Curiosity wrote the book: Our Approach to Prompts

One challenge that some of us are doubtless familiar with is the problem of inspiration. We all know what it feels like – the itch to write comes, either because you’ve been away from your keyboard or paper for too long, because it’s that time of day when you always write, or just because you feel guilty about all those hours you spent on reddit or Youtube or Tumblr with nothing permanent to show for them (raises hand). You sit down to write, only to realize that, as much as you feel like pouring your insights, visions, verbiage onto the page – you have nothing to write about. You’re all primed to go, but you’re just missing that crucial, external flash of inspiration – you’ve got your key and your kite, but the sky’s still clear.

But you don’t have to passively wait for inspiration to come. Often, writers struggling with inspiration, or just looking for a quick exercise, will use very basic prompts to kick-start the process of inspiration – we’ve even posted some on this blog before. When facing a complex problem – and writing is nothing if not that – it helps to begin from a definite, simple point. For some stories, this is a writing prompt, or a scribbled sentence, or an image. But turning these things, which we can pick up in all sorts of places, into an actual story, can task our perseverance, especially when the font of inspiration is dry. But there is a way to push past the first couple sentences after a prompt, and into a complete story: try explaining it.

Obviously I don’t mean that we need to write lectures about an image from our latest dream – though the professor in me might enjoy that. I mean rather that when we’re faced with nothing but an image, or a line of dialogue, or a single premise, we have one great tool at our disposal – curiosity. We can write, not along any preconceived path, but simply to explore that which is before us. This is, famously, how two of the most famous works of fantasy had their origin – Lewis’s image of a Faun in the woods and Tolkien’s absently-scribbled line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Lewis carried this picture with him for decades before exploring its potential meanings, and Tolkien responded to his self-issued prompt by thinking, as Humphrey Carter records, that “I’d better find out what hobbits were like. But that’s only the beginning.”

That’s a key point. These images and prompts are just tinder for our imaginations. But if we’re going to turn them from the dim, plain things that they, at face value, are, into a story or a world, we have to cultivate a spirit of curiosity. It’s not necessary to have the answers when we begin a new story; but it is necessary to be willing to ask the questions.

More on this later…

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