act of writing can become an exercise in futility and a font of frustration. But do not fret, my intrepid scribe. There is hope. In fact, the more you work the more you will realize that some of your best work will begin with a party cloudy weather forecast.
But, you, of course, are interested in immediate help, yes? You are sitting there reading this and asking yourself, “What can I do to banish writer’s block? What sort of writing prompts can I keep in my utility belt to pull out whenever Writer’s Block threatens to strike?”
Great question, and we’ve had plenty of introductory exposition, so let’s answer it right now.
First, clear your mind.
Clearing your head may seem antithetical when one is trying to think of SOMEthing, ANYthing to write about, but despite appearances, it works fabulously. Remember what I said earlier about being a born storyteller? Well, just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too do writers abhor a blank page.
So, step away from your computer (bring your “idea notebook”) and find a quiet spot. Then sit back and let your mind slowly clear of anything and everything. Don’t worry, you subconscious knows about your assignment and will continue to work overtime.
Now, look around.
No matter where you are, if there is people, sooner or later there will be something weird or interesting that catches your attention. Could be something as simple as a mom wiping her toddler’s snotty nose. Could be a guy in striped suspenders walking on stilts and passing out balloon animals. And, sit there long enough, and you can be guaranteed you will witness conflict. Arguments are a great writing prompt. Why are they arguing? Who’s at fault? If the dude pulls off his shirt, how long before the COPS production crew shows up?
Now, write down what you see. Don’t edit. Don’t let yourself get too deep in speculation yet. Just get it all down for later.
Create a character to build a scene around.
Once again, take a moment to clear your mind. Just spend a minute or so, breathing and — this is important — DO NOT try to force anything. Just calm your mind. Once your mind is clear, read back through your notes and, slowly, allow a character to form.
Examine that character. Don’t overthink it or “yeah-but” the character to death. Just let it talk to you. What is he or she doing? Who or what is that action impacting? What may be this character’s motivations for doing these things? Where is this action taking place? Got something? Good, now write all this stuff down in your notebook.
Allow the character to spark the plot.
Now, based on your first character, allow a second character to form in the same way. Don’t worry, at this stage, which character is the protagonist and which is the antagonist. There will be time for that in a moment. Just let the characters “be.”
Next, go back to your notes, particularly the actions of the first character. Why are they doing this, and how is the second character involved? Keep asking questions about these two characters, and your curious writer’s brain will shift into high gear, needing to know more about them. What is the tension between them? Let your imagination run wild.
At some point, you will hit a wall. You will land on something about these characters or their motivations that you do not understand. When that happens, it’s time to switch into research mode… And that can be a tremendous writing prompt.
Learn more about research as a creative writing prompt here.
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