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best writing prompts

Want to Be a Better Writer? Watch More Movies.

SAMSUNGShould writers even bother with movies? Shouldn’t they devote themselves to the written word?

Well, yes.

But the written word falls a little flat without any human element to back it up.


Think about reading an electrical engineering textbook. It’s precise, detailed and descriptive. It fits each piece into the next, in exact order with the most effective explanation. But the human element is missing. No tension or anxiety, no emotion at all.

And this is why electrical engineering textbooks aren’t exactly riveting page-turners.

The best books are bursting with the human element—that sloppy, messy, problematic stuff we call emotion. To see human emotion in action, there is no better place to go than to the movies.

Here are a few valuable things you can take from the cinema and incorporate into your writing:

Facial Expressions
Telling the reader that your characters are angry, or sad, or elated isn’t the most compelling way to present their stories. You can take a lesson from the movies and share what you see playing out across the actors’ faces on screen. For instance, a character in a homicidal rage might roll his eyes around like Jack Nicholson in The Shining—describe those little physical details. Or your character might be cool and confident like Luke Skywalker facing down Jabba the Hutt—describe that slight dangerous smile playing around the corners of Luke’s mouth. Use intuitive character development to gather the images, and then transfer them to paper in your own words.

Pay attention to on-screen arguments and unexpected news. How long does it take for information to sink in and how does the immediate reaction play out? Also pay attention to plot points. How quickly are characters, events, and back story presented within the narrative? For maximum readability, it’s helpful to aim for a story structure that keeps things fresh and exciting for the reader, while maintaining clarity. The best movies make this look easy, study them and learn.

This is the “suspense” factor in an amazing thriller, and the “delicious anticipation” found in a really good romance. Between heroes and villains, and smoking hot lovers, there’s always that magic chemistry that makes readers root for them to be together, or blow each other up. The magic can be found in the way they rub each other the wrong way. Something about that wrong way—to the audience—just feels so right. Carefully watch how the greatest duos interact (Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, for instance) and take notes on what you see.

Setting and Scenery
This one works well as a writing prompt too. Pick a visually striking movie with awesome background scenery (think: Blade Runner or Barry Lyndon) and exercise your creative muscle by describing it on paper. Write about it at length, even if you feel like you’re repeating yourself. Exploring in-depth description of physical place will enhance your command of adjectives, and your ability to transport the reader to a world of your own making.

You can check out the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time to get ideas or make your own list. You can even revisit all the movies that are already your favorites. The key is to watch each movie when you can do so uninterrupted, and maybe even by yourself so that you can pause and/or rewind when you want to reexamine a scene or an actor’s expression. Make some popcorn, get in your comfy chair and remind yourself that this is hard work you’re about to do. After all, it’s essential to your craft to get lost in as many fantasy worlds as you possibly can.

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5 Best Writing Prompts

SAMSUNGTraditional writing prompts usually ask questions or state an opinion to get the writer arguing a point, or imagining some of the many possible answers. But most writers already have ideas, questions, and half-formed characters swirling around in their heads. What we really need are strategies to help us dive deep into our imaginations and pull out the glowing embers hiding in there.

Here’s my list of the 5 best (non-traditional) writing prompts.

Make a playlist of anything you want—so long as it’s a little bit random. Google “songs about rain” or “songs about war” or even just add your favorite songs you’ve been listening to recently. Then set aside one hour some evening when you can be totally alone. Sit or lie down comfortably in a dark room and listen to your playlist. Do nothing but listen and let yourself drift.

How It Works
Being alone and in a dark room will cut down on distraction and enhance the effect of the music on you. Music stirs the emotions, and urges us to think in images instead of words. Powerful stuff for the creative writer. When your listening time is up, sit down with a pad of paper and jot down whatever came into your head as you were enjoying the songs.

Talking about Your Characters
Pick a friend or a member of your writing group and ask them if they would be willing to sit and ask you questions about your characters, and then let you ramble on about them when you get into the flow. You can do this exercise anywhere, as long as it’s one-on-one and uninterrupted.

How It Works
Talking about our characters out loud helps us unearth things about them that we never before suspected. And having an outside party ask questions spurs us to examine parts of them we hadn’t before discovered. Just make sure to keep a notepad with you as you do this exercise and write down the details so you don’t forget them later.

Taking a Shower
Have you ever noticed that you get some of the best ideas while you’re in the shower? What if you set the intention to focus on writing ideas before you even got in and started shampooing? Tape a note to the bathroom mirror to remind yourself to use shower-time as writing-idea-brainstorming-time.

How It Works
When our bodies are engaged in routine, mundane tasks that we’ve done repetitively so many times we could do them in our sleep, our minds tend to slip into the alpha state. Alpha is somewhere between sleeping and alert wakefulness. It’s the state you’re in when you’re daydreaming and it’s an extremely fertile ground for creativity. This is why you get so many good ideas in the shower, and this is why you should always put this time to good use.

People Watching
Go to the mall, or downtown to a busy intersection, and plop yourself down to watch everything that goes on. Spend 15 or 30 minutes, or even an hour if you’re really into it, but devote yourself to nothing but watching. Bring a notebook with you and record anything interesting that pops into your head about the people passing you by.

How It Works
As writers, we don’t need much to get our imaginations going. An old lady in a fur coat, a guy wearing a crazy hat, a kid with a pet turtle—anyone can be inspiration for the next character in our novel. You can take full advantage of this natural tendency to play detective by exposing yourself to large and diverse numbers of people in a short amount of time.

This is another exercise to do alone, while you have some quiet time. You can use a notebook, or big sheets of paper, or post-it notes. And same goes for drawing implements—ink pens, crayons, color markers, anything goes. Whatever you prefer, sit down and start drawing anything that comes into your head. Then draw a story around it.

How It Works
A writer’s first choice of expression is usually words, but we are still creatively tied to our hands no matter how technologically advanced we become. Using your hands to tell a story through pictures gets your creativity engine up and running. The bright colors and whimsical playfulness help a lot too. Access your inner child to remind yourself how fun writing can be again.

Writing takes hard work and discipline, yes, but it also takes curiosity, spontaneity, and joyfulness. The goal of each of these exercises is to have fun. If you finish one of them and feel excited and full of delicious energy, then you did it right. If you weren’t able to fully surrender into it, then do it again.

Now go play!

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