Creative prompts: Introduction
The three prompts are designed to allow you to approach writing in a way you feel most comfortable with. There is no need to do any of these in advance of the introductory writing circle meetings, as there will be the time in the sessions to attempt one of these prompts. If you want to explore writing and develop your practice, feel free to try all of them in your own time.
In the introductory video, I explain in a little more detail how I’ve designed these prompts. Briefly: the three are underpinned by varying degrees of fact and fiction, to allow you to engage with your experiences in different ways. They are also designed to engage with different aspects of storytelling, so one focuses on scene and plot, one on character, and one on mood and atmosphere. Feel free to approach these as truthfully and imaginatively as you like.
While the prompts focus on prose writing, you can adapt them for poetry, drama, or anything in between, however, you wish. When you begin writing in response to one of these prompts, you have full permission to write as badly as you wish, or as randomly. Ignore the quality of your sentences and spelling and grammar. Just try to capture ideas as they come, and feel free to let your imagination change tack and new thoughts emerge.
Your main aim is to write continuously for 15 minutes. You can write anything, even things unrelated to the prompt if you wish. Then take a little break and, when you’re ready, try writing for another 15 minutes. By the end of these two sessions, you should have found the start of something worth pursuing. If not, you can always try the other prompts.
Creative prompt 1: CCTV Retelling
This first prompt invites you to start with a real experience, to retell that experience almost as a documentary text. The main intention here is to apply a distancing technique to retell the situation from the outside.
You may need to take some time to think about a situation that you want to share, first of all. If something doesn’t immediately come to mind, I recommend you go through your emails, social media, or messages from the past year to find a situation that you might have forgotten about. Alternatively, if you have already been keeping a diary over the past year, you might find something you’ve already captured, which you feel is appropriate to you to allow others to read.
The challenge in retelling the experience is that you have to imagine watching this experience happening via CCTV. Imagine you are watching a security tape of the scene playing over again. You can add a layer of detail about that if you wish – the grainy footage, the pixellated images, or green or grey night vision quality of the image. Don’t feel you have to overdo that side of it.
The main thing is that you are writing as if you weren’t there yourself. That means you have to just describe what happened from the outside as if you don’t know what anyone is thinking or feeling. As you describe actions, the emotions should become clear.
The idea for this prompt comes in part from a psychological technique for distancing oneself from emotionally stressful experiences. Don’t feel you have to draw on a stressful experience if you don’t want to, of course. The other source for this prompt is from Tim Lott’s novel, The Seymour Tapes, in which a paranoid man installs secret cameras in his own home when he becomes overly suspicious of his family’s behaviour.
Creative prompt 2: Character Study
The second prompt invites you to build a character from a DIY character creation kit I’ve provided you with. The intention here is to semi-fictionalise a real person, or a group of people, to learn what is important to them and tell their story through your understanding.
I use the example of medical case studies, which are built from many patients to allow them to narrate the many complex dimensions to a particular illness or pathology. You can do the same here if you wish and draw on multiple people’s characteristics to create a more fictional person.
As you work through the DIY kit, you’ll find some of the listed traits come easily, others may not stimulate very much. Work through the list, going where your imagination takes you. If something suddenly becomes very important to your character, your imagination will respond with more words, more ideas, so just follow that.
At the end of the list of traits, you can add more if you like, but I’ve also left some space for you to expand on interesting things that crop up from the list. Work through that until you have a relatively strong sense of this character.
The final part is then to sit down for a coffee, or cup of tea, with your character. Imagine yourself sitting with this character and having a conversation about something important to you. It may be that you dislike this character, or you may care about them very much. Either way, they’re in your world, and they’re a projection of your imagination now, so you can play out your dialogue with them however you wish.
You can also write the scene as if it’s part of a story or a script for theatre or film – whatever you feel comfortable with. The main thing is, within around 500-700 words, you should be able to draw out something interesting in your character, but also in your relationship with them, that is worth pursuing.
DIY Character Creation Kit
These details are a starting point. As you work through them, you’ll find some aspects developing into multiple sentences, while others may draw a blank. Go where your imagination takes you; skip, add or change the details below to suit the parts of your character that seem most fruitful for exploration.
Place of birth:
What kind of mask(s) they wear:
How they feel about their closest friend:
Most endearing trait:
How they react in an emergency:
Relationship to mother:
Relationship to father:
Relationship to close family:
A secret about them only a handful of people know:
Defining physical trait(s):
Most likely reason for friction with colleagues:
Least endearing trait:
First thing they do to relax:
Something unusual they keep about their person when away from home:
How many seconds they washed their hands for during
- lockdown 1:
- lockdown 2:
- lockdown 3:
The thing they would most like to change about their life:
Favourite holiday destination:
Once you’ve worked through these, take a moment to expand on any important details that have emerged here:
Creative prompt 3: Imaginative Escape
This last prompt is a little more experimental, and you may have to trust yourself to just go with it. I draw on the opening to Olaf Stapledon’s novel, Star Maker. In the video, I explain a little more about who he was, but the essential part is that he was a writer discontent with war and political unrest. He used science fiction as a way of exploring his dissatisfaction, or bitterness.
The prompt is designed as a kind of guided meditation, almost. Start with someone in your surroundings, or that you’ve experienced over the past months, which is out of place, or not the way it should be. My own starting point when I first came up with this prompt, was seeing a broken car park barrier by University House. I found myself imagining what had caused the situation, and began spiraling out to more and more outlandish explanations.
For yourself, you may want to choose something major, to do with lockdown, or could just be a bottle top not put back on properly in your fridge. Big or small, I want you to use that ‘out of placeness’ as a springboard to launch you to another world.
Have a read of the abridged version of the first chapter of Star Maker I’ve provided, or listen to the audio recording I’ve made of it. Allow the mood and atmosphere of the writing to flow over you and affect you. Then, go ahead and start writing. Escape to another world. Don’t forget, however, whatever thing it was that triggered your escape – the memory of it will travel with you, your dissatisfaction with its out-of-
Extract from Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker
Abridged from chapter 1. The Earth (pp. 11-16)
One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out on to the hill. Dark heather checked my feet. Below marched the suburban street lamps. Windows, their curtains drawn, were shut eyes, inwardly watching the lives of dreams. Beyond the sea’s level darkness a lighthouse pulsed. Overhead, obscurity.
Bitterness not only invaded us from the world; it welled up also within our own magic circle. For horror at our futility, at our own unreality, and not only at the world’s delirium, had driven me out on to the hill.
Overhead, obscurity unveiled a star. One tremulous arrow of light, projected how many thousands of years ago, now stung my nerves with vision, and my heart with fear. For in such a universe as this what significance could there be in our fortuitous, our frail, our evanescent community?
But now irrationally I was seized with a strange worship, not, surely of the star, that mere furnace which mere distance falsely sanctified, but something other, which the dire contrast of the star and us signified to the heart. Yet what, what could thus be signified? Intellect, peering beyond the star, discovered no Star Maker, but only darkness; no Love, no Power even, but only Nothing. And yet the heart praised.
I sat down on the heather. Overhead obscurity was now in full retreat. In its rear the freed population of the sky sprang out of hiding, star by star.
On every side the shadowy hills or the guessed, featureless sea extended beyond sight. But the hawk-flight of imagination followed them as they curved downward below the horizon. I perceived that I was on a little round grain of rock and metal, filmed with water and with air, whirling in sunlight and darkness. And on the skin of that little grain all the swarms of men, generation by generation, had lived in labour and blindness, with intermittent joy and intermittent lucidity of spirit. And all their history, with its folk-wanderings, its empires, its philosophies, its proud sciences, its social revolutions, its increasing hunger for community, was but a flicker in one day of the lives of stars.
Overhead obscurity was gone. From horizon to horizon the sky was an unbroken spread of stars. Two planets stared, unwinking. The more obtrusive of the constellations asserted their individuality. Orion’s foursquare shoulders and feet, his belt and sword, the Plough, the zigzag of Cassiopeia, the intimate Pleiades, all were duly patterned on the dark. The Milky Way, a vague hoop of light, spanned the sky.
Imagination completed what mere sight could not achieve. Looking down, I seemed to see through a transparent plant, through heather and solid rock, through the buried graveyards of vanished species, down through the molten flow of basalt, and on into the Earth’s core of iron; then on again, still seemingly downwards, through the southern strata to the southern ocean and lands, past the roots of gum trees and the feet of the inverted antipodeans, through their blue, sun-pierced awning of day, and out into the eternal night, where sun and stars are together. For there, dizzyingly far below me, like fishes in the depth of a lake, lay the nether constellations. The two domes of the sky were fused into one hollow sphere, star-peopled, black, even beside the blinding sun. The young moon was a curve of incandescent wire. The completed hoop of the Milky Way encircled the universe.
Imagination was now stimulated to a new, strange mode of perception. Looking from star to star, I saw the heaven no longer as a jewelled ceiling and floor, but as depth beyond flashing depth of suns.
The universe in which fate had set me was no spangled chamber, but a perceived vortex of star-streams. No! It was more. Peering between the stars into the outer darkness, I saw also, as mere flecks and points of light, other such vortices, such galaxies, sparsely scattered in the void, depth beyond depth, so far afield that even the eye of the imagination could find no limits to the cosmical, the all-embracing galaxy of galaxies. The universe now appeared to me as a void wherein floated rare flakes of snow, each flake a universe.
Gazing at the faintest and remotest of all the swarm of universes, I seemed, by hypertelescopic imagination, to see it as a population of suns; and near one of those suns was a planet, and on the planet’s dark side a hill, and on that hill myself. For our astronomers assure us that in this boundless finitude which we call the cosmos the straight lines of light lead not to infinity but to their source.
But now, once more shunning these immensities, I looked again for the curtained windows of our home, which, though star-pierced, was still more real to me than all the galaxies. But our home had vanished, with the whole suburb, and the hills too, and the sea. The very ground on which I had been sitting was gone. Instead there lay far below me an insubstantial gloom. And I myself was seemingly disembodied, for I could neither see nor touch my own flesh. And when I willed to move my limbs, nothing happened. I had no limbs. The familiar inner perceptions of my body, and the headache which had oppressed me since morning, had given way to a vague lightness and exhilaration.
I noticed the obscurity which had taken the place of the ground was shrinking and condensing. The nether stars were no longer visible through it. Soon the earth below me was like a huge circular table-top, a broad disc of darkness surrounded by stars. I was apparently soaring away from my native planet at incredible speed. The sun, formerly visible to imagination in the nether heavens, was once more physically eclipsed by the Earth. Though by now I must have been hundreds of miles above the ground, I was not troubled by the absence of oxygen and atmospheric pressure. I experienced only an increasing exhilaration and a delightful effervescence of thought. The extraordinary brilliance of the stars excited me. For, whether through the absence of obscuring air, or through my own increased sensitivity, or both, the sky had taken on an unfamiliar aspect. Every star had seemingly flared up into higher magnitude. The heavens blazed. The major stars were like the headlights of a distant car. The Milky Way, no longer watered down with darkness, was an encircling, granular river