“What creates the vibe of a room? The other people inside it: the combined resonance of their voices,” write authors Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno in the introduction to their collaborative nonfiction book, Tone (Columbia University Press, 2023). A study on the use of tone in literary works, the authors consider how even if a room is empty, “there is a trace in the air of those who have recently left.” Begin a short story that takes place over the course of several scenes set in different places. Jot down notes for what you imagine happened in each environment before your story’s scene takes place there. How might subtle traces of those who have recently left the locale still linger and affect the tone or atmosphere of your story?
Writing Prompts & Exercises
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers three new and original writing prompts each week to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also curate a list of essential books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend for guidance and inspiration. Whether you’re struggling with writer’s block, looking for a fresh topic, or just starting to write, our archive of writing prompts has what you need. Need a starter pack? Check out our Writing Prompts for Beginners.
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“Poetry…is a form of salvation,” writes Najwan Darwish in his foreword to Chaos, Crossing (World Poetry Books, 2022), translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, the English-language debut of Olivia Elias, a poet of the Palestinian diaspora. “It may not make the pain tolerable, but it keeps the pain from becoming trite, banal,” writes Darwish, pointing to the way artmaking can save, vivify, protect, commemorate, and dignify lives. Adopt this empowering perspective and think back to an experience that brought you pain—perhaps an insecurity or fear, a difficult relationship with a loved one, or a distressing loss—and turn that pain into art by writing a short story that explores the specific, idiosyncratic essence of that memory. How can you use fiction and storytelling to transform your memory, and at the same time, protect its emotional truth?
In Braudie Blais-Billie’s short story “Hello, My Relative,” published in Evergreen Review and featured in the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Native American Heritage Month reading list, the protagonist is a young poet living a lonely post-college life in New York City, far from where she grew up on a Seminole reservation in South Florida. Cleo works as a cat sitter, allowing her access to vacant homes, which she describes as, “visiting the ghost of someone’s inner world.” As Blais-Billie writes: “The home became a ghost because it was no longer alive when the client was not there to exert force upon the objects, suck in the air, laugh or chew or cry.” Write a short story that begins with a scene describing an unoccupied home. What do the items left behind reveal about the person who lives within its walls?
In Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail (New Directions, 2020), translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, the second part of the book is narrated by an unnamed Palestinian woman who gives a first-person account of her life in Ramallah in near-present day as she investigates a violent wartime atrocity that occurred in the region in 1949. The character recounts everyday details of her life living under occupation in the West Bank, revealing that “there aren’t many people alive today who remember little details about what life was like before all this, like the detail about the wilting lettuce in an otherwise closed vegetable market, for example.” Write a story that hinges on a before and after. Instead of being explicit about the inciting incident or pivotal occurrence, focus instead on the smaller, everyday details. How can you rely on the seemingly mundane to create a sense of tension?
For those who observe Daylight Savings Time, one hour is gained in autumn and one hour is lost in spring—though since the cycle repeats, all evens out in the end. But what if an extra hour could be injected into the day, or an hour just fell out of time? This week write a short fiction piece in which time has become elastic, ballooning to allow more to unfold, or vanishing along with missed opportunities. Although the warping of time may seem to lend itself to science fiction, you might try other genre conventions for a challenge—perhaps elements of mystery, historical fiction, horror, romance, or satirical comedy. Is there a logic to adding or subtracting time? Do your characters take advantage in mundane or dramatic ways, or are they hapless in the face of this inexplicable occurrence?
“So never mind the darkness, we still can find a way / 'Cause nothin’ lasts forever, even cold November rain,” sings Axl Rose in the Guns N’ Roses 1992 classic rock ballad “November Rain.” Lasting nearly nine minutes long (and reportedly based on a short story by their road manager, writer and journalist Del Rey), guitarist Slash claimed in his autobiography that an even longer eighteen-minute version was once recorded. This week select an epic song that resonates with your current mood and compose a fictional scene that occurs while the tune plays in the background. Do the lyrics drift in and out as the story unfolds? How might the themes in the song mirror, foreshadow, or provide contrast to what’s happening with your characters in your chosen environment?
Earlier this month the United States Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed twenty-one animal species from the Endangered Species Act after determining they are now extinct. The list includes the Little Mariana fruit bat from Guam; ten bird species, most of which are from Hawaii; the Scioto madtom fish from Ohio; and the Turgid-blossom pearly mussel. Many of the species were placed under protection in the 1970s and 1980s when they were in very low numbers and may have already past the point of no return. Write a short story this week that revolves around something that is the last of its kind, whether a plant, animal, or place. Is protection possible? What happens once something endangered is gone forever?
In Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Horror Story,” published in Granta magazine in 2015, the narrator and her partner move into a new house where a series of inexplicable events occur, leading to a deepening sense of fear and unease within their relationship. The narrator describes a gradual progression of strange happenings—a mysteriously clogged drain, missing spices from the kitchen, unexplained sounds. As the couple attempts to find rational explanations, blaming neighbors and even each other, the occurrences intensify until the narrator sees the ghost of a young woman in her bedroom. Inspired by Machado’s story, write a short story from the perspective of a ghost. What is their motivation and how does their haunting serve as a form of communication or release? Craft a compelling narrative that weaves together the ghost’s history and their evolving manifestations.
“I remember loneliness because it is pervasive,” writes Athena Dixon in “Say You Will Remember Me,” the first essay in The Loneliness Files, published by Tin House in October. “It squeezes tightly in my mind until what makes sense, what’s actually happened, is distorted.” In this memoir in essays, Dixon considers the power of technology to connect and divide us while confronting the loneliness she has experienced in her life. “If I believe this, that sometimes drifting away from the world is not abandonment or isolation, it makes my own disconnect less frightening. It leaves me with hope that even if I am still sequestered in my own bedsit, it is not because I am forgotten,” she writes. Consider Dixon’s relationship to loneliness as well as your own and write a story in which a character spends the entirety of the story alone. Think about how to sustain the story’s tension without the presence of other characters.
“The more surmountable flaws your characters have, the better readers will connect with them,” writes Jordan Rosenfeld in Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View (Writer’s Digest Books, 2016), a craft book exploring character development and point of view. How do readers sympathize with a character who has committed terrible acts? Explore this notion by writing a short story with a character traditionally perceived as the antagonist. Delve into the gray area between hero and villain, evoking sympathy for an otherwise unlikable character. Unravel the complexities of your character’s choices and look for the humanity and relatable flaws that will challenge and connect with readers.
In an interview for the Yale Review, Elisa Gonzalez, author of the debut poetry collection, Grand Tour (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), discusses her relationship with perfectionism as a young poet with senior editor Maggie Millner. “I believed that the book would present itself to me as a kind of perfect object, nothing like all these flawed poems I had lying around,” says Gonzalez. “The gap between the dreamed-of poem and the real poem is painful. It is also, sometimes anyway, a gorgeous private thing, which no one else can ever touch.” Inspired by this reflection of the writing process, write a story in which a burgeoning artist reckons with the kind of art they make. Does this spiritual conflict affect the way they see themselves? How far will they go to be the artist they dream of becoming?
“Cause that’s all the life of a painter is, the seen and gone disappearing into the air, rain, seasons, years, the ravenous beaks of the ravens. All we are is eyes looking for the unbroken or the edges where the broken bits might fit each other,” writes Ali Smith in her award-winning novel How to Be Both (Pantheon, 2014), in which one half of the book is narrated by the ghost of an Italian renaissance painter. The artist looks at the modern world through fifteenth-century eyes, offering artful descriptions as readers come to understand how the narrator of the other half of the book, a young woman living in present-day England, is connected. What benefit could inhabiting a voice from the past offer to invigorate your use of language? Try writing a short story in the voice of a ghostly visitor from another century. What is new through their eyes?
This week marks the birthday of famed mystery novelist Agatha Christie, who was born on September 15, 1890. Many of her murder mysteries revolve around their settings, which have made them popular for film adaptations. In Murder on the Orient Express, a murderer is among the passengers of a luxury train trapped in heavy snow; in And Then There Were None, ten strangers on an isolated island die one by one; and in The Body in the Library, a young woman’s body is found dead in a wealthy couple’s house. If you were to craft a murder mystery of your own, where would you set it up? In celebration of Christie’s birthday, write a story centered around a murder. Begin by outlining a cast of suspicious characters, and make sure to leave readers guessing until the end.
As technology continues to play a larger role in society, writers are reflecting on the anxieties and unexpected hopes born out of these changes in their work. Cleo Qian, who is featured in “Literary MagNet” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, explores the fear and loneliness experienced in a technology dependent world in her debut story collection, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go (Tin House, 2023). Her stories center around the inner lives of young Asian and Asian American women using technology to cope: one character escapes into dating simulations after her best friend abandons her while another character looks to a supernatural karaoke machine for redemption. Write a short story in which a technological invention plays a major role. How does this reliance connect to your characters’ vulnerabilities?
In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law declaring the first Monday of September as a workers holiday after labor unions pushed for recognition of both the contributions and mistreatment of American workers. Some of the laws that protect workers today—the forty-hour workweek, minimum wage, and health coverage—began with celebrating Labor Day. Workplace struggles can inspire great writing, whether it be about feeling stuck in a dead-end job, as in Raven Leilani’s novel Luster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), or real-life experiences, as in Philip Levine’s collection What Work Is (Knopf, 1991), in which the poems offer a portrait of assembly line workers. Write a short story centered around a protagonist’s relationship with a job. Try to tease out the spiritual and physical repercussions of our society’s relationship with work in your fiction.
“While researching the mechanisms of memory, I uncovered a delightful and, yes, terrifying fact from neuroscience: Each time we recall an event, we change it,” writes Rebekah Bergman in a recent installment of our Craft Capsules series about using the slipperiness of memory to craft fiction. “Every memory I hold onto might just be a story I tell myself. And the more I tell it as a story, the more I forget about the original event.” Is there an event from your past that’s been rewritten by the mechanisms of memory? Try writing a short story inspired by the gaps between your core memories. How can you use the slipperiness of memory to craft the perspective of a character?
In his installment of our Ten Questions series, Jamel Brinkley talks about developing the characters of his short story collection Witness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023) who are faced with the ethics of being an observer or bystander in a changing New York City landscape. “The collection gathers characters who, in many cases, fail to perceive or fail to act,” he writes. “One challenge was to find ways around their perceptual limitations and deliver stories that were still vivid, sharp, true, and full of feeling.” This week write a story in which a character witnesses a conflict or accident. What does their ability, or inability, to act in the moment say about them?
From lago in Shakespeare’s Othello to Darth Vader in the Star Wars franchise, some of literature and cinema’s most dynamic characters are villains. According to a 2020 research paper published in the journal Psychological Science, people may find fictional villains surprisingly likable because they identify with them. Fiction can act as a cognitive safety net, say researchers, allowing readers and viewers to compare themselves to a villainous character and engage with dark aspects of their personalities without questioning their morals. Who are some of your favorite villains? This week consider your dark side and write a story centered around a sympathetic antihero. Try to create a compelling backstory that connects and attracts readers to your character.
Although Garth Greenwell’s books What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) and Cleanness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020) are two separate works of fiction with distinct stories and forms, they share the same protagonist and setting. The former is a novel that focuses on a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who has a relationship with a young sex worker, while the latter is a collection of linked stories featuring the same character that expands upon his life abroad. The reading experience of each is uniquely individual and immersive, making the follow-up book not a sequel but an expansion. Is there a character from a story you’ve written in the past that you want to revisit? This week, start a new story in which you return to a character of yours and expand their life.
Films and TV shows are known for their memorable theme songs, but music can be a powerful tool for characters on the page as well. “When it comes to a specific character, I often look for a theme song that fits either their personality or some aspect of their nature,” writes Amiee Gibbs, author of the novel, The Carnivale of Curiosities (Grand Central Publishing, 2023), in her installment of our Writers Recommend series. “The Cure’s ‘Burn’ and ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ perfectly complimented two of my leads, and it felt right having the same musical artist represent and define them in my mind.” This week, pick a theme song for a character and build a story around the lyrics and music. How can a song supply mood and conflict for a character?
Record-breaking global temperatures have already been recorded this year in the first weeks of summer. In a recent CNN report, Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, estimated that these temperatures are the warmest “probably going back at least 100,000 years.” How do you think extreme heat could affect the way we go about our daily lives and treat one another? Write a story in which a group of characters is forced to deal with a difficult decision on the hottest day of the year. Do they become more exasperated and desperate because of the heat?
Storytelling is an art form, but there appears to be some science involved as well. In an episode for NPR’s Morning Edition news radio program, social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reports on what Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert found when researching whether people preferred hearing stories about shared experiences or novel experiences. What Gilbert and his colleagues discovered was that people much preferred stories about familiar experiences, so much so that at your next dinner party, he recommends spending “less time talking about experiences that only you've had and more time talking about experiences that your listeners have also had.” Inspired by this behavioral research, write a story set during a dinner party in which conflicts arise from the stories shared by guests. Will an easily bothered guest become embittered by the swell of unamusing stories?
Summer vacations and travel often provide adventure, conflict, and reflection whether in real life or in a fictional story. In Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive (Knopf, 2019), a family sets off on a road trip from New York to Arizona in the heat of the summer and tensions rise as they collide with news of an immigration crisis on the southwestern border of the country. In Alejandro Varela’s short story “The Caretakers,” the protagonist rides the subway in New York City on a balmy day after visiting his aunt in the hospital and reflects on family, friendships, and race. Write a short story with a pivotal scene set in a moving vehicle on a hot day. How will your story use travel as a theme?
In Nicole Krauss’s short story “Seeing Ershadi,” published in the New Yorker in 2018, a ballet dancer becomes obsessed with the actor Homayoun Ershadi, who plays Mr. Badii in the iconic Iranian film Taste of Cherry directed by Abbas Kiarostami. The story takes a turn when the protagonist travels to Japan with her dance company and sees Ershadi in a crowd, then follows him believing she must save the actor from the suicide he commits in the film. With a vividly convincing narrative voice, Krauss’s story embodies the impact great art can have, how a performance can haunt a viewer into seeing their life in a new light. This week, try writing a story that captures the relationship between a viewer and a work of art. What haunts your protagonist into reassessing something in their life?
Sandy and Danny’s summer nights in Grease, Tony and Maria on a fire escape in West Side Story, Joe and Princess Anne’s single day together in Roman Holiday—the summer romance is a common trope in film and literature for good reason. In an article for the online therapy company Talkspace, therapist Cynthia V. Catchings notes that summer is a time “to escape from routine and open up to new people and experiences.” A welcome uptick in the production of serotonin due to the increase in sunlight, the relaxed school and work schedules, and the ubiquity of breezy summer clothing all account for feeling good and at ease. Inspired by fun summer flings, write a short story in which two characters experience a whirlwind affair. Play with the conventions of this trope and try upending the expectations associated with a romantic story.