WRITING EXERCISE: Forbidden words

writing prompt

For today’s exercise, writing is hereby FORBIDDEN.

Gif of Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey looking disapproving and saying "I forbid it."

Wait, what?

Only kidding. But what would you do if fiction was illegal? What would you do if you were no longer allowed to write? <shudder> Getting the cold sweats just thinking about it? Yeah, us too. Thankfully, our literary freedoms haven’t been curtailed (yet) but that brief flash of outrage you just felt can be harnessed as fodder for today’s exercise – plucked straight from the low-hanging branches of our Writing Short Fiction online course and has also been featured on Thresholds Short Story Forum

Ooh! Taboo! 

If plot = a character who wants something they can’t have, what happens if that something is totally out of bounds? Flirting with someone else’s lover. Saying ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre. Opening a locked door. Reading a banned book. Speaking Voldermort’s name. Riding your big sister’s bike. Slipping your boss a roofie and harvesting their organs. Something taboo…

You get the picture. Your task is to come up with a character and a taboo – it might be an object, a word, a feeling, a place, a behaviour – anything at all, so long as it’s forbidden. (We’ll give you a few examples and prompts below if you get stuck.)

Now consider:

  • Why does your character want this forbidden thing so badly?
  • What are they prepared to do to get it?
  • What happens if they fail?
  • What happens if someone finds out?

Remember: the taboo/conflict can be as solid or abstract as you like – internal, external, or completely imaginary. Here are a couple of prompts to get you going:

Image of a red metal gate wrapped in barbed wire with a sign that says KEEP GATE CLOSED & LOCKED. beyond the gate is barren desert land that stretches off into the distance.

Forbidden Books: A list of books banned by governments:

Image of a wall of bookshelves, packed with books, and a door that says KEEP OUT

Women wearing shorts for the first time accused of causing a (probably staged) car accident:

Image of a black and white photo from the 1930s depicting two women wearing white jackets, short shorts and high heels walking down the street. In front of them is a crowd of staring men and a car that appears to have driven into a lamppost.

Dining taboos from around the world

Image of a woman licking her plate.

Was there anywhere you were strictly forbidden from going as a child?

Image of a close up of a weathered set of red wooden doors padlocked shut with a rusty chain. There is a slight gap in between the doors and darkness within.

Find yourself 20-30 minutes to write, uninterrupted. Make a cup of tea. Turn OFF the wifi. Aaaand write.

Think about the whys, whats, whos and hows. Why is your chosen scenario/object off limits? What would happen if it was seen/opened/touched/stolen/used? Who decided it’s a taboo and what authority do they have? How would someone go about breaking the taboo and what would the consequences be?

Noodle around with your idea and see what happens. No pressure. If you begin to see the bare bones of a story emerging, great. If not, no problem. Tuck your notes away and try it again another day. And keep an eye out for forbidden things to give yourself some fresh ideas…

Happy heisting.

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