Do Writing Prompts Really Help?


I follow a number of writerly fan pages of on Facebook, and many of them post writing prompts to help get the creative juices flowing for writers. This is great. Really. If it helps to fight writers block, then how can it not be great? However, I’ve noticed something about recent prompts that seem as if they might be hindering more than helping. Specifically the ones about your book’s/story’s characters.

Now, I understand that it’s vital to really know your characters. What do they look like? What are their habits? Even what is their favorite color? You may not use all of this information in the story or book, but it’s good to know it to help make the characters more 3 dimensional. However, some off these writing prompts seem to take it a bit too far by asking to write paragraphs about a certain aspect of your protagonist or antagonist. “Write four paragraphs about your antagonist’s favorite color.” “Write a paragraph about what your character had for breakfast.” I’m somewhat waiting for the prompts to start being “Write a 15,000 word novella on what types of makeup your protagonist shops for.”

I mean, sure, sometimes these paragraphs can only be two or three sentences each, but I’d much rather get to writing the actual book then spending my time figuring out what my antagonist’s favorite cell phone provider is and why, which is why I’ve never attempted a writing prompt. I don’t want to say they’re a waste of time, but I feel as if my time could be better spent contributing to my book.

What do you think? Do you use writing prompts? Have they been helpful? Have you seen any particularly ridiculous ones? 

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10 thoughts on “Do Writing Prompts Really Help?

  1. I think different sorts of excercises can work for different people but I pretty much agree with you: it’s very important to have a good understanding of your characters in order for you to know what they do and why. To know this you do have to have an idea about many aspects of their personality, even to the point of what they like to wear, how they like to spend spare time, what they like to eat etc. But I agree that spending thousands of words exploring it can be a waste of time. For me anyway. I like to have an *awareness* of aspects of my character but I’m also very aware that most of what I know about them won’t ever be referred to. It may well inform some of their decisions but planning it out in exruciating details, whilst sometimes rather good fun, is somewhat redundant.

  2. I also have a particular pet hate when it comes to writers over-referring to the physical appearance of characters. Whereas I have a very strong mental image of what all my characters look like and it frustrates me to a certain extent that I can’t spend a page and a half describing them so the reader sees what I see, I know that by and large what they look like barely ever becomes relevant. Unless they have rather extreme physical characteristics it’s not going to affect how they make decisions. Sometimes it becomes relevant if one character likes or dislikes certain aspects of another character’s appearance, or if familial resemblance is a significant aspect of the plot, but I find some writers refer to their characters’ appearance too much. I understand why. They do it for the same reasons I probably would: I know how they are supposed to look and want others to see the same thing. But crowbarring in that they have sea-green eyes or luscious, ebony locks when they are introduced makes me cringe. So, again, spending thousands of works on a writing exercise that would lay down what a character looks like right down to a mole on their pinky would maybe encourage the same over-writing in the text. Or maybe it would get it out of your writing system and stop you doing it. Who knows!

    • I so agree with this! It’s particularly difficult to describe the protagonist’s physicality when you’re writing first-person, and I would get SO ANNOYED when people would say “Well, I don’t really know what they look like besides having dark hair and dark eyes.” or “We don’t get a physical description of them until the third paragraph.” Yeah, I absolutely want readers to know what the characters look like, but I’m not going to resort to “I stared at my brown eyes in the mirror.” I have yet to find the perfect balance and the perfect placement for physical characteristics, particularly in first person.

      • It’s interesting that you have readers that want more on physical description and early on: we can ponder and discuss what makes good writing practice forever and yet at the end of the day the mitigating factor is always likely to be taste. It’s interesting! Though I don’t think about it too long because it could give me the excuse to not try and improve my writing on the premise someone, somewhere will just like it for what it is. Anyway! Yes I totally agree, it is a fine balance. I think you have a certain amount of flexibility when characters are meeting each other for the first time: people tend to assess appearance of new acquaintances instinctively so it’s not too contrived to have physicality mentioned at these points. But the people the characters have known for years or indeed, as you say, your protagonist in a first person narrative, it’s sticky. I always reassure myself that one of my favourite writers, Robin Hobb, and many other writers I admire, only ever makes passing reference to the appearance of their characters, but I still know what it pertinent to the story and my mind can fill in the rest. (As a reader I also rather enjoy painting in some of the picture myself) So I don’t think you can ever be worried about doing too little. Less it more. (I do also happen to be rather lucky in that in my first person narrative, an integral part of the plot is that my narrator grows to closely resemble his brother and many people comment on it, which allows me to segue in details about how I visualise him. But even then I try not to overdo it)

  3. That was a general ‘you’ in that last sentence, btw. I didn’t mean you specifically lol. I know you handle character appearance well. I had a very fine impression of all the characters in just the right amount of detail. (Sorry I just read back my comment and thought it sounded dead accusatory!)

  4. Ha! “Write four paragraphs about your antagonist’s favorite color.” …talk about SNOOZE! I like to have a basic outline with physical characteristics, family background, romantic life, and a few adjectives describing the core of their personality.

    That’s it! Let the rest be discovered during the process.

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