In The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Graywolf Books, 2007), Charles Baxter writes about the recurring theme in fictional works of disappointment even after satisfying a great achievement, stating examples such as Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where, for example, Lady Macbeth becomes unhappy and more paranoid after having been crowned queen. Baxter asks, “What if wishes and fantasies turn out in some cases to be more powerful than their real-life satisfactions?” Write a story where your character is driven by a single desire, but is unsatisfied and more conflicted after achieving their goal.
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.
“[Dad] pronounced the word ‘nudity’ as though a fruit fly had just flown into his mouth—he spat as he said it. The word mainly made me think of the potatoes whose jackets my mother peeled off every evening before she dropped them into the water,” writes Marieke Lucas Rijneveld in her debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison, which won the 2020 International Booker Prize. The observations of the young narrator couple a unique perspective, one that actively accrues knowledge, with the power of setting the tone for and foreshadowing the novel’s eventual tragedy, threading through it a wire of tension and grief. As a character study, write a chapter through the eyes of a child. What is most urgent to this young mind, and how can the reader sense through the subtext what is to come?
“These, I believe, go hand in hand: destruction and the thrum of collective
singing,” writes Joshua Whitehead in the introduction to Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in September. “Hence, utopias are what we have to build, and build now, in order to find some type of sanctuary in which we and all others can live—there is no plan or planet B for us to turn to.” Taking inspiration from this call to shift from destruction and the dystopian to the utopian, consider current events, situations, or systems in society that lend themselves to dystopic thinking, and then jot down ideas of how you might transform collapse into creation. Write a short story that begins with a seemingly apocalyptic premise that you then transform into a story of finding intimacy and joy in community. What healing is possible in the process of formation?
Virginia Woolf’s modernist 1931 novel The Waves weaves together the voices of six protagonists across various stages of their lives from infancy to maturity. The first chapter begins with a swirl of dialogue that avoids narration and the chapters that follow use individual monologues to explore the internal lives and desires of each character. Create a group of characters that are joined by a particular relationship. Then, without external narration, write individual monologues for each character that distinguish their voices, desires, and conflicts. How do your characters develop both as individuals and as a group? What do they reveal and what do they hide in these interior conversations?
In Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” the short story starts with the protagonist Anders, an ill-tempered and cynical book critic, caught in the middle of a bank heist interacting with fellow customers and the robbers. In the second half of the story, Anders is shot by one of the bank robbers and the story suddenly swerves into a retelling of his memories and private desires, leaving the linear plot of the story and allowing readers in on some of his backstory. Write a short story that is affected by a major event and causes a shift in the direction of the narrative. How can you dig further into a character’s inner life after a momentous event?
In a 2003 Paris Review article recounting the research for her book Solitude & Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told With Help From His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls (Seven Stories Press, 2020), Silvana Paternostro writes about how often the Nobel laureate used facts from his life for classic works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude. The article lists various acquaintances and distant relatives who knew Márquez and offered intimate anecdotes that helped shape an organic portrait. Write a story that acts as a portrait of a single person told through the anecdotes of various characters, distant or familial. What does this narrative mode reveal about the protagonist?
In “Yoshitomo Nara Paints What He Hears” by Nick Marino published in New York Times Magazine, Mika Yoshitake, curator of an upcoming retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says of Nara’s signature paintings blending the cute, innocent, or childish with an ambiguous anger or menace: “People refer to them as portraits of girls or children. But they’re really all, I think, self-portraits.” Write a short story based on a new character, someone who is seemingly very different from yourself but whom you can use as a vehicle for a self-portrait. What are the superficial ways in which this character is disguised, and what are the characteristics or traits that mark the character as undeniably you?
In a recent essay for FSG’s Work in Progress, Andrew Martin breaks down the experience of putting a collection of stories together and how he gleaned inspiration from listening to his favorite albums. Martin writes about how Neil Young is “famous for his idiosyncratic approach to assembling and releasing albums. A song recorded a decade earlier will suddenly find itself sharing space with a collection wildly different in tone and style.” He continues by comparing punk albums that “get in and get out quickly” to more sprawling albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Notorious BIG’s Life After Death. Choose a favorite album and listen to how the songs react to one another and the importance of their order. Then, write a story with the structure, language, or character development inspired by this musical trajectory.
At the start of John Cheever’s short story “Goodbye, My Brother,” three paragraphs are dedicated to introducing the Pommeroy family before the plot begins. Although the section seems to go against the classic writing rule to “show, don’t tell,” it cleverly helps the reader understand the narrator’s personality, as well as learn details about the individual lives of each member of the family. The introduction’s final sentence also sets up the conflict: “We had disliked Lawrence, but we looked forward to his return with a mixture of apprehension and loyalty, with some of the joy and delight of reclaiming a brother.” Write a story in first person that uses an opening section to characterize your narrator and create tension. What subtext can we glean from what’s revealed in these first sentences?
Tim O’Brien’s classic war novel The Things They Carried (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990) begins by listing objects that each soldier carries with them: “Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…” This inventory provides effective context for both their needs as characters and the exposition of the novel. Write a story that begins with a list of objects your protagonist carries. What objects are familiar, and which are surprising? How do these items connect to your character’s needs, desires, and motivations?
“My first visit to Tokyo Station was ten years earlier, the summer I turned twenty. It was a day like today, when you can never wipe off all the sweat.” In the opening scene of Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breast and Eggs, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd and published by Europa Editions in April, the thirty-year-old narrator is caught in a moment of loneliness and thinks back to another summer memory ten years prior. The second part of the novel occurs ten years later: “August. Two-thirty in the afternoon. Everything before our eyes burned white, and the sky was a perfect blue over the buildings, the total blue of a computer screen.” Write a short story that is split into two or three parts by the passing of a decade. How do familiar markers—like seasonal changes, reunions with friends or family, or descriptions of the body—pull to the surface the ways your main character has stayed the same, or changed?
“Storytelling has much to do with the experience of opening an old shoe box or a sandwich bag full of polaroids and building a narrative out of the bits and pieces that have been left behind,” writes Carlos Fonseca at FSG Work in Progress about the process of writing his novel Natural History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. This week open a drawer, closet, or old shoe box and search through miscellaneous objects. Then, write a story inspired by the narrative that builds slowly as you browse through the fragments of a makeshift archive. How does each piece of the puzzle reveal a tiny bit more of the big picture? Is the entire picture ever really completely realized or knowable?
The setting of a story can act as more than just a backdrop, such as in Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” where the train station acts as a physical representation of movement and decision. Louisiana’s landscape and climate plays an active role in Kate Chopin’s short story “The Storm.” More recently, the modern-day Brooklyn setting in Daniel José Older’s paranormal novel Shadowshaper was praised in a 2015 New York Times review for offering up “parallels between personal histories and histories of place.” For this week’s prompt, write a piece of short fiction that makes the setting an active character in the story. Consider the protagonist’s relationship and history with their physical surroundings. How can you make a place come to life and interact with the subjects of your story?
“I regret that my fondness for cows, combined with an overactive imagination, may have carried me beyond what is comprehensible to the average Far Side reader.” In the fall of 1982, cartoonist Gary Larson published his “Cow Tools” cartoon, which confused so many readers that he was compelled to issue a public statement, revealing that even his own mother was puzzled by the meaning of the cartoon. Write a story that centers around an object, maybe even a tool, that becomes integral to your character’s survival. Perhaps you explain what the object does or you keep it a mystery as to why your character needs it so badly. Either way, have fun with your overactive imagination.
“Like other artistic endeavors, garden making can be a response to loss. Creating a garden can be as much a re-creation as a creation; an idea of paradise, something that reconnects us with a landscape we have loved and which compensates us for our separation from nature,” writes Sue Stuart-Smith in The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature (Scribner, 2020). Write a short story in which a garden is created in response to a loss. Is the garden a gift? What is the character or community’s connection to nature? Include details of what is grown in the garden and how it is used.
In a recent report in Current Biology, researchers published findings that the white-throated sparrow’s birdsong, which originally sounded like “Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody,” had evolved over the last fifty years to sound more like “Old Sam Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh.” In the New York Times, Ken Otter, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, says this unexpected shift related to the migration patterns of the sparrow is “kind of like an Australian person coming to New York, and all the New Yorkers start suddenly deciding to adopt an Australian accent.” Write a story about a character who has moved to a new city, and whose behavior has an outsize influence on the town’s citizens. Does the change happen gradually, going largely unnoticed for a long period of time, or does your character set off a rapid-fire chain reaction of transformations?
“We realized there was a whole hidden collection within the collection,” says Kristin Jensen, the manager of a project that archives the marginalia and materials found in circulating library collections around the world, in “Secrets Hidden in the Stacks” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Readers from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it turned out, used books as souvenirs, journals, greeting cards, funeral programs, and invitations, among myriad other purposes.” Write a short story in which a character uses the blank pages or margins of a book to write a diary entry or letter, or to press flowers. What’s the significance of the particular book chosen? Is there someone on the receiving end, or are the traces discovered years later by accident?
The New York Times’s recent “More Than a Meal” series featured essays by renowned writers about memorable meals experienced in restaurants at a time when reminiscing about dining out has been the restaurant goer’s solace. The meals described range from Ruth Reichl writing about a fancy restaurant in Paris, to Samantha Irby writing about the Cheesecake Factory, to Alexander Chee writing about waiting tables at a Theater District restaurant in Manhattan. Write a scene that takes place in a restaurant. Is this the first time your character has dined out in a long time, or does she frequent this establishment every week? What is revealed about her personality or state of mind through her interactions with others in the restaurant?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful? What is your most terrible memory? What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about? In a 1997 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologist Arthur Aron along with scholars Edward Melinat, Elaine N. Aron, Robert Darrin Vallone, and Renee J. Bator developed thirty-six questions that supposedly lead to accelerated intimacy between two strangers. Write a story in which two strangers stuck together for a set amount of time decide to ask each other some of these questions. Is it by accident? Does one of them have designs on the other? Do the questions succeed in breaking down emotional barriers or lead to unexpected consequences?Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this prompt, we neglected to include information about Elaine Aron’s professional qualifications as well as the other scholars involved in the study; the prompt has been updated to include this information.
What power will your words hold in one hundred years? In the New Yorker profile “Maxine Hong Kingston’s Genre-Defying Life and Work,” Hua Hsu writes about Kingston’s idea to publish a posthumous novel, which came to her after learning that Mark Twain’s autobiography wasn’t released in uncensored form until a hundred years after his death. “If Kingston knew that she wouldn’t have to answer for her work, perhaps she would be able to write more freely,” writes Hsu. Write a short story with the thought that it will not be published or read for one hundred years after your death. What freedom does this grant you in terms of subject matter, voice, style, politics, characterization, or structure?
“One week before my wedding day, upon returning to my hotel room with a tube of borrowed toothpaste, I find a small bird waiting inside the area called the antechamber and know within moments it is my grandmother.” In Marie-Helene Bertino’s second novel, Parakeet (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), the narrator’s dead grandmother returns to life as a parakeet and bestows the bride-to-be with the task of finding her estranged brother. Write a story in which your protagonist is confronted with a lost loved one who has come back to life in another form. What is the significance of the form you choose to house the spirit? Is there an important purpose or mission handed down?
“In the hollow of her throat, a tendon was jumping. I felt it in my own neck. The rigid angle of her arm: my arm, too, was oddly bent. Always between us there had been this symmetry,” writes Kyle McCarthy in her debut novel, Everyone Knows How Much I Love You (Ballantine Books, 2020). This scene, in which the protagonist reunites with a childhood friend and experiences a rush of intense feelings, serves as a portent of the story that follows: a dark exploration of the secret and inexplicable longings present in ourselves and our relationships with others. Write a short story that begins with a main character coming face-to-face with an old friend. Do sentiments that went unarticulated as children surface in unexpected ways years later?
A recent headline on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s discussion site announced “Migration Alert: northeastern North America flood gates open, 14–18 May 2020,” reporting high-intensity concentrations of migratory birds, which “coincides with a significant warming trend and also the potential for precipitation.” Write a short story that launches with the opening of floodgates—something that has been restrained or kept in containment which now bursts free. What confluence of forces had to combine to create the circumstances that would allow this to happen? Focus on the impact this release has on characters’ emotions, and how they deal with the fallout.
“Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim,” writes Olga Tokarczuk in her novel Flights (Riverhead Books, 2018), translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. This sentence is repeated throughout the book, which unfolds as a series of scenes, vignettes, and stories told and relayed by a traveling narrator, stories both expansive and intimate which span and hop back and forth between different eras, continents, and a vast array of histories and disciplines. This week, conceive of a pilgrimage for a main character who is in search of an answer to a big life question. How might your character find guidance on this journey by turning toward other pilgrims from the past?
“You know who I imagine? The narrator. I imagine the narrator as an actual reader, reading what I’ve written and commenting to me about the voice and point of view,” writes Lorrie Moore in a New Yorker interview by Deborah Treisman, about the reader she imagines when writing. “You have to be true to your narrator. The narrator is the supreme reader. And narrators may quibble with the narration you’ve created for them.” Write a new version of an old story, or perhaps one you never finished, while imagining that the narrator has objections about how they are portrayed. Adjust the voice to be true to your narrator’s new needs.