Writing Prompts From the Universe (Your Subconscious)

After almost three years of no in-person writing circles, the group with which I used to write has tentatively begun meeting in, of all places, the home of Carson McCullers in Nyack, New York.

This is an absolute game changer for me. Most of the writers this time around are poets, and we come, sometimes as many as twenty of us, into the McCullers dining room, and the organizer of the event gives us a prompt. We spend some time writing to this prompt and then sharing what we wrote.

The amazing alchemy for me is that the prompts are always incredibly abstract and yet, somehow, I always find exactly what I need within them when I’m looking for a solution to a story.

For example, I recently became quite blocked in trying to figure out an ending to a short story. I outlined it. I outlined it again. I wrote out possible endings. Nothing resonated with me. It felt as if I were trying to impose a false narrative onto a story that wanted to go somewhere else, yet was hiding the direction from me.

The prompt that week came from the concept of Ekphrastic poetry, where a painting or an image is used as an inspiration for a poem. The ending I thought I needed concerned my POV character. But when I saw this image offered as a prompt, I immediately realized that my ending had to be about a completely different character, and the story fell into place. I would have never gone here on my own, but the combination of me thinking about my ending the wrong way, and seeing this image and then thinking about it, was like a magic lightning bolt.

“Here I Go” by Elizabeth Hlookoff

Prompts, Prompts, Prompts

There are many websites that generate prompts for writers. My problem with almost all of them is that they are too specific. My brain freezes and I can’t find a way to fit the prompt into whatever I’m currently exploring. Most of the time, using these fails me. However, if you are starting with a completely blank slate, some of these might spark an idea.

The Best Kind of Writing Prompts

I always thought that the best kind of prompts are those that come from outside of my own mind and that are extremely minimal. Sometimes a single word given to me by a writing partner is all I need to get going.

Exercises to Stimulate Imagination

I put together a list of prompt types that have done wonders for me. Perhaps they can help you as well if you need a push.

  1. Make a list of ten things you saw today. Spend five minutes pondering your list. Spend thirty minutes free associating and writing about one of those things. If you’re working on a novel or a story, think of how one of those things can illuminate a scene or a character sketch.
  2. Use a random image generator. Spend five minutes pondering an image that resonates with you. Spend thirty minutes free associating on this image.
  3. Take the Ekphrastic Challenge from Rattle magazine. You can literally write a poem, or use the image they post weekly to free associate and write what you need to write.
  4. You might need a partner for this one: ask a friend or family member to collect a set of random objects and place them in front of you. You can even ask a friend to photograph a set of random objects and text them to you. Look at them. Find one that speaks to you. If you can hold it, hold it. Use it to write for the next thirty minutes. If you can’t partner with someone for this, blindly choose objects around you, either in your home or outside.
  5. Take a look at lists of poem or song titles. Write out ten that seem interesting to you. Spend a few minutes pondering them. Then spend thirty minutes writing your own story, character sketch or chapter inspired by this title.

Why These Writing Prompts Work (for me)

They come from outside my mind, they are extremely open ended, and they act as a sort of magic wand to direct the intention I already have, but can’t formulate.

What kind of prompts work for YOU? Let me know!

Emilya Naymark

Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.

When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.


  1. This is a new, for me, look at prompts. I’m always afraid I’ll use up the number of words I have in me with writing exercises. Thanks for the tip on using prompts to mentally stand someplace else and look at a plotting challenge.

    1. That’s an interesting perspective! I never think of using up my words that way. I figure all this is just grist for the story mill. That’s why the more specific prompts don’t work for me. They can’t be shoehorned into the stories I’m already writing.

  2. I’ve only written to prompts in the occasional workshop I’ve taken and never successfully. When I’m at home writing my thoughts flow (usually) but writing on demand, that is, writing to prompts, gives me brain freeze.

    1. I agree with that when it comes to the traditional “write a scene in a coffee shop where one character wants something and the other one won’t give it to them” kind of prompts. That’s why these are so useful. They are like a focus into your subconscious.

  3. I freeze up in workshops when given a prompt.
    Most, if not all, if my stories started with someone making me angry.
    Once when I had nothing a wrote a stream of consciousness scene which started with POV character in line at airport Starbucks and she thinks she sees someone she knows from her past. Fun scene.

  4. I don’t usually sit down to use prompts, but I’m always giving my students prompted and I am usually dumbfounded at the amazing things they can come up with in almost 15 minutes. Oddly. it’s often better than the work they spend a week on. Thanks for these great ones. I’ll use them tomorrow!

    1. Cool! Let me know how it goes! Another neat way of doing it with a group is if each person writes their list of ten things they saw and then they pass their list to the person next to them. Everyone reads the list in front of them aloud, and then the group has all these rich series of objects and images to work with, that really did not come from them, but can inspire them. The very first class I took with Gotham, the teacher asked us to write down ten things from our childhood homes. The exercise that came out of this for me turned into my first published story (and won an award).

  5. These are so thought-provoking, Emilya. I use music quite often as a prompt. It sets the mood of what I’m trying to express and gets me where I need to be.
    I’m envious of your time in McCuller’s home! That would be its own inspiration ~

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