A high school in Maine recently celebrated the forty-year anniversary of a Twinkie that has been on display on campus, still intact, since 1976, when a science teacher unwrapped one of the snack cakes and set it out for a spontaneous lesson on chemistry, food additives, and decomposition. Write a short story in which your main character makes a comparably spontaneous decision or gesture, and then fast-forward forty years later to reveal how that seemingly small action becomes far-reaching, or perhaps even life-changing.
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.
Fireworks were first invented in the seventh century, during the Tang Dynasty in China, and were traditionally set off at special occasions—such as births, deaths, weddings, birthdays, and holidays—to channel good luck and scare away evil spirits with their bright lights and loud sounds. Write a short story that takes place at a celebration with fireworks. Do the pyrotechnics heighten the scene with a sense of wonder and drama? What do your characters hope to exorcise or gain, as they watch the fireworks display?
As important as it can be to develop regular writing routines, it can also be valuable to break out of them and discover new modes of inspiration and productivity. Try to actively disrupt your own process and write a short story that takes your habitual approach and turns it on its head: If you usually draw up precise outlines, jump immediately into the start of your story with some stream-of-consciousness writing. If you usually write at night, alone at an office desk, try writing during the day, outside on a public park bench. Instead of a pen or computer, write with a pencil. Get creative with your process. How does the change in the time of day, surroundings, or physical act of writing affect your ability to develop new ideas about plot or character? A little variety could go a long way.
Researchers recently announced the discovery that the metal blade of a dagger belonging to King Tut was made from a meteorite, imbuing an element of the cosmic into the legacy of an already mysterious historical figure. Write a short scene in which a meteorite lands in the vicinity of your story’s setting. What are the consequences—in terms of affecting the plot or tone—of introducing this unearthly element into your story?
This week, write a scene in which your main character experiences a series of coincidences over the course of a single day. Perhaps he sees the same stranger twice in one day, or finds that he is wearing the exact same outfit as someone he encounters. Is he eager to derive meaning from the occurrences, or does he dismiss them as possessing no significance? What is revealed about his personality by the response to these coincidences? Will he be proven wrong?
As personal information and financial transactions become increasingly digitized, more and more reliance is placed on online accounts and password-protected websites, thus the number of accounts any person maintains is growing each year. At the same time, studies report that most people reuse the same five or so passwords, and the most popular ones remain the same, year after year, such as: password, 123456, football, baseball, and qwerty. Write a short story in which your main character finds a list of important passwords. What does the combination of passwords and accounts reveal about the person who created them? Is there a pattern that leads to the discovery of additional information? If there are consequences for your character's unexpected access to someone else's private data, how do they play out in the context of your story?
If you’re having trouble starting a scene, try taking it out of the story and writing it as a screenplay. Made up of only the most essential pieces of expression, action, and dialogue, a screenplay can act as a kind of blueprint for a scene, helping you to make sense of the complexity and movement while forcing you to cut away whatever isn’t necessary. Once you understand the scene at its core, try plugging it back into the story, adapting it to the style of the prose, and giving it more body, like clay onto an armature. You can also try this on a scene or story you admire, adapting it into a screenplay to get a sense of how the author crafted such a powerfully dramatic moment.
In “The Deepest Place” by Kevin Nance in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Adam Haslett says of his new novel, Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown, 2016), “it’s the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written,” referring to the intensity of the emotional truth laid bare on the page. Choose an emotional event from your past and transmute it into a fictional scene. Create new, imagined consequences that nonetheless reflect the true anguish of the moment. How can turning fact into fiction construct a distance between the life and the work that offers a new take on an intense situation?
Cult books, as with films that are considered cult favorites, often contain elements of the extreme, bizarre, or subversive—their power to inspire and persuade seemingly just on the edge of propriety. This week, choose one of your favorite cult books, or browse through this top-fifty list for ideas. Then, write a story about a character who stumbles upon this cult book for the first time, and after speeding through it from cover to cover, is suddenly empowered toward a new course of action. What is the single most influential element of this book for the character?
“Can we really mold a narrative around something that defies narrative itself?... How can we re-create an experience that eludes the conscious mind?” In “This Is Your Brain on Fear” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, J. T. Bushnell asks these questions as he explores the relationship between narrative storytelling and the often fragmentary, uncertain nature of memory and observation when people experience trauma. Write a scene of high stress, fear, or trauma for a first-person narrator that makes use of “selective description of external details.” Resist the temptation to fill in the blanks or describe the passage of time in a linear way. Explore the way the human brain processes events, and incorporate your findings into your storytelling.
Kevin Barry's novel Beatlebone (Doubleday, 2015) imagines John Lennon taking a mini pilgrimage to an island he's purchased off the west coast of Ireland. Led by his driver, Cornelius, they jump from one strange encounter to another as they try to avoid the paparazzi and make it to the island. Write a story in which the main character is someone famous in popular culture. Research the character, try to inhabit them far beyond the public persona, and send them on a journey that reveals the person beyond the limelight.
If you haven’t heard of it already, a “promposal” is a request for a date to high school prom through a dramatic gesture often involving witty puns and surprise declarations of affection in public, all recorded on camera and shared widely on social media. Write a scene in which a secondary character carries out an elaborate “promposal.” Is it angst-ridden and cringe-worthy, or humorously slapstick? Does the success or failure of the act offer foreshadowing for the atmosphere of the entire story?
Skywriting is often used for advertising or special occasions, such as a birthday or a marriage proposal. A small plane expels smoke as it flies in a specific pattern resulting in words that appear to be formed out of clouds for the world below. Write a short story in which two characters in two different locations glimpse a mysterious message written in the sky. How will the message bring your characters together?
Many people experience seasonal allergies during spring caused by the increased amount of pollen and grass present in the air. Write a short story in which one of your characters is affected by seasonal allergies. Is it a condition that proves to have surprisingly dramatic consequences, or one that simply adds a layer of pathos, humor, or realism to the story or character?
On March 8, 1941, Sherwood Anderson, author of the American classic Winesburg, Ohio, died from peritonitis. An autopsy later revealed that a swallowed toothpick was to blame. Craft a story in which a seemingly benign object, like a toothpick, ends up as the catalyst for some great change or tragedy. The object can be the focus of the story, as you track its movements through space and time, or it can appear in a brief moment, only to rise back up with great consequence. Think about how the tiniest details can give a narrative a new spin.
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice shrinks after drinking a potion labeled “DRINK ME,” and then later balloons in size after eating a cake labeled “EAT ME.” Write a story in which your main character is simultaneously confronted by these same two options and consequences. Which one does he choose? Does the sudden transformation in size help or hinder him as the story progresses? What aspects of his personality are brought to the forefront and magnified as a result?
Twenty years ago, Scot Rossillo started making rainbow bagels at his bagel store in Brooklyn, New York. In the last few months, with media attention, the popularity of the rainbow bagels has skyrocketed, even resulting in the temporary closure of one of his shops for renovations to keep up with the overwhelming demand. Write a story about a character who has been working on her own creative project for years—toiling in relative obscurity—and suddenly becomes an overnight sensation. How does she handle the increase in attention and demand for her work? What kind of new and unforeseen pressures might create conflict for her, and what kind of sacrifices is she willing—or not willing—to make?
Toward the end of last year, French publisher Short Édition unveiled short story vending machines in eight public places around the city of Grenoble in southeastern France. Users can choose either one, three, or five minutes' worth of fiction to read—ideal for waiting or commuting—and one of six hundred community-submitted stories is dispensed for free from the cylindrical orange vending machine on receiptlike paper. Try your hand at writing a short story that can be read in one minute; then write a three-minute story; and finally a five-minute story. How does manipulating diction, tone, and style make sense for different story lengths? Explore the use of dialogue and a limited number of characters necessary to accommodate the restricted length.
The Academy Awards, National Book Awards, James Beard Awards, Grammy Awards, Nobel Prizes, and Super Bowl MVP Awards all recognize and celebrate the achievements of their recipients annually with great fanfare. Write a short story that begins with the main character winning a major award. Describe the award, real or imagined, and whether there is an accompanying prize in addition to the honor and acclaim. Does your character prove to be camera-shy or fame-hungry? Does the award ultimately change her circumstances for better or for worse? Are there surprising consequences?
2016 is a Leap Year, meaning February gets an extra day on Monday, February 29. Push this one step further and invent—instead of an extra day—an extra month. Where would this thirteenth month fall in the calendar? In what season? Would it be named for an event or a person? Write a story that takes place within this month, using the invented details to enhance the story’s plot and tone.
“‘Working in a soup kitchen is great for a writer or any artist. There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise. You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing,’” writes Annie Dillard to John Freeman in “Such Great Heights” by Freeman in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a scene in a short story in which a character with creative inclinations feels like he’s not being a helpful member of society. How does he shake himself out of it? Does his chosen course of action help his productivity as an artist? What does this change reveal about his place in the world of the story?
A black bear wanders into a backyard in Florida and tries out lounging in a hammock. A sloth is found stranded on a highway in Ecuador, clinging to a guardrail for dear life, and is rescued by transportation officials. A rabbit gets catapulted up onto a roof during a windy storm in Northern Ireland and is saved by firefighters. Write a scene in which a character—human or animal—finds himself in a situation where he is a fish out of water. Does he explore the new and foreign environment surrounding him, or is he in need of rescue?
In the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Tom Spanbauer talks about using the “redemptive voice,” which “can have the effect of a third-person omniscient voice...but also the very important added benefit of having a personality, actually being a part of, and speaking from, inside the story.” Write a short story in which your narrator’s voice is both informal and informed. How will you take advantage of a point of view that can travel through time and space?
In The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi catalog the fictional places of world literature. From Italo Calvino’s invisible cities to Umberto Eco’s abbey in The Name of the Rose, Crusoe’s island to the vast worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia, the volume explores how so many worlds of the imagination have come to influence our own. For an exercise, write your own guide for a fictional locale of your creation or one that you’ve recently encountered in reading. Consider what most characterizes this space: Is it the unique architecture of a structure, a brutal climate in harsh terrain, or the unique customs of an isolated people?
"A love story can never be about full possession.... Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart," writes Jeffrey Eugenides in his introduction to the anthology My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, From Chekhov to Munro (Harper, 2008). "Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name." Write a short story that gives love a "bad name," first plotting the blossoming and struggle of a relationship in your story arc, and then its ultimate dissolution. What's the primary obstacle for your characters? Are your lovers hindered by geographic distance, opposing political viewpoints, or financial woes? Does the tale involve online dating and mistaken identity? Or is it finally the characters' own emotional histories that provide the biggest conflict? Perhaps at love's peak your characters will catch a hopeful glimpse of "full possession."