Writing Prompts for the Rest of Us

If you’re like me, most writing prompts just don’t do much for you. Maybe they’re too specific, or maybe they come off as trite or cliché. Or, maybe you’re like me and you write more from emotion and exploration than from fixed, predetermined ideas.

In any case, if any of that sounds familiar, consider giving this a try:

  1. Pick a random photo
  2. Pick a random song
  3. Look at the photo while listening to the song. Ask yourself what’s happening, and start writing.

That’s it! The general idea is simple, but it works best if you keep a few things in mind.

Choosing a Photo

Be sure to pick something evocative, something you find stirring in some way. That can be something exciting, dramatic, or even disturbing. But it can also be something you find mysterious, comforting, or peaceful. The important thing is that the photo grabs your attention in one way or another. Whether through bright city lights or serene seascapes, it should draw you in.

I recommend trying unsplash.com. It has a wealth of gorgeous photos in many styles and themes and topics, and photographers are adding new content all the time. Most of the photos are high resolution, too, so you can fill up even the largest monitor without sacrificing quality or seeing pixels. What’s more, the site is free, and the photos all offer a generous license for reuse (so long as you credit the artists, of course).

You can use the site without having to sign in, but should you choose to create an account, you can curate and share your own collections of photos. This makes it easy to gather photos you can use for your writing prompts. For example, here’s a URL that picks a random photo from one of my collections:


(Note: Unfortunately, this neat “random photo” feature no longer works with new collections, and fixing it isn’t straightforward. I’m hoping to set up a page to help, but in the meantime, you can just go to your collection on Unsplash, close your eyes, and point at a random picture off the screen.)

Choosing the Music

What’s true for the picture you choose is also true for the music: Listen to something that moves you, something with emotional depth and power. Whether the song makes your feel elated or anxious, wistful or just plain sad, it should make you feel something. When in doubt, try film scores or video game soundtracks.

In the same way it’s good to set up a curated collection of photos, I recommend setting up a playlist just for this purpose. That way you can just pull up that list, hit shuffle, and you have your song.

One very important thing to keep in mind about the music is duration: It’s best to use songs that last more than the usual three or four minutes. Think of it this way: How long does it take you to draft a story? Even if you’re able to crank out a finished draft in only twenty minutes, you’re going to end up listening to that three minute song six or seven times.

I prefer to use songs that are five minutes or longer, and even then I might turn off the music for a while once I get the draft underway. Another idea is to use more than one song, but that gets complicated very quickly, since you now have to match song styles, put two songs in a loop, and so on.

Every now and then you might find that the song you picked feels mismatched to your photo. I strongly suggest giving it a try anyway. Sometimes these odd pairings lead to the most unexpected story ideas.

Waiting for the Muse

Once your have your photo and you’re listening to your song, take your time. The first sentence might jump right out at you. Or, it might not. If it’s been a while and the first picture or song you picked just isn’t working, pick something else. You’re the director here.

Finally, if your idea takes a left turn and suddenly has nothing to do with the picture or the music, run with it. The story is the thing.

This method is where most of my new short story ideas come from. Each time I try it, I end up with a complete (or nearly complete) short story draft. If you give it a try, comment below and let me know how it went!

Happy writing!

The photos in the featured image above are modified versions of photos found on unsplash.com and are licensed under the Unsplash License.

“The Well” by Gary Meulemans
“We were caught under the summer rain in a pine forest.” by Jane Palash
“Girl in a black robe holds an obsidian mirror at the level of her face, and a ghost is visible there.” by petr sidorov
“brown arch on sea shore during daytime” by Samuel Jerónimo
“Olivetti Lettera 35, typewriter machine” by Luca Onniboni
“Tunnel of light in Niigata, Japan” by Susann Schuster
“grayscale photo of man standing in front of stairs” by yang miao
“Crowd dancing in the street” by Nadim Merrikh
“Rave Russia” by Alexander Popov


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