Our Daily News series reports a recent New Yorker article telling the story of how a bartender in Manchester came across a novel from the 1930s and tracked down the rights for the book in order to get it back in print. Thanks to Jack Chadwick’s discovery, Caliban Shrieks by Jack Hilton will be republished in March by Vintage Classics in the United Kingdom. This week write a short story in which your character comes across an out-of-print book and finds adventure while tracking down the whereabouts of its author. Do plot points from the mysterious book come into play in your tale?
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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While the origins of the phrase “the one that got away” may come from the sport of fishing, and how the biggest and best would-be catch seems to always escape, the phrase can also refer to a past love, one that was lost to the whims of fate. Oftentimes this lost love is a source of regret or nostalgia, as is the case in Katy Perry’s song which takes the phrase as its title and reflects on a relationship from the “summer after high school.” Write a scene in a short story that sees one of your main characters recounting a lost love. Does the character encounter something that reminds them of their long-ago amour or does the reminiscence set off a further chain of consequences?
This year’s Lunar New Year begins on February 10 and celebrates the year of the dragon. Festivities vary in different cultures, however in Chinese traditions, they begin with the first new moon of the year and culminate with the full moon two weeks later. The two-week period allows for time to travel and visit with family, celebrate and gather with friends, set a new tone for the year, anticipate the forthcoming spring season, and make merry with food and drink. Write a story that takes place during a two-week stretch of time, perhaps revolving around a festive event. How does the restrictive length of time create a sense of urgency or tension?
In his essay published in the Evergreen Review, Younis B. Azeem writes from his viewpoint as a young student newly arrived in New York from Pakistan about the culture of smoking cigarettes. “Among the few indisputable facts of the world, right below gravity and above the moon landing, is that cigarettes will kill you,” he writes. “In America that belief translates into a two-part statement, the second one unsaid, where it’s declared that cigarettes will kill you before anything else does. This right here, this inherent first-world privilege is something that all the best efforts of Big Tobacco cannot undo.” Azeem asserts that in other places in the world, there are hazardous living conditions much more likely to be the cause of death than smoking. Write a short story in which a newcomer posits an unexpected, iconoclastic, or unusual opinion. How does this create a disruption to your other characters’ everyday lives?
Epiphany is a religious day of celebration commemorating the visit by the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus with their gifts, observed in January. Originating from the Greek word meaning “manifestation,” in a work of literature, an epiphany generally consists of a different sort of appearance—a moment that seems to suddenly illuminate the truth, one that oftentimes changes the course of a character’s life. Write a scene in a new or ongoing short story in which your main character experiences such a dawning realization. What is the catalyst for this discovery? How does this newfound insight transform their subsequent actions or interactions with another character or a future decision?
Twentieth-century artist Isamu Noguchi worked across many disciplines—costume and stage design, landscape architecture, drawing, ceramics, and furniture—and is renowned for his wide-ranging and experimental sculptures. Noguchi was influenced by many subjects from Greek mythology, Biblical figures, ancient architecture and archaeology, natural phenomena, artists and musicians, and animals and plants. One of his sculptures titled “Gregory” is named after the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who shape-shifts into a giant insect. Browse through Noguchi’s online catalogue raisonné to find a sculpture that catches your eye and write a story inspired by the artwork. Feel free to go beyond a literal interpretation, perhaps using the piece’s title as a launchpad for a surrealist or Kafkaesque tale.
In a recent New York Times article, technology reporter Kashmir Hill wrote about spending the month of December on a break from her smartphone by switching to a flip phone. The decision stemmed from the realization of her phone addiction, mindlessly spending hours of screen time on it and checking it over a hundred times a day. With time away from her smartphone, Hill noted improved sleep, better communication with her friends and husband, more books read, more time spent outdoors, less stress, and more enjoyment in the moment. Write a short story in which your characters are affected by their phone usage. How do their habits and addictions reveal truths about their personalities and interactions with other characters? How might you incorporate technology like text messaging, social media, photography, and smartphone apps creatively in your prose or formatting?
Last month, a long-lost art amusement park called Luna Luna was resurrected in Los Angeles, with rides and attractions created and designed by contemporary artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joseph Beuys, Salvador Dalí, Sonia Delaunay, Keith Haring, David Hockney, and Roy Lichtenstein. The interactive artworks were commissioned in the 1980s for an amusement park in Hamburg, Germany but were put away in storage, lost and forgotten for decades. This week write a story in which something that was created for another era suddenly resurfaces and provides whimsical joy to a new audience. How might you mark the passing of time and all that occurred during the years when the item was forgotten and left to languish? Is there a heightened sense of tension and anticipation, and long-awaited appreciation, for the creations?
In many places around the world, from Coney Island to New Zealand to South Korea, there are groups of people who convene on the first of January to take a “polar bear” swim, plunging into frigidly icy waters to celebrate a new beginning. Participants will often wear fun accessories, such as wintry caps, warm gloves, and boots, or coordinate silly costumes, and some gatherings are annual fundraisers for charity. Write a short scene that involves a group of people gathering to participate in a New Year’s tradition, one that incorporates both acquaintances and strangers. Who among those present is eagerly looking for a fresh start? How do your characters’ personalities vary based on how they participate in this shared experience?
Whether full of work mixers, gatherings with relatives, community-centered potlucks, or festivities with friends, this time of year is often busy with social events of all kinds. This week write a short story that revolves around a seasonal get-together. Perhaps there are pressures present associated with themes that surface around the end of the year, such as the winter blues, religion, childhood traditions, and social expectations. Is a spare and stark tone more fitting for your story, or is a maximalist, ornate narration more suitable? Are your fictional party scenes imbued with an atmosphere of joy and cozy lights, or chilly temperatures and disappointed hopes, or both? Have fun adding a dash of humor or menace into your convivial gathering.
While a character’s backstory can often provide the engine to a plot, how much backstory is too much? In “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” published in the New Yorker in 2022, Parul Sehgal discusses the prevalence of the “trauma plot,” which relies on a character’s past trauma to move the story forward. Citing examples such as Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015), Jason Mott’s novel Hell of a Book (Dutton, 2021), and the television series Ted Lasso, Sehgal argues that the trauma plot “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority.” In contrast, Sehgal cites instances in which omitting backstory provides an effective air of mystery to a character, or what Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt calls “strategic opacity.” Taking inspiration from this critique, write a story in which the backstory of your character is kept from the reader. What happens when you resist explanation for a character’s choices? What tools other than backstory can you use to create a dynamic character?
“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?
“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?