The Met Gala is an annual fundraiser held in May to celebrate the opening of the Costume Institute’s fashion exhibit. The Gala is known for the elaborate attire of its guests, like the 2017 looks from pop icons Rihanna and Zendaya. Write a story that includes a scene in which a character briefly wears an elaborate outfit or costume. How might the clothing change the way they understand themselves? How might it change the way other characters view them?
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.
One of the oldest trees in the United States—a white oak in a church cemetery in New Jersey estimated to be six hundred years old—was cut down last month after it began failing and was ultimately declared dead. According to local stories, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette met and picnicked under the tree during the American Revolution. Write a short story that revolves around a series of imagined encounters that took place under this tree. You might experiment by combining fictional moments with historical events, or write from the point of view of the tree to provide a fresh perspective.
What kind of secret should be taken to the grave? How might a secret act as proof of intimacy? For the debut of Sophie Calle’s most recent art installation, the artist spent two afternoons receiving and transcribing visitors’ secrets, and then depositing them into a monumental obelisk installed in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery. In Calle’s instructive text about the project, she writes of one previously divulged secret, “At the very moment he was depriving me of his love, this man offered me, through his confession, the ultimate proof of our intimacy.” Write a short story in which you imagine the ending to that story. What is the secret that this man confesses to Calle as they are breaking up? Why does he share it with her in their last moments together?
Can you write a story with a hook, chapters with twists and turns, pages that end on cliffhangers? In the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Vatner’s article “Serial Fiction for the Digital Age” reports on Radish, a serial-reading mobile app in which writers release fiction installments chapter by chapter for readers to download. Over the course of several weeks, try your hand at writing a long-form story in one-thousand-word segments made for serial reading. How do you manipulate the tone, imagery, and structure of each segment’s ending so that it both concludes the standalone chapter and entices the reader to continue wondering what comes next?
For many species of animals, spring is not only a time of birth and renewal, but also a time of migration. Write a story in which a character witnesses a strange animal migration. Perhaps your character is also in transition—moving towards or away from someone or something. How does this experience affect the story’s plot? For inspiration, read and watch videos about unusual animal migrations in Smithsonian Magazine.
Do we sleep to dream, or to forget? Earlier this year, scientists on two separate research teams published findings that we may sleep in order to forget, essentially paring back the synaptic connections that are formed over the course of a day’s worth of learning, and storing the important information. Write a short story inspired by these discoveries, perhaps imagining a society that has created a technology that can control this nighttime streamlining, or a character who attempts to manipulate this pruning process for her own advantage.
In classic Greek tragedies, the term hamartia, first described in Aristotle’s Poetics, refers to a fatal flaw in the main character of the drama, which causes a chain of events to unfold: a reversal of fortune from good to bad, and the eventual downfall of the character. One traditional example of such a flaw is hubris, an overblown ego and lack of humility. Write a short story in which your protagonist suffers from an unfortunate degree of hubris. Does overconfident pride blind the character to the consequences of that individual’s actions? Does arrogance lead the protagonist toward one big mistake, or several small errors that lead inevitably to tragic misfortune?
NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest had over six thousand entries this year, and was unanimously won by hip-hop and R&B band Tank and the Bangas. One of the techniques the band incorporates is a kind of lyric dialogue between Tarriona “Tank” Ball and Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph who share singing roles, much like two best friends finishing each other’s sentences. Work on a piece of dialogue between two characters who interrupt each other, or riff off of a stream of consciousness flow in conversation. How might you use this technique to build tension in a story?
Earth’s “most tenacious creatures,” according to National Geographic’s website, are small aquatic invertebrates called tardigrades—also commonly known as water bears. Among their amazing feats are the fact that they can dry out completely and survive without water, they were launched into outer space and survived, and they roamed the earth and seas long before humans and will likely outlast us. Write a short story that incorporates a water bear, perhaps finding sci-fi, fantasy, or horror inspiration in its physical attributes, or writing a narrative that philosophizes about the range of its adaptations.
In “The Emotional Realist Talks to Ghosts” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, George Saunders discusses the different stages of writing his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). The long process included attempting a third-person version of the story, as well as a play. Though neither form was quite right, Saunders says, “It made me more convinced that there was definitely a story there.” Take a short story in progress and rewrite one particular scene in two new forms—from a different narrative point of view, and in a dramatic script format. What are the main ideas that remain consistent and integral to the story throughout all three versions?
“She imagines him imagining her. This is her salvation,” writes Margaret Atwood in her 2000 novel The Blind Assassin. Write a short story in which one segment involves a main character imagining another character imagining him. You may decide to differentiate this segment by setting apart the text in italics, or explicitly stating that it is imagined, or perhaps you may decide to blur the line between real and imagined. In what ways does this line of thought help your character through a conflict or obstacle? What does this insight tell us about how he perceives himself in relation to others?
Last week, a new McDonald’s in Italy opened that features not only fast food, but also a preserved stretch of paved Roman road from the second century BCE—first discovered when construction for the restaurant began in 2014. Write a short story in which a new structure is being built and something surprising is excavated on the construction site. What does the discovery reveal about something previously hidden or mysterious in this geographical location? Is there a reason for the concealment? Will a conflict or debate arise over how to proceed with the unexpected unearthing?
Social justice movements require strong leadership, organization, and resources, often starting with a demonstration leading to more action. Write a short story in which the protagonist wants to organize a demonstration for a cause. What events lead her to this point? Who does she turn to for help? Use the backdrop of this activity to reflect on the growth and development of your character as a leader.
Researchers recently discovered a new addition to the genus of lizard species that can shed their skin and scales when grabbed by a predator, in order to slip away and escape. The Geckolepis megalepis has the largest known gecko scales, and is able to shed them with particular ease, looking like a “raw chicken tender” before its scales are regenerated over the course of a few weeks. Write a short story in which your main character is able to escape from danger by altering her physical appearance in a drastic way. Why is it imperative that she escape? How does her transformation both save her and make her vulnerable? What is her “regeneration” process?
Last month, hundreds of thousands of red Skittles were found on a highway road in Wisconsin, having spilled from a truck transporting the candy for integration into cattle feed. Write a short story that starts with a similarly striking image of something highly unusual found on a road. As the story progresses, continue escalating the mystery and oddity of the situation. Does the story end with a satisfactory resolution, or does it leave the reader with lingering questions?
Craft a piece of flash fiction based on the art of the rant: What exercises you? That is, what gets you in high dudgeon? Who pisses you off? Be specific: not just “I hate that guy,” but a riff on the last three times he cut you off in mid-sentence, the poisonous glow of his smile, and the unfortunate fact that he’s your brother-in-law. Now invert the previous exercise: How would he rant against you? Provide plenty of ripe details along with an incident or two.
This week’s fiction prompt comes from David Galef, author of Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook (Columbia University Press, 2016).
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explores bibliotherapy, “detox” book recommendations to help treat issues like stress, procrastination, and bereavement. The founder of the Book Pharmacy in Berlin suggests that “there are ‘detox classics,’ including epics like The Odyssey, and ‘detox-by-distraction’ bundles of crime, romance, or fantasy.” Write a short story in which a character visits a “book doctor.” What might prompt this sort of treatment? Which books are prescribed, and do they work as a cure? Are there any side effects?
Within some cultures in Africa, Australia, and India, there exist strict rules which regulate the type of language permissible to use with one’s in-laws—for example, married women in Ethiopia who speak the Kambaata language and follow the ballishsha rule are forbidden to use any word that starts with the same syllables as the names of their parents-in-law. Often the solution is to use synonyms, euphemisms, or more generic terms. Write a scene in which two characters must have a conversation while abiding by a law that restricts particular words. Why is this law in place, and how do your characters deal with it? What power dynamics are involved? Are there hidden messages within the dialogue that cause a misunderstanding?
Wraps, bubble tea, pork belly, kale, elaborate hamburgers, macarons. Different years are prone to different food trends, with the popular items appearing everywhere from fine-dining establishments, to fast food joints and snack trucks, to packaged goods and home cooking. Incorporate a trending food item from a certain time period into a short story. How does the insertion contribute a specific sense of time and place into your piece? What does it tell the reader about your characters’ lifestyles?
Last year the Atlantic reported that researchers using computer systems to analyze the emotional trajectories of protagonists in nearly two thousand works of English-language fiction found that there are just six basic storytelling arcs: “1. Rags to Riches (rise), 2. Riches to Rags (fall), 3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise), 4. Icarus (rise then fall), 5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise), 6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall).” Think of a story that you often tell in your own life, perhaps a childhood memory that involves schools friends or a family occasion, or an adventurous incident that happened on a trip or vacation. Does it seem to align with one of these basic plotlines? Write a short fiction piece that maps the major elements of your story onto a different, unexpected arc.
The holidays are a time full of festive cuisine with strange or unknown origins. The New York Times suggested in an 1890 article that the name “eggnog” may have originated with the way the drink is made, in that it is “necessary to ’knock’ the eggs with a spoon in beating up, and that on the thoroughness of this depends the quality of the ‘good cheer.’” Write a short story that includes a scene where the improper preparation of a holiday drink or dish escalates a conflict. How does this action become the catalyst for a confrontation?
“Creative people are drawn to each other, as notorious for falling in love as they are for driving each other insane,” writes Catherine Lacey in her new book, The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence (Bloomsbury USA, 2017). The book, which is featured in “The Written Image” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, presents creative, romantic, and platonic connections between writers and artists such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, and Billie Holiday and Orson Welles. Write a short story inspired by the sort of romantic entanglements and creative collaborations that Lacey presents in the book. How does involvement with the arts influence the scope and trajectory of the relationship between your characters?
Write a short story that takes place inside a bookstore, or incorporate a bookstore scene into a story already in progress. What kind of encounter between characters seems most tonally or atmospherically natural for a bookstore? Or conversely, what type of interaction seems deliciously inappropriate or unexpected? Does the search for a particular title play an integral part in the story? Consider whether the bookstore is modern and expansive or small and cozy, and how that might affect the scene. Browse through these videos and photos of a selection of impressive bookstores around the world for inspiration.
Browse through the winning photographs of this year’s National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest, and select the one that most readily captures your imagination. Write a one-thousand-word piece of flash fiction inspired by this photo, and by the ways in which it both presents the natural world and offers insight, comparison, and reflection of humanity’s place within it. To go a step further, try writing more than one flash fiction story focused on a different perspective of the same photo.
Earlier this month, actress Emma Watson hid books with handwritten messages in the London Underground and New York City subway stations as part of the community project Books on the Underground. Write a short story that begins with a character hiding a book in an unlikely place, like a bus stop or a graveyard or the hollow of a tree. What book would be hidden and why? Is anyone supposed to find it, and if so, what happens after? Is the discovery the beginning of a mystery?