Creative writing prompts provide a useful way to jog inspiration. Try these creative writing exercises focused on individual elements of storytelling:
Creative writing prompts – find inspiration to:
- Master POV
- Create compelling dialogue
- Craft vivid setting descriptions
- Create interesting characters
- Create strong story openings
- Master tense
- Craft more effective sentences and phrases
- Find story ideas
- Create eventful plots
- Craft satisfying story endings
Prompt 1: A character is moving to another city. She visits her favourite public place and sees something that makes her want to stay. Describe this in 500 words, using third person POV (he/she). Then rewrite in first person, using ‘I’.
Why: Rewriting third person scenes (especially emotional ones) in first person helps you find your character’s voice. You’re telling the reader what your character thinks as your character, not an observer. When you rewrite in third person (if you prefer this POV), some of this immediacy will carry over.
Prompt 2: A character is being chased by a villain or villainous group through an abandoned warehouse. Describe their fear and lucky escape in 500 words or less. Rewrite the piece from the viewpoint of the villain(s).
Why: Rewriting a protagonist’s scenes from the antagonist’s perspective can help you create a more realistic sense of threat, since you will be able to picture the protagonist as well as antagonist’s movements and psychological state clearer.
A late arrival
Prompt 3: A character arrives late to a party, not knowing that an old significant other is attending too. The relationship didn’t end well. The host introduces them to each other, unaware of their history. In 500 words or less, write the scene and rewrite it twice, once from each character’s perspective: The late arriver, the ex and the host.
Why: Sometimes a story scene can be effective written from a secondary character’s point of view. Writing as a neutral observer might help you notice details worth including in the scene (such as the main characters’ actions and body language); actions that you wouldn’t think about as much if you were writing from a different viewpoint.
A long affair
Prompt 4: A POV writing exercise courtesy of Writer’s Digest:
A teenage couple is sitting at a restaurant, playfully making up a fake Cosmo love test for each other. What questions do they ask each other? Now, write the same scene, but this time the couple is in their thirties. How would the questions differ? Write the same scene again, but this time the couple has been married for fifteen years. How would their questions be different than the other two tests?
Why: Character development makes your characters feel real. Rewriting scenes from the POV of younger and older versions of your characters will give you a sense of how your characters’ voices and concerns could change over the course of your novel realistically.
A change of view
Prompt 5: A detective is called to a small hotel to investigate the disappearance of a guest. Describe him searching the guest’s room in 500 words or less. Use first person POV. Then rewrite the scene in the second person (using ‘you’ to describe his actions, as though the reader were the detective).
Why: Although the second person is very uncommon as a point of view, writing a series of actions in second person can help you get into descriptive mode – you’re putting the reader immediately in the viewpoint character’s shoes, making them see and do exactly what your character sees and does.
Create compelling dialogue
Prompt 6: Two lovers are having an argument in a bar. Character one hates public displays and is trying to calm the situation. Character two doesn’t care at all what other patrons think. Write their exchange in 500 words or less.
Why: Conflict in dialogue makes it lively and the raised stakes draw readers in. The point of this creative writing prompt is to remind you to include individual characters’ differing psychologies and likes and dislikes so that each character’s voice is distinct.
A new tag
Prompt 7: Take several lines of dialogue (either your own or another writer’s work) that use dialogue tags (‘he said’, ‘she said’). Rewrite the exchange without any dialogue tags, describing each character’s body language (e.g. crossing arms, pacing back and forth, sitting down, standing up) between their spoken lines instead. (E.g. “You said the same thing yesterday.” She crosses her arms, leaning back.)
Why: Dialogue tags can be distracting and repetitive. Body language can show how your characters are speaking and feeling without telling the reader outright, and this brings characters to life.
A public figure
Prompt 8: A public figure (a celebrity or politician) is giving a long speech when they are interrupted by a member of the audience and heckled. The speaker loses their calm and responds to the heckler in far more informal speech.
Why: We use different ways of talking depending on whom we address. Creating sudden shifts in how a character talks in scenarios such as this helps us remember to vary a character’s expression according to their circumstances.
An elevator pitch
Prompt 9: Two characters have been stuck in a lift for an hour. They were strangers but they begin opening up, telling each other about their lives while they wait for assistance. Their conversation is awkward at first but by the end it’s as though they’re old friends. Use 500 words or less.
Why: Creating a sense of progression in dialogue shows change and this change and sense of development is a large part of what makes a story interesting.
A group project
Prompt 10:. Four college students have been put in a group to compile a report. Each has a very different work approach. One student loves to research first, another likes to organize people and delegate tasks, one is a lazy slacker and one just agrees with everyone else to avoid conflict. Write their argument about how to complete the project.
Why: It’s important when writing multi-character scenes to give each character a voice that corresponds to their immediate goals as well as personalities. This exercise will help you create multi-character scenes that are complex and rich with dramatic potential.
[Try extra character writing exercises here for further practice.]
Craft vivid setting descriptions
A lone hiker
Prompt 11: Imagine your character has gone hiking in a forest on a mountainside. There is nobody else around. Describe what they hear as they pass through different parts – a densely wooded area, a stream, and a high ravine.
Why: Often when we write setting we rely on visual description almost exclusively. Creative writing prompts that help you invoke the other senses will help you create fuller mental imagery for readers.
A city changes
Prompt 12: Describe the general goings-on in a city over the past 100 years. In the course of your description, describe at least one major landmark that’s changed as well as one memorable event that residents won’t soon forget.
Why: Writing setting well, especially in historical fiction, requires showing place as dynamic rather than static. The process of time changes a place and showing these changes occasionally makes your novel’s locations feel real.
A sailor’s impressions
Prompt 13: Describe a seaside city from the viewpoint of a traveler who is visiting for the first time. Describe the same place again from the viewpoint of a local. Think about the different places in the city each would find interesting, and have each character list three things they love and three things they hate about the city.
Why: Characters’ relations to places affect what they notice about them and where they go, and the same place in your novel can have multiple qualities depending on whose POV is being used. A visiting character might end up eating at awful tourist-bait diners, for example, while a local is more likely to avoid these.
A house changes
Prompt 14: Describe a big, rambling house in the daytime and make it seem comfortable and homely. Rewrite the piece, keeping everything except the adjectives the same. Change the describing words you use so the house feels sinister, eerie or outright terrifying.
Why: In setting, time of day and place work together to establish mood and atmosphere. This exercise will help you show how places take on different characters according to the conditions under which we experience them.
A character’s refuge
Prompt 15: Imagine your character has a favourite place they escape to whenever they feel stressed or need quality alone time. It could be somewhere in nature or else an inner city café, music hall or public library. Describe this setting in 500 words including at least three of senses: smell, touch, sound, sight or taste.
Why: Involving the reader’s senses in your settings makes your fictional world easier to imagine. We form memories of places not just through vision but the other senses too. Do this exercise regularly to create memorable locations for your story.
Create interesting characters
A Mary Sue
Prompt 16: Describe a character who is loved by everyone (if you’ve seen the cult classic show Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer is a good example). Describe the character and what is so lovely about her in 500 words or less, but end with a secret or flaw that not everyone sees.
Why: Story characters who are perfect are boring. Great characters are light and shade. ‘Good characters’ can have flaws and ‘bad’ characters can have pasts that show the reader a human side. The villain Lord Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was once an ordinary boy.
A police line-up
Prompt 17: Imagine a character who witnessed a crime has to identify the perpetrator in a police line-up. Each of the suspects is quite similar looking but there is one vivid aspect of the guilty party that stands out. Describe your character noticing this stand-out feature and realizing who the guilty suspect is in 500 words or less.
Why: When we describe characters, we often reach for the most obvious physical features such as hairstyle and eye colour. But these are seldom particularly identifying and can read as clichéd. When readers could spot your characters in a police line-up, you’ll know they are vivid. [Someone on Tumblr used forensics software to put together sketches of famous literary characters based on their descriptions: See more here].
A formative experience
Prompt 18: Imagine a character who has a single, over-arching goal in his or her life (it could be the quest for money or love, status or acceptance, for example). Now describe a single event from your character’s life that strongly influenced their adopting this goal. Describe the event from the character’s viewpoint as a memory, in 500 words or less.
Why: Even if you don’t explicitly mention a character’s entire backstory in your novel, knowing details about why your character wants and strive for specific things will help you create a three-dimensional cast for your novel.
An intriguing voice
Prompt 19: Go to YouTube. Click on a random video and quickly minimize the window before you see anything. Describe the voice of the first person you hear speaking, in detail. Is there any defining characteristic? Is it low, high, raspy, clear? Do they have a stutter or an odd way of starting, pausing, or ending sentences? Begin with ‘Her/his voice is/was like…’
Why: Thinking about the differences in how people sound and express themselves will help you write characters whose voices are unique and interesting.
Prompt 20: It’s fun to ask yourself questions such as ‘if my character were an animal/song/building/food item, what would they be?’ Imagine a character in her mid 40’s who’s a schoolteacher. Her class loves her because she’s a bit odd and quirky. Now answer these questions:
If my character were an animal what would she be and why?
If my character were a song, what would it be and why?
If my character were a colour, what would it be and why?
Why: Creative writing prompts that involve asking questions about imaginary people help to create a more concrete idea of them in your mind’s eye. Even if your reader doesn’t know every little thing about your character, you should have a very deep understanding of them yourself so that, if they’re faced with a specific situation, you will already have some intuition as to how they will react.
Create strong story openings
A dramatic incident
Prompt 21: Begin an opening sentence with a character having died. For example, Faulkner begins his acclaimed story ‘A Rose for Emily’ thus: ‘When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen in at least ten years.’
Why: Dramatic story openings that leave things unanswered pull the reader in. Why was Miss Emily a monument? Why is she so intriguing to the town and why had nobody seen the inside of her house? How did she die? Faulkner leaves many questions to answer in the course of the story.
A narrator’s regret
Prompt 22: Begin a story with the words ‘If I’d known then what I know now, I never would have…’ Continue the opening for up to 500 words.
Why: Conditionals (if, would, could, etc.) create a question in the reader: ‘Then what?’ Beginning a story with a character talking about having grown or acquired new knowledge in some way makes it clear to the reader that there has been momentous change of some kind, and change is what creates story.
An uncommon birth
Prompt 23: Begin a story ‘I was born…’ Many classic novels that are bildungsromans (stories about coming of age) follow this format (e.g. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie).
Why: Great characters have history and can remember (and are driven to some extent by) important life events. You don’t have to give your character’s life history from the day they were born. But write a list for each character in your novel about important events in their life, even if we only meet them when they are in their thirties.
A strange action
Prompt 24: Begin a story with a surprising or unusual action. For example, ‘I rushed around the house in terror, turning every tap on full’.
Why: The mundane and everyday can happen in the course of your novel. But keep the most mundane parts of your book for any part but the beginning. An unusual or inexplicable action as an opening creates curiosity.
An encompassing idea
Prompt 25: Write a first line that encompasses the whole of a story idea. For example, the first line of The Lord of the Rings written this way could be ‘I had been to Mount Doom and back, and everything in the Shire had changed.’ This great exercise was suggested by Joe Bunting of The Write Practice in his post on writing great first lines.
Why: Being able to condense your story into a single line is a good skill to have. It’s often best to write the first line of your novel once you have finished your first draft, too, and once you have all the details of plot you’ll be especially able to find an opening that encompasses the central ideas your book covers.
A marriage day
Prompt 26: Imagine a character describing her wedding day. Describe how she and her future spouse walk down the aisle and how she feels about the occasion, all in the present tense and first person plural (‘we’). Then rewrite the passage in the future tense (‘We will’).
Why: Different tenses and moods have interesting effects (e.g. the subjunctive mood is used to describe hypothetical situations – ‘if I had been president, I would have…’). Rewriting an important event in the future tense can show a character’s longing or the castles in the sky they are building. Writing the above scenario this way can be very effective if you will later show how the event did not go to plan at all. It will let you create a contrast between expectation and reality and this element of surprise is a satisfying component of storytelling.
Prompt 27: Your character is a high school student who has just sat his exams. Describe the exams he has completed in the recent past tense (e.g. ‘Yesterday, I wrote history and my pen ran out of ink in the middle of the French Revolution’). Now rewrite the piece in the past perfect (past perfect tense shows actions that are complete, e.g. ‘I had walked to the exam venue at 8:00 am.’) End the rewrite with a revelation that came on the last day (for example, the entire class had to re-sit the exam because there was a mix-up with question papers).
Why: Past perfect tense is useful for creating anticipation, because it shows something happened before something else. The reader says to herself ‘I see that all these actions have been completed, so what are they leading to?’ Mastering past perfect will help you create a more complex sense of time and chronology in your novel.
Prompt 28: Describe a character waiting nervously outside a venue for a job interview. Describe what they are worried they will be asked and in what ways they feel prepared. Write in recent past tense, ending with ‘the door opened’. After this, rewrite the same scene in the present progressive tense (beginning ‘I am sitting outside….’ and ending ‘the door opens…’)
Why: It is important to be consistent with tense in a single section of your book or scene, unless transitions between tenses are logical and easy to follow (for example, a character shifting from sharing a memory to describing a present action). Mastering ‘present progressive tense’ (the tense using present participles that shows immediate, current action) will help you create active scenes that unfold in front of the reader.
A five-year plan
Prompt 29: Describe a character making plans for where they will be in life when they reach 30. Make several uses of the future perfect tense that indicates an action that will be complete in the future (e.g. ‘I will have finished studying’).
Why: Characters, like real people, project themselves into the future, imagining when certain tasks or undertakings will be finished and what their achievements will look like. Future perfect tense shows that the narrator’s current situation has a definite end-point, making it clear that your character is in a state of transition. This helps to create a sense of both shorter time and longer time scales in your novel.
An unexpected visitor
Prompt 30: Begin a story about an unexpected visit with the words ‘I had not been expecting anyone, but…’ Use the past perfect progressive tense (‘I had been [working/walking/thinking/waiting/missing]’) at least two more times in the exercise.
Why: The past perfect progressive tense is used to describe a continuous action that was completed in the past. It’s useful for writing about interruptions because there is an implied ‘but’ or ‘when something else happened’. For example ‘I had been reclining by the pool with my eyes closed when I heard an unfamiliar voice.’
Craft more effective sentences and phrases
An imperfect copy
Prompt 31: Open a favourite book to a random page and pick a paragraph. Copy out the paragraph but change every adjective to a synonym. Compare the two versions and note any differences in connotations. For example ‘green’ describes the colour, but ‘verdant’ describes the green of lush vegetation or grasslands specifically.
Why: When you rewrite, finding more descriptive alternatives for words that perhaps aren’t carrying enough weight will make your writing more vivid.
Prompt 32: Write a scene where your main character is running a competitive marathon. Describe her progress and feelings as she nears the finish line. The first time around, use adverbs (e.g. ‘I ran quickly around the bend in the road’), then rewrite using descriptive verbs instead of verb-plus-adverb (e.g. ‘I hurtled/sprinted’, instead of ‘I ran quickly’).
Why: Adverbs tell the reader how an action is performed, while active verbs show that specific quality of action more imaginatively.
A synonymous exchange
Prompt 33: Write a scene between two characters who are out on a date at a restaurant. They mirror each other’s gestures from time to time in a subconscious display of affinity. For the first pass, use the same words for these gestures (e.g. ‘She smiled at me as she returned from the restroom and I smiled back.’) The second time around, take all the double words (e.g. ‘smiled’ and ‘smiled’) and replace one with a synonym so there is less repetition.
Why: Sometimes it is hard not repeating the same word in short succession or you do so intentionally for effect. Yet using the same describing words within a short space of time for different objects or actions can feel amateurish and repetitive to readers. Use this exercise to practice creating variation and to expand your repertoire of useful synonyms.
A precocious child
Prompt 34: Write a scene in which your main character is talking with a precocious child who uses big words a lot (such as ‘precocious’, meaning showing certain abilities or interests at a younger age than the norm). Then go through the scene and find the shortest possible alternative for every longer word. An alternative to ‘precocious’ could be ‘clever’.
Why: Learning to simplify your writing and strip it down to its most basic meanings is important for becoming a good editor. Before you can write great ornate prose, you need to have a good sense of how to write simply and sparingly.
Prompt 35: Write a scene in the passive voice, where a character receives bad news in a letter and describes being given the letter and reading it. For example, ‘The letter was given to me yesterday.’ Then rewrite the whole scene in the active voice, where the character is in the subject position: ‘I received a letter yesterday.’
Why: A lot has been written about using active voice rather than passive voice. Passive voice can be used intentionally to create the impression that a character is fairly passive in their life and pushed and pulled by others. Generally, though, active characters are interesting to read about because we have a sense of their actions being purposeful and driven by some or other immediate goal, and that creates stakes that arouse interest.
Find story ideas
A newsworthy hook
Prompt 36: Go to Google search and click on ‘news’, then type in a single word. It can be the name of a place, a colour, a job description. Then use the first line of the top result to begin a story and continue for 500 words. For example, for ‘purple’ the current result is ‘Jimi Hendrix would have been perfectly comfortable with the purple haze of uncertainty that surrounds many of the Liberal government’s most pressing agenda items.’ Granted, it would be an odd story, but you could write speculative fiction about Jimi Hendrix returning from the dead to be a guitar-playing political commentator.
Why: News articles are a great source of story ideas, from the ordinary to the bizarre.
A chance find
Prompt 37: Open a favourite novel to a random page. Use the first 5-7 words of the first complete sentence to begin writing a story. For example, from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle: ‘I was going to beat him…’
Why: Other writers’ books are filled with great turns of phrase. A single image or action can spark your imagination and start off an interesting story.
Prompt 38: Go to Google search and start typing in a phrase beginning ‘What if’. Look in the auto-complete suggestions that pop up (for ‘what if everyone was’ a suggestion is ‘what if everyone was vegan’). Write a story opening up to 500 words long that explores this idea in greater detail.
Why: Many great stories and novels branch out from a simple premise. For example, C.S. Lewis’ great fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe starts from the question ‘what if there were another world where animals could talk and we could reach it through secret portals?’
A blind stroke of luck
Prompt 39: Open a dictionary to a random page five times, close your eyes and land your finger on a random word. Write each of the five down and try to combine them into a story idea. For example, for ‘alternative’, ‘full’, ‘discovery’, ‘critic’ and ‘original’, you could come up with ‘A critic obsessed with Kafka makes a discovery – a drawer full of alternative original drafts of stories that seem to give a cryptic message.’
Why: Using random techniques can jog your creativity and help you find curious combinations of subject matter you’d never normally dream of writing about.
A song to start it all
Prompt 40: Take a playlist on a music streaming service or your own device and select shuffle. Press play and use the words of the title as either the opening of a story or to create the main idea. For example, the words ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (the title of a song by the band Joy Division) could be words a character thinks in a story about an unhappy love affair.
Why: Songs are great sources of writing inspiration because they are often ambiguous and allow us to fill in the gaps using our own imaginations.
Create eventful plots
A great win
Prompt 41: Write a scene in which a person wins the lottery. Describe their excitement and the lead-up to claiming their ticket, and the moment that they find out that they got the date of the draw wrong and didn’t win anything after all.
Why: The ‘reversal of fortune’ is a common ingredient of tragedy and drama. Practice writing about reversals of fortune to improve at creating the rising and falling action of dramatic moments in your stories’ plots.
Prompt 42: Write a scene in which a prophet comes to a village and shares a premonition that throws the townspeople into turmoil. Describe how a main character decides to set about resolving the situation.
Why: The catalyst for your story, the inciting event that sets it in motion, needs to create tension (whether between characters or within one character) that begs resolution. This exercise will help you practice creating action-centered story beginnings.
Prompt 43: Write a scene in which two old friends have a fight that threatens to dissolve their friendship for good. It could be a fight over a clash of values or a personal betrayal. Towards the end, show that there is a glimmer of hope that they will reconcile.
Why: Conflict (whether internal or between characters) is the lifeblood of great plots. If everything is easy and straightforward for your characters, the stakes are low and the reader invests less emotionally.
Prompt 44: A woman has been searching for her birth mother for years because there are important questions she needs to ask her. She’s finally found the right address and has made contact, and the woman has invited her over. Start with ‘She rings the bell’ and describe their interaction for about 500 words.
Why: Climactic plot moments are opportunities to create suspense and resolution. Isolating and practicing writing moments of plot revelation will help you handle moments of truth creatively and assuredly.
A new piece of evidence
Prompt 45: A detective has been on the hunt for a notorious killer for years. He’s finally tracked him down to a hideout and the detective manages to cuff and arrest him. But while combing through the killer’s hideout, the detective makes a shocking discovery that opens a whole new chapter. Write an ending for this story that also suggests the beginning of a new plot line.
Why: Writing a book series is challenging, and knowing how to create new arcs even as you resolve major ones helps to keep readers invested in seeing what your protagonist will face next.
Craft satisfying story endings
A late pardon
Prompt 46: A man imprisoned wrongly for a crime is released after 20 years. He’s lost touch with his family. Describe his surprise homecoming in 500 words or less.
Why: Dramatic stories that carry a lot of emotional weight need to be resolved satisfyingly. If your protagonist has suffered immensely, the ultimate deliverance should read as comparatively immense. This exercise will help you find dramatic story endings for dramatic beginnings.
A better ending
Prompt 47: Take a novel that had an ending you found unsatisfying. Rewrite the ending and change elements so that you’re happy with the outcome.
Why: Sometimes writers make choices that upset us. We finish thinking ‘there was so much promise, and then they went and did that‘. So practice writing endings that satisfy your expectations of a book so that you are best equipped to satisfy your readers’ own.
An educated guess
Prompt 48: Read the first paragraph of a short story or novel, then close the book and write a final paragraph.
Why: Many story openings give a clear sense of what the general themes and preoccupations of the book are. It’s important that the opening and closing of your book resonate with each other, so practice writing these two parts together as an exercise.
A top-rated finale
Prompt 49: Take a favourite television series or movie. Make up your own ending based on what you can remember of the plot line and characters.
Why: Using TV shows and movies as inspiration is effective because screenwriters are especially well-versed in strong beginnings and openings. Practicing an exercise like this will help you think like a screenwriter in how you craft compelling story endings.
A blank slate
Prompt 50: Create your own prompt for writing a story ending and post it in the comments below
Why: Coming up with prompts is a valuable creative exercise in itself.
Get easy, step-by-step prompts that will help you outline your novel fast.