Creative Writing Prompts: Exercises and Constraints to Jump Start Your Creativity
Often, the hardest part about writing is actually starting. Even if you know your plot, your characters, have a few strings of dialogue floating around in your head, and know exactly how the story’s conflict is going to resolve itself, actually putting down those first few words can be very tough. After all, the intro to a story can make or break it for a reader. If there’s nothing hooking them in, they can feel like they’re wasting time trying to continue.
This is why prose writers need practice before diving into a huge novel. Writing short stories, even a page or two long, is excellent practice and can provide a plethora of inspiration for the budding author.
Even with short stories though, the difficulty still remains – how do you begin? Below, I’ve compiled a huge list of creative writing prompts, and other writing exercises to help you get started. Hopefully these prompts can encourage you to write something great, or at least give you the confidence and inspiration to start planning your next idea.
For additional help, try out this creativity coaching for writers course; train your brain to think creatively!
Creative Writing Prompts
These prompts are meant to get your creative juices flowing without the additional strain of struggling with that perfect story idea. Like I mentioned before, just starting a story can be hard enough, especially because you’re constantly worried about making sure it’s the best.
These are just silly writing exercises though, and should warrant no anxiety! This is a time for you to practice and experiment. Think of these prompts like an artist’s doodles in the margins of their notebooks. Pick up your pen or fire up the word processor, and start writing!
Prompt #1: Write a story where a woman locks herself in the bathroom during a date.
You can mix up the characters and settings, but try writing a story where someone locks themselves into a bathroom or closet during an important event, like a date, or at work, or before a meeting.
Your story can be as funny or as serious as you want, but this plot will let you experiment with building a sense of urgency in your stories, and navigating characters out of tough situations. Since it will presumably only have one character, it will also allow you to get into one character’s head and figure out their thought process.
Prompt #2: Pick an object in the room and describe it.
This exercise will help you with exposition, and describing specific things in great detail. The key to this prompt is to look away from the object while you describe it. Pick something, preferably something that’s in the room with you, and give yourself about a minute or less to examine it, very basically.
You really just want to absorb the gist of the object. For instance, a vase; you know it’s shiny, you know what color and pattern it is, and you know what it’s made of. Take in the things that stand out to you most.
Then, look away from the vase – seriously, don’t look at it again! – and write out the most detailed description about the object you can. Don’t make anything up. Pull from your exact memory of the object from just moments before. Give yourself about five to ten minutes.
When you’re done, take a look at the vase again. A really close look, this time. Compare your current examination of the vase to your written description, and take note of all the small, subtle details you’ve left out. Maybe there’s a small crack you didn’t notice before. Maybe there’s discoloration or imperfections you looked over. Maybe the bottom of the vase is slightly adhesive, and there are small cat hairs stuck to it. Maybe there’s dirt residue inside from when the vase used to store a plant.
This exercise will help you realize how much detail there is in the world that your writing can leave out completely incidentally. If you want, write a new description of the vase with all your new-found understanding of its subtle details, and compare the before and after texts. Which one do you prefer?
Prompt #3: Write a story that begins with one of the following sentences…
Exercises that involve stories with preset introductions are always fun! You don’t have to deal with the struggle of starting the story, since it’s all right there for you.
Don’t think this is an easy pass, though. Just because the first sentence is there doesn’t mean the second will necessarily come super easily. Having a diving board to go off of like that first sentence does make jumping into a story less of a challenge, though. Try some of these out:
- They used to tell me that patience is a virtue.
- I wasn’t always afraid of the dark.
- She couldn’t hear him over the sound of crashing ocean waves.
- He spent hours waiting for the call, but it never came.
- The moon was bigger than usual against the daylight.
- You think you know someone, and then they leave you stranded in a desert with no pants.
- Nobody came to Manuela’s party, but she was still smiling.
- He had two thoughts before jumping out of the plane, and neither were about her.
- The street was slick with oil.
- How’s a guy supposed to turn up $20,000 in a week?
- He ran his first two red lights that night.
- Ruth had always kept her diary hidden, so when Lin found it on the kitchen table, she knew something was wrong.
- After everything that happened that day, it was a jammed jacket zipper that finally sent him over the edge.
- They heard his ringtone coming from inside the trunk.
- Someone must have set me up – I was in the garage all day.
- The computer had barely booted up before he knocked over the tower with one swift kick.
- Wei had never learned how to change a tire, but knew he had better learn now if they wanted to escape.
- She knew what to expect when the doorbell rang, so she took her leave through the bathroom window instead.
- Terrell pulled into work early that day, but almost immediately wished he hadn’t.
- She knew every inch of the town, and yet she’d never seen that house in her entire life.
Prompt #4: Write about your most boring day as if it were your most exciting.
Think about your most boring day. Maybe it was that time you had to wait in the DMV for three hours, or the time you had to babysit your youngest cousin for a weekend. Whatever it is, it has to be a mostly uneventful, tired, joyless borefest of a time.
Now, take that story, and write it out as if it were the most exciting thing ever. Maybe someone at the DMV was wearing a really interesting hat you can speculate about. You can fictionalize if you want, but avoid doing it too much – you really just want to base the story on a particular day in your life, and work on dramatizing past events.
It might sound like a piece of cake – along the same line as embellishing certain story elements when recalling events to your friends – but this is the reason why we picked your most boring day to base your story on in the first place. If there was absolutely no redeeming qualities about that day, that’s great!
Dig deep into the events of that day – or lack thereof – and try to find some redeeming qualities. Try to hone in on that one detail that you overlooked that day, that one element in the day that might be really interesting in retrospect, and write it up.
Or, if you want, just fictionalize the whole thing and have fun turning a bad memory into a funny story. Whatever helps you develop as a writer – nobody said you have to follow these prompts exactly, they’re just guidelines to help you practice writing.
Prompt #5: Write a character study.
A character study is an isolated story that focuses primarily on a character, rather than a plot. Writing these studies is a great exercise in characterization, such as idiosyncrasies, personal flaws, dialogue, habits, beliefs, principles, and other factors that make a person who they are.
There are so many ways to depict people, and learning which attributes to prioritize, how to convey certain traits, and how to navigate that person through your story through dialogue, interactions, and other behaviors are vital skills for story writing.
Challenge yourself to write a character study. Below is a list of character profiles you can choose from. These are fictional people, and it’s up to you to flesh them out. Any resemblance to actual people is complete coincidence!
Name: Tara Li
Ancestry: Half Chinese, half Irish.
Bio: Born in Reno, Nevada, Tara is the daughter of two wealthy hotel owners. She longs to move away from her affluent family life and live off the land, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. She feels pressure from her father to continue the family business, and pressure from her mother to find a husband and start a family of her own, but she just wants some peace and quiet.
Name: Samantha Klein
Bio: Florence is a graduate student on her way to earning a PhD in Philosophy. She’s worried about finding a job with her degree, and paying back all her student loans. Her girlfriend recently broke up with her because of financial woes, and now she spends her nights alone in her apartment, drinking her sorrows away. Alcoholism runs in her family, and it’s starting to affect her course work.
Name: Diego Medina
Bio: Diego is a programmer living in Toronto. He does freelance coding and web development to pay the rent, but his real passion is game design. He lives in a dumpy apartment by himself, and might have to move back in with his parents soon if another client fails to pay him. With the last of his cash, he wants to Kickstart his dream game, but you need to have money to make money, and he isn’t sure he has the resources to turn his passions into reality.
Name: Fatima Ali
Bio: Fatima is an environmental activist and engineer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She works as an independent contractor, and is often harassed and degraded by clients who don’t believe in her education or training. She is often frustrated by her experiences, and takes her anger out on her teenaged son when she’s home from work.
Name: Raymond Brown
Bio: Raymond is a sulky older man who retired early after a successful career as a journalist, and who’s been living modestly in a Brooklyn apartment with his cat for the past decade. A group of noisy young adults moved in next door recently, and between them and the bustle of the city, he just wants some privacy.
Name: Stephanie Godard
Bio: A recent college graduate, Stephanie has been living in Japan and teaching English to school children for the past year. She’s had a hard time adjusting to the new environment, and lives with social anxiety, making her struggle even worse. Her parents, an older, racist couple, disapprove of her being out of the country. She has no other family, and her only source of support is her colleague, a young American man also there teaching English.
You get the picture! If these characters aren’t interesting to you, or you can’t find a way to make them interesting, try looking up lesser known historical figures on Wikipedia, reading a bit about their life story, and going from there. A lot of famous book characters are based on real people, so it’s okay to borrow to an extent!
Prompt #6: Write a story about someone you don’t like.
The point of this prompt isn’t to write mean things behind someone’s back, even if the person you picked to write about has been mean to you. The key here is to make this person the protagonist of your story, the main character, the “hero.”
It doesn’t mean this character should be likeable – by all means, make them as unlikeable as is realistic or necessary to accurately capture their personality. What you should be doing, though, is learning to get inside someone else’s head, someone who isn’t like you, someone whose ideals you don’t agree with, someone who you don’t even like – hate even – and try to write from their point-of-view.
If you can do that, your talents as a character writer will know no bounds! Try to find the root of this person’s behavior, especially the parts you don’t like, and try to make the reader empathize. You don’t necessarily need to write a character based on someone you know. If you’re aware of the traits and personality types that you dislike, just write a character that shares those quirks and try to position yourself on their side. You’ll learn a lot about people, writing, and characterization.
If you are going to base this character off someone you know personally, I’d advise you change the names and not share it around with anyone you know. It could lead to some hurtful confrontations. This should be a personal writing exercise only.
Creative Writing Constraints
Even without specific prompts guiding your creativity, constraints are awesome and unique ways to jump start the creative writing process. A constraint is just a limitation or a restriction on what you’re able to write.
In a way, all creative writing prompts offer some form of constraint, by encouraging a specific idea to write about and forcing you to focus on that, and only that.
Picking a prompt and picking a constraint are still two different things though. Constraints offer only a limitation, but allow freedom for everything else. This is especially good for writers who tend to overuse certain tropes, stick closely to specific themes, and fear straying away from their comfort zone. Unlike prompts, which give you distinct guidelines for a story idea, a constraint forces you to experiment!
Constraint #1: Write a non-violent story.
For one reason or another, people are drawn to violence in everything from books, to movies, to video games. Murder mysteries, action films, military simulators… there’s something about violent conflict that keeps people coming back. Perhaps people are drawn to the drama, the simulated danger, the adrenaline. Who knows?
The point is, it’s easy to default to depictions of violence when creating media. If you’re someone who finds yourself doing this, try to write a story where nothing violent takes place. Write a story about an average day for a very average person. Write a story about someone’s boring job. Better yet…
Constraint #2: Write a story without conflict.
A story with conflict is often the default, especially in Western stories that are conventionally split up into three acts – the set-up, the conflict, and the resolution. Sometimes, there are five acts – the exposition, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution.
For instance, a traditional conflict-driven Western story might read as such:
- Exposition: A student is walking across her college campus to her math class. She realizes she brought the wrong notebook.
- Rising Action: The student tries to rush back to her dorm to retrieve the right notebook. On the way, she runs into acquaintances who end up slowing her down.
- Climax: The student finally reaches her dorm room, but realizes she forgot about daylight saving’s time, and is already late for class! And there’s an exam! She sprints the whole way to class.
- Falling Action: When the student arrives in class, she learns the professor called in sick and the exam has been moved to tomorrow.
- Resolution: The student returns to her room to rest after the thrilling ordeal.
Here, the conflict of the story involves a character being ill-equipped for the day ahead, and her struggles to overcome that and still make it to class on time. Most Western stories operate on this kind of drama, but it actually is not – despite what your college creative writing professor might have told you – necessary for a story to have.
In Japanese and Chinese narratives, there’s a different structure called kishōtenketsu, which contains four acts – introduction, development, twist, and reconciliation. Unlike the Western three or five act structure, there is no sign of “conflict” until the second to last act, where a twist takes place. Instead of having a “built in” conflict, the narratives take advantage of other story elements to spark interest and engage readers, such as an unexpected contrast or change that is later explained.
This blog post about the difference between Western and Eastern narratives goes into far more depth, but it does provide a good example that I will explain here.
In Western narratives, a story might go something like this:
- Exposition: Girl is at a soda machine. She presses the button.
- Rising Action: Nothing happens. The machine appears to be broken.
- Climax: The girl presses the button again.
- Falling Action: The machine dispenses a soda.
- Resolution: The girl drinks her soda.
On the other hand, an Eastern narrative using the kishōtenketsu structure might go something like this:
- Introduction: Girl is at a soda machine. She presses the button, and the machine dispenses a soda.
- Development: The girl retrieves the soda from the machine.
- Twist: A boy is sitting out on a park bench.
- Reconciliation: The girl walks over to the boy on the bench and hands him the soda.
Again, this blog post does an excellent job explaining these structures in more depth, and the examples are illustrated via comics, if that helps you visualize the differences easier.
The point here is the Eastern narrative structure contains no built in “conflict,” but instead changes the scene in a way the reader was not expecting. The “conflict” comes from a curious shift in the structure of the story, which engages readers to continue on to find out more, rather than having any kind of conflict embedded into the story itself. Interesting!
Ditching the traditional, Western method of storytelling to experiment with this new conflict-free technique, you’ll undoubtedly expand your writing abilities and open yourself up to a world of new narrative possibilities! No need to ditch the Western method entirely, of course. It’s just good to know what else is out there.
Constraint #3: Write a story using only words that begin with a certain letter.
Ahh, alliteration. Always an awesome activity. Constricting yourself to only words that begin with certain letters is a real challenge when writing a story. It isn’t really practical either, unless you’re looking to experiment, and hey… that’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?
Not only is this constraint an interesting experiment and challenge, it can also be really fun, not to mention a great way to broaden your vocabulary. Before you begin, grab or load up a dictionary and thesaurus – you’ll need them!
You can start by picking a letter, and listing some words you know that begin with that letter. Let’s try it now, shall we? Let’s go with the letter C.
Claire couldn’t come to Castille’s comparatively cluttered class, considering claustrophobia caused Claire concern.
“Claire’s chicken!” criticized Chris.
“C’mon,” coaxed Candace, cringing. “Claire can copy Clement’s chemistry calculations.”
Claire’s concern cleared. “Cool,” Claire cried.
So… that wasn’t exactly a full blown story, but you get the idea. Generally, people experimenting with prolonged alliteration in their stories allow themselves words like “it,” “and,” “is,” “the,” and “to,” among others, but if you’re somehow able to avoid them altogether, more power to you!
What’s cool about this constraint is – besides teaching you new words, as we talked about before – it forces us to play around with sentence structure, and figure out fresh new ways to convey information within the confines of our language’s grammar and syntax. Of course, grammar can be hard enough without the bonus constraint on top, so if you need some additional help, here’s an introductory English grammar course to get you started.
The alliterative writing constraint might be a strange exercise, but it produces real, applicable skills to bring with you to the writing table again and again! Alternatives to this constraint include writing a story that uses all but one letter, such as the case of Gadsby, a story over 50,000 words that never uses the letter “E” once.
Constraint #4: Write a story where the first word of every sentence forms its own story.
An acrostic is a story or poem where the first letter, word, or syllable of each sentence or individual line forms its own message. Unlike the alliterative constraint, you’re allowed to use any letter you want… unless you apply that constraint on top of this one, in which case, you must really like a challenge!
What you do need to do is be aware of two things: the “inner story” – that is, the exact sentence you want your text to convey – and the overall form and structure of your “outer story.” Those aren’t official terms, I just made them up to make it easier for you to understand.
Even better, let’s take a look at an example.
Let’s say we want our “inner story” to be: The owls are not what they seem, a line pulled from the show Twin Peaks. Each individual word in this sentence will be the first word for each individual sentence in our “outer story,” and so we have to be very attentive to structure.
Let’s try it out, again using story elements from Twin Peaks because, well… why not?
The day they found Laura, it felt like the entire town stood still. Owls stopped hooting, birds stopped singing, children stopped laughing. Are you aware of what happened? Not to question you without warrant, but who were you with that day? What were you doing? They tell me you were one of the first people to find out about it. Seem right?
The bolded text won’t be necessary in your own story, since half the fun of sharing acrostics is letting the reader find the hidden message for themselves. I just put them there to make it easier for you to understand the way these stories work. Neat, right? Try it for yourself!
Constraint #5: Write a story that passes the Bechdel test.
Not all writing constraints have to be about the technical structure of your story. They can also address common and tired tropes popular in narratives, such as the tokenization of types of characters.
Think back on how many stories you’ve read, games you’ve played, and movies you’ve watched where there was only one female character present. Unless there’s some significant context that explains this – for instance, the story takes place in an all men’s prison – this is known as tokenization. Even with the context, tokenization is still possible, and it seriously isn’t hard to combat.
The Bechdel test was designed to examine the presence of women in fiction, and is usually applied to films. It was named after Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist who originally presented the idea in a comic strip. All the test does is ask whether or not the following three requirements are met:
- Does the story have at least two women in it?
- Do two of these women talk to each other?
- Do they talk about something besides a man?
That’s it. It’s so, so simple. It isn’t even a test of positive representation of female characters as much as it is just plain old representation, and yet so many of our greatest films and best-selling games fail to meet it. Weird!
Just because it’s applied mostly to films doesn’t mean you can’t apply it to your own writing. To fight the unfair status quo of underrepresenting female characters – or gay characters, or non-white characters, etc. – just stick to the Bechdel test. It’s the bare minimum, and struggling with it is inexcusable!
If you feel uncomfortable trying to represent certain types of people, that’s a good opportunity to do some educational reading. Read books, memoirs, auto-biographies, and interviews. Learn some identity politics. It’ll make your writing more fresh, diverse, colorful, and engaging for all kinds of readers.
Constraint #6: Write microfiction.
Microfiction stories are teeny, tiny stories limited to only a handful of words. One example is six word stories, which you’ve probably heard of. Allegedly, Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in only six words, to which he responded: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
With that, Hemingway tells a tragic story of loss, with only six words. There are other examples too, and you can find plenty on this website, the aptly named Six Word Stories.
Some examples from the site above include:
“My dads met at Bible camp.” – Skussking
“Goodbye, mission control. Thanks for trying.” – aiken_
“Brought roses home. Keys didn’t fit.” – shallowblue
These user-submitted stories have more depth than most would think they can fit in six words. Dads meeting at Bible camps, an ironic tale of defying conventional politics and oppression. A sad tale of someone being locked out of their home, presumably by an angry significant other… or perhaps they are the one wrong in the head, a disillusioned stalker who won’t take “no” for an answer.
If six words is too little for you, you can try Twiction, 140 character stories named after the character limit on Twitter. Basically, you’ll be writing a story as long as a tweet. Think you can handle it?
Practicing microfiction is all about word choice and subtlety. How much depth can a simple implication hold? How much backstory can you fit into just a phrase or two? A lot, actually! Doing a few microfiction exercises a day can seriously hone your creative writing abilities, by teaching you how to narrow down your stories into just the words that matter.
Have you ever handed a rough draft or a manuscript to your editor, and had it returned to you with long, red lines crossing things out? Letting go of one or two sentences can be hard enough, but seeing entire chunks dropped by your editor can be painful! See it as a learning opportunity. Hone in on the text that really matters, and take out the excess.
Constraint #7: Write a story in the Pilish style.
The marriage of art and science is always a beautiful one. Pilish is a silly name given to a style of writing prompt where the length of each consecutive word is representative of a digit in the number π. That’s pi, for the less mathematically inclined… or 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592307816406286… and so on.
So what’s the point of this constraint? There isn’t really a serious one. It’s just another fun, challenging exercise to test your vocabulary, your handling of grammar and syntax, and your overall writing ability. You can also say you did it, if you’re successful, so that’s always a plus.
If you’re still confused, let’s break pi down a bit: 3.14159. These are the first six digits of pi, meaning your story should start with a three letter word, and continue on with a one letter word, a four letter word, another one letter word, a five letter word, and a nine letter word. And so on. In that order. Let’s check out an example, shall we?
Wow. I have a great accordion.
Okay, that wasn’t really exciting or interesting. Hey, a constraint like this is hard, and takes time! I’m just here to teach you about it.
Here’s the example from the Wikipedia page for Pilish, representative of the first 15 digits of pi.
How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!
Here’s another example from the same Wikipedia page, this time a poem written by Joseph Shipley, representative of the first 31 digits of pi.
But a time I spent wandering in bloomy night;
Yon tower, tinkling chimewise, loftily opportune.
Out, up, and together came sudden to Sunday rite,
The one solemnly off to correct plenilune.
Seem difficult? An entire novel – a collection of short stories, poems, and other prose actually – was written using the first 10,000 digits of pi as a reference! It’s called Not A Wake by Michael Keith, and as you can see, even the title follows the digits of pi: 3.14.
Hopefully this guide has inspired or encouraged you to leave your writing anxieties behind, pick up a pen and paper, and start doing what you love – writing! Not all of the exercises, prompts, and constraints listed above will be helpful for everyone, so feel free to pick and choose the ones that best fit your writing needs.
Need something that better suits your niche? Perhaps you’re a writer of fiction aimed at teenagers. If so, check out this young adult fiction writing workshop and learn the specifics you need to hone your specific craft.
Writing for a younger audience? Try out this course on writing children’s books.
If you’re still a novice novelist, check out this workshop course for beginning writers. It’s never too late to start learning.
If you non-fiction, memoir writing, or technical writing is more your thing, below are a list of courses to help you get started and learn more. Remember, though – even if you’re not a full-time creative writer, the writing prompts, exercises, and constraints discussed in the guide above can still help you improve your skills in a way that’s useful and applicable for all kinds of writing.
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