I found a product recently that included 50 cards for writers, each of which suggested a new way to work on your writing (the idea is that when you’re feeling stuck or want some guidance, you shuffle the deck, pick out a card, and do what it says). When I bought the product, I’d originally thought that the phrases on the cards were meant to provide inspiration regarding the content and form of your writing, not the methods you use to write. Although the product turned out to be useful, I was still disappointed that it wasn’t what I’d thought it was, and 50 cards didn’t seem like much to work with. So I decided to construct my own deck.
Note: the original product is Naomi Epel’s Observation Deck (read my review). If you’re looking for something to help you with how you go about writing, it’s a fun start. Its only flaws are some fairly silly font weirdness on the 50 cards, and again, the lack of cards meant to inspire content as opposed to method. Another great set of cards that might work better would be Once Upon a Time, the Storytelling Card Game.
Ways to Use this Tool
Below you’ll find a list of phrases meant to inspire your writing work; copy each onto a 3×5 inch index card (or something similar; the important thing is that each card be the same size as all of the others for shuffling purposes. The advantage of index cards is that you can buy them at anylocal store that carries office supplies). If you’re feeling a little stuck in some way, or in need of some random inspiration, pull out one or more cards and see if they suggest anything to you. Some are simply random phrases. Others are images. Still others are specific suggestions for ways to tweak your writing. If any strike you as particularly silly or non-useful (or in other ways annoying), just leave them out of your deck.
At first I recommend that you just draw a single card when you’re in need of inspiration. Try to make some use of it even if there isn’t an immediately obvious application. You don’t need to work the phrase or image into your writing literally or directly; get metaphorical. Or simply use the process of free association to allow your imagination to run away with you.
If you really can’t get anything useful out of a card, then do one of two things. Either put it away and draw a different one, or add a second (or even third) card to the one you drew and try to use them together. One useful way to find interesting plots is to combine unusual and seemingly unrelated plot elements; you might pull several cards and see how you can combine them.
Ways to Improve on this Tool
You might put each major category of card onto a different color of index card. That way if you specifically want an image to work from, you can find one. If you want a technique, you can easily pick one out. If you just want something totally random, you can still shuffle all of the cards together. You might also find it faster to print this page, cut out each phrase, and tape them to the index cards rather than writing each phrase out (at least for the short phrases).
Remember that the greatest thing about doing this yourself with index cards is that you can add cards of your own at any time.* So if you have ideas of your own, then use them! If you want to make sure that you don’t over-use images or ideas, then remove cards as you use them.
If you have a favorite song, paste one line (or one verse) each on a set of index cards. If there are photos that inspire you, photocopy them and tape them to the cards. Cut out newspaper & magazine headlines and tape them onto cards. Copy interesting quotes and slogans onto your index cards. If there are aspects or techniques of writing that you have trouble remembering, then write them up on the cards (“remember to use all five senses in descriptions” or “show don’t tell”). Use these cards in any way that will inspire you!
Note that these cards are aimed primarily at writers of fiction and similar material. Other writers can get some use out of them, however. Just leave out any cards that don’t match up well with the sort of writing you do, and replace them with ones that do.
Since I believe that decks like this are of very limited value unless they’re fairly large, you will find at least thirty cards in each major category (the sub categories are provided only to make the lists a bit shorter and easier to read).
*One Important Warning!
If you copy phrases & lyrics from books, songs, movies and magazine articles, put them in quotes and write the name of the book, album, or whatever you took them from on the same card! You think you’ll remember, but eventually you’ll forget that you copied them word-for-word. While it’s perfectly acceptable to use such phrases and paragraphs as inspiration, you don’t want to end up just using them, writing them up(or some version of them) as though they were your own. That’s plagiarism.
So be sure that you can’t mistake something that you’ve copied for something that’s your own work. Use quotation marks and remember to note your sources.
Category 1: Images
These images are meant to inspire you through the process of free association. You can use them literally or metaphorically, or you might use them as a jumping-off point to find some other useful direction for your work.
- A spacious and well-appointed dungeon
- A car with a web of cracks in a side window
- The splash of water on metal
- Stacked bins of building materials
- A slow swirl of snowflakes
- A cluster of red berries that look like cherries but have no pits
- A large tree whose branches dip down and touch the ground
- A picnic on a dark red blanket beneath a wide-spread tree
- A lightning-flash across a dusky sky
- A field of corn stretches up impossibly high
- Black ice
- An intense cloud-to-cloud lightning show cupped within a small hole in the clouds
People, Creatures & Animals
- The dragon with blue eyes
- A small furless animal
- A young man sits in quiet meditation
- a star tattoed upon someone’s brow
- A man and a woman dance slowly together in a drift of snow
- A loose eyelash lies on a pock-marked cheek
- A cheetah streaks across a dusty plain
- A young deer lies dead at the side of a road
- A sugar maple tree stands clothed in leaves of scarlet red
- A cat sits absolutely still and unblinking
- A line of penguins waddles across ice and snow
- Mirrored sunglasses that reflect a clear blue sky
- An obelisk made of bands of silver and red stone
- A small book with a plain, unmarked bright red cover
- Mandarin orange slices dripping with juices
- A spider’s egg sack
- A collage of paragraphs torn from newspaper articles
- A single black stone hanging from an elegant gold necklace
Category 2: Phrases
Use these phrases much like the images. Use them wholesale. Use them metaphorically. Free-associate off of them to find something totally different.
- A hallucinatory adventure
- Emergency medicine
- Planetary defense system
- On the planet’s surface
- It was just that simple
- The trash collector came around
- Feel the difference
- The electric sky
- The dragons rise over the city
- There was no hurry
- Big news in a small town
- Backing up your work
- Just thought I’d pass this along
- Tell me everything
- And, lo! Here I am!
- What am I doing here?
- Leave me alone!
- You’re supposed to be dead
- You’ve been here before
- It was just a dream
- Please observe
- Business reply mail
- Return to sender
- Update your records regularly
- Keep this portion for your records
- Please detach this stub
- Please return this form
- We look forward to serving you again
- Please check this information carefully
- All new technology
Category 3: Concepts
Here are some random situational concepts that you might apply to whatever scene, story, plot, etc. you’re working on right now.
- A moment of revelation
- A moment of despair
- Rebellion and revolution
- Keeper, guardian
- Official or unofficial?
- Rite and ritual
- Sight and insight
- Intent and motive
- Culture shock
Position & Movement
- A crossroads
- A dead-end
- Bursting out into the light
- A dense jungle
- It’s a long way home
- Things are out of place
- Buried beneath the waves
- It’s all about the journey
- Hide a dangerous secret
- Hide something in plain sight
- Read a diary
- Open a cabinet
- Treasure map
- Pangs of conscience
- Carry a grudge
Category 4: Techniques
Comments in italics after the suggestions give further suggestions for how to apply the suggestions. Only copy these further comments onto your index cards if you think it might be useful for you. Keep in mind that these are intended as techniques for finding inspiration, not as “instructions” for how to work on your project. Try a technique and see if it gives you new ideas, rather than trying it and then force-fitting the results into your actual piece of writing.
- Remember your sense of smell. What does the air smell like in the scene you’re working on now? What scents linger in the protagonist’s home? What does the breeze smell like?
- Remember your sense of taste. Even the air has a taste to it. Some emotions have flavors associated with them.
- Remember the way things feel. Texture, sensations. Hairs standing on end.
- Have you provided an up-front physical description for each character? If not, go back and do it now. You generally need to describe your characters before the reader will have formed her own, disparate images. Sometimes such a description is a full physical description; often it’s just a characteristic detail or two.
- Pick a page at random and look at your details. Are they solid, physical details, or are you stuck in the abstract? Without solid physical details, your readers won’t be able to see what you’re describing.
- Go back and read your first paragraph separately from the rest of what you have written. Is it interesting? Does it immediately grab the reader and draw her in? Does it intrigue her? Does it make her want to read more?
- Read all of your dialogue aloud, preferably with the help of other people reading the other characters’ parts. Does it sound natural, or does it sound forced, silly, or ridiculous?
Location & Setting
- Write a single scene of your story set in a different time period.
- Write a single scene of your story set in a different location. This could be a different city, a different world, or whatever.
- Write a single scene of your story as a different genre. If it’s a science fiction story, write it as horror. If it’s a fantasy story, write it as a mystery. And so on.
- Write a single scene of your story as though it took place in another author’s universe. Pay attention to the little details; use the other author’s characters and make them speak as they would if the other author were doing the writing. Force yourself to adhere to that world’s continuity. This is a great exercise in contract writing. Just remember that this is an exercise — you can’t write about another author’s characters and then sell the result.
- Write a list of the physical locations in your story. What does each one contribute to the story? What makes each one useful and important? Can any of them be improved upon?
- Before you write about any given physical location, write down two abstract concepts that characterize that location. For each concept, write down three concrete details about the location that back up that concept.
Plot & Structure
- Invert your ending. Have your hero lose. Have your villain win. Turn your tragedy into a happy ending, or your happy ending into a tragedy.
- Begin at the end of your story. End at the beginning.
- Write up your plot outline as though it were a conversation between two of your characters. This is a good way to ferret out bits of plot that seem okay on paper, but are revealed as silly or ridiculous when you stop to talk about them.
- If you’ve been writing without an outline so far, then reverse-engineer an outline of what you’ve written so far. Does it make sense?
- Try chopping off your first section of material (page, chapter, whatever). Does it make any real difference to your story? Many writers find that their story “starts” several pages (or even chapters!) into their writing. The first pages end up being a warm-up, a way of getting into the writing.
Note that when I use the words “hero” and “villain” in here, I’m not trying to say that you need a black-and-white hero and villain in your story; it’s just a shorthand. Everything is a matter of degrees.
- Write out a dream that your protagonist might have had last night.
- Write a flash-back from the villain’s point of view to something that happened one year earlier. This can be a great way to ferret out “cardboard villains.” If you can’t think of what on earth your villain would have been doing a year ago, it’s time to put more thought into him.
- Look at your current scene from a different character’s perspective. Does this tell you anything new about your story? How can you make use of that?
- List out the things, concrete or abstract, that each of your characters needs. If this list is short, you’re probably missing some of your necessary tension and conflict.
- List your characters, and write next to each what purposes he or she serves in the story.
- Pick an underdeveloped character and write a page or two of notes on that person. Try answering a handful of questions from our character questionnaire.
- List your characters, and write next to each what makes him or her unique or interesting. Why should the reader care about them?
- Write a one-sentence description of each of your characters. Note which ones sound like popular stereotypes and cliches. Find ways to change or subvert that.
- Make your hero into your villain and your villain into your hero. Keep basic life history, quirks, and as much personality as possible the same.
- Figure out what point of view it would take to make your hero look like the villain, and vice versa.
Roleplaying Game (RPG)-Specific Cards
These cards are provided for people who are writing their own roleplaying material.
- Have you thought about how each of your player characters (PCs) will be pulled into your plot? Even if the answer is as simple as, “character A will be pulled in because character B will be intrigued by the plot,” you need to think about each PC.
- Pick out the points in the plot at which PCs could make different choices than the one you expect or hope for, and explore some of those options. Just in case.
- Does your plot take into account the particular needs of party play, or does it try to force the party into the traditional literary configuration of a singular protagonist plus helpers?
- Make a list of the player characters in your game. Next to each, list the reasons why each character should feel personally involved in the game world. If any of the PCs have nothing next to them, find something to pull them in. If
characters are personally involved, then players feel personally involved
too. This list will change over time, so remember to revisit it now and
Note that many writers’ exercises could be adapted for inspiration card material. You might want to check out our articles on writing for writing exercises and more ideas.