In Denis Johnson’s classic short story collection Jesus’ Son (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992), the protagonist is morally compromised: he does bad things, ranging from little lies to large acts of theft and violence. Part of what makes the book compelling is the way Johnson handles the protagonist’s inner life and his reactions to his own misdeeds. This week, try writing a short story from the perspective of a character who does something bad and gets away with it. How is this character affected? Is there rationalization, shame, fear? The plot could be as innocuous as a child stealing a candy bar, or something more sinister.
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.
Rubber ducks were first patented as floating rubber toys in the mid-twentieth century by sculptor Peter Ganine, thereafter becoming an iconic children’s bath toy and inspiring Ernie’s signature song on Sesame Street. Write a short story that revolves around the re-emergence of a long-lost childhood toy. What does this discovery bring to the surface for your character, perhaps something hidden or repressed? In addition to possible feelings of comfort and familiarity, are there other unexpected emotions that are dredged up?
The British television series Black Mirror depicts versions of the future in which technological advances have unexpected (and often dark) consequences. Episodes have tackled topics such as mind uploading, dating apps, and social rating systems. These stories, surreal yet connected to real-life issues, reflect and comment on the world we live in. This week, try writing your own story based on a technological change. If a routine process like texting, online shopping, or posting on social media is disrupted, how would this affect your character’s ability to comfortably function? How does this shift alter your character’s interactions with others, and what reflections on society will you include as commentary?
Authors such as Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Carmen Maria Machado have drawn inspiration for their stories from well-known fairy tale tropes and styles, and other writers have adapted classic fairy tales for their own usage, like Anne Sexton’s Transformations (Houghton Mifflin, 1971) and Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (Riverhead Books, 2014). My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (Penguin Books, 2010), an anthology of fairy tale–inspired writing edited by Kate Bernheimer, includes stories such as Joy Williams’s “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child” and Kevin Brockmeier’s “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin.” Write your own interpretation of a fairy tale, imagining well-known characters in the present or future, and incorporating relevant issues of contemporary society revolving around class, poverty, crime, race, war, or gender. How might you incorporate new technology, politics, or communication habits while maintaining the emotions, relationships, mood, and themes at the core of the tale’s plot?
Earlier this month, a man in southeast Georgia photographed what appeared to be the remains of a mysterious sea creature on the shore of a wildlife refuge beach. The photographs were sent to several media outlets and analyzed by marine scientists who were unable to verify the identity of the animal. Some surmised that it might be a hoax, possibly created to perpetuate the local legend of the Altamaha-ha, a hissing, serpentlike river monster. Write a short story featuring a legendary creature of your own making, perhaps one that is enshrouded in regional folklore. What happens when a character discovers evidence of its existence and tries to prove that it’s real? What do your characters’ attitudes and responses to the sighting reveal about their personalities?
“For me, what makes a novel is the unfolding of a question that haunts me, that I have to explore—and that I hope, in digging deep, will answer that question for myself and for my readers,” writes Caroline Leavitt in “The Novel I Buried Three Times” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, use Leavitt’s concept of the unfolding of a question for a short story. Consider two questions she has explored for her novels: “Must we let go of the things we cannot fix?” and “How do you love without destroying someone else’s love?” Write a short story that in some way attempts to answer one of these questions or an open-ended question of your own. Does the question change or evolve as the story proceeds?
Julius Caesar’s assassination on March 15, 44 BCE, is indelibly linked to the phrase “Beware the ides of March,” the warning given by the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. In Roman times, the Ides of March, and the other mid-month-marking ides, were known as deadlines for settling debts. This week, write a short story in which a soothsayer or fortune-teller foresees a momentous event occurring during the middle of March. Is it a positive premonition or an ominous omen? How does your main character prepare for, or divert from, this prophecy? What does this behavior reveal about the optimism or pessimism of your character?
In an article published in Variety last week, Barbra Streisand revealed that two of her dogs are clones of her late dog Samantha, who died in 2017. Since the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996, researchers have cloned about two dozen other mammal species, and currently there are private companies that reportedly charge fifty thousand dollars to one hundred thousand dollars to clone beloved pets like cats and dogs. Write a short story in which a main character has made the decision to clone a pet. Why is it so important for the character to possess a near identical version of this pet? Do others agree or disagree with the decision and the process in general?
How would it feel to move through a landscape where the most distinguishing features are missing? The artist Cory Arcangel created a unique environment like this with his piece Super Mario Clouds by altering the code of the video game Super Mario Brothers and removing all the graphics except for the iconic scrolling clouds. This week, try setting a short story in a location that has been ominously stripped of its usual characteristics: a forest with no trees, a supermarket with nothing on the shelves, a city with no humans. Will this setting create an eerie tone or inspire an altered way of life?
February 26 is National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. To honor the occasion, try writing your own fairy tale with a contemporary twist. If you need some inspiration, examples abound of stories influenced by the magical logic and archetypes of fairy tales. In Robert Coover’s “The Frog Prince,” for example, a woman marries a frog and kissing him offers her a hallucinogenic experience. The anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Books, 2010), edited by Kate Bernheimer with Carmen Giménez Smith, is filled with diverse approaches to the retelling of classic fairy tales. What elements of modern life or progressive point of view will you incorporate into your tale?
While roses, chocolates, cards, jewelry, and romantic dinners are some of the conventionally popular gifts exchanged on Valentine’s Day, for the past several years, the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City has promoted an enticing alternative: the Name-a-Roach fundraiser. Donors are given the honor of naming one of the Bronx Zoo’s Madagascar hissing cockroaches after a special someone of their choice. This week, write a story in which a character receives an unusual token of affection. Is the gift a hit or a miss? How does the gesture, whether humorous, grotesque, or ill-conceived, affect this relationship?
In 1994, Microsoft asked composer Brian Eno to create the start-up music for their Windows 95 operating system, a six-second piece that became iconic. In an interview for the San Francisco Chronicle, Eno reflected on the process: “It’s like making a tiny little jewel…. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work.” This week, try writing tiny stories: perhaps a single paragraph, or even a single sentence. Experiment by using as few words as possible to tell a memorable tale.
“Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden.” Steve Almond’s essay “The Darkness Within: In Praise of the Unlikable” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine examines off-putting characters throughout literature and the issues that surround readers’ responses to them: gender, reader sensibility, morality, the role of literature, the publishing industry. Write a short story that showcases a main character’s repellent or abrasive behavior. In what way does complicating the character to make the reader uncomfortable and unsympathetic express an understanding of how struggles with failure and darkness are an integral part of the human experience?
Something Something Soup Something is a video game, or “interactive thought experiment,” created by Dr. Stefano Gualeni, a philosopher and video game designer at the University of Malta. In the game, you are presented with an image and a list of ingredients, and are simply asked to decide “Soup” or “Not Soup.” For example: “Rocks with flies and a candy cane served in a hat with a fork.” Taking this question as inspiration, try writing a scene that begins with a bowl of soup. Perhaps the scene focuses on the senses involved in creating and tasting the soup, or an absurd bit of dialogue debating the definition of soup. Let the strangeness of this thought experiment guide your story out of the ordinary.
Many traditional symbols of the winter holiday season bring with them associations of playfulness, innocence, togetherness, and celebration. Jo Nesbø’s crime novel The Snowman, however, turns one such symbol on its head, following a detective as he tracks a serial killer whose victims are always found after winter’s first snowfall, with a snowman nearby. Many other authors have experimented with the ominous side of holiday symbolism, such as Terry Pratchett in his fantasy novel Hogfather (a twist on Father Christmas); Christopher Moore in the satirical The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror; and Nick Hornby in his darkly humorous A Long Way Down, in which four strangers coincidentally decide to jump off the roof of the same high-rise building on New Year’s Eve. Write a short story in which you subvert an expectation that arises with a holiday of your choice, imbuing one of the symbols surrounding the occasion with a new layer of meaning. Why might holiday cheer and sentimentality inspire stories of the opposite?
Of the nearly seventy thousand passenger elevators in New York City, there are likely less than a hundred left that are holdovers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, manually run by full-time elevator operators. This week, write a scene for a short story that takes place in a manually operated elevator. Do the passengers feel a sense of wonder, anxiety, or accustomed indifference in the old-fashioned space with its noisy and rickety movements? What kind of conversation or other interaction might take place between passengers and the operator?
In her new photography series titled “Home,” Gohar Dashti explores the interiors of houses in her native Iran that have been abandoned and reclaimed by nature. The images create an ambiguous effect; an old bedroom overrun with wildflowers is lovely in one sense, but also hints at a darker history. What happened in these houses and why did the people who once lived in them leave? This week, imagine what it would look, sound, and smell like, and how it would feel to have your childhood home overtaken by nature. Try using this eerie space as the setting for a short story.
The Entomological Society Krefeld, a volunteer-run group of amateur insect enthusiasts, recently published their findings showing that the insect population they tested in nature preserves in western Germany had decreased by over 75 percent over the course of thirty years. This decline is thought to accurately reflect the insect species on a much larger and international scale. Write a short story that takes place in a world where there are no insects left. Aside from no longer needing to clean bugs off of car windshields, what are the repercussions given the integral role that insects play in the ecosystem? Does your story include a movement to bring insects back?
“I don’t believe in not believing in guilty pleasures.” This line, written by Elisa Gabbert in her essay “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” in the Paris Review, is one of Slate’s “19 Best Sentences of 2017.” Write a short story inspired by one of your favorite sentences from the year, perhaps read or heard in an essay, speech, social media post, poem, song, or work of fiction. You might decide to use it as the first or last line of the story, or allow your plotline or characterization to be more conceptually informed by your inferences of the sentence’s implications or mood.
In her story “My Wife, in Converse,” Shelly Oria delivers a narrative about a relationship in eighteen short sections, including one section that’s only nine words long. This fragmented approach allows the story to unfold and reveal so much about the characters while using a relatively small number of words. For a writer, an approach like this can be liberating: not every scene needs to be neatly explained or expanded. This week, try writing your own short story in eighteen sections, and listen for the conversation that develops between them.
Though indoor shopping malls hit a peak in the mid- to late-1980s, financial services company Credit Suisse reported earlier this year that about a quarter of the enclosed malls still existing in the United States will be shut down within the next five years. Write a short story that takes place in what was once a popular shopping mall. Is it completely in shambles or just eerily empty? Has the mall been repurposed, as some have been, into entirely new spaces such as micro apartments, hospitals, offices, churches, greenhouses, and sports arenas? How does this affect the characters, their livelihoods and community?
John Berger begins his classic book Ways of Seeing with the sentence: “Seeing comes before words.” He argues that, “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” In a sense, the stories we write depend upon what we choose to focus on; by looking at something, we bring it to life. Yet it’s possible to fall into patterns of attention in which our vision becomes predictable, and potentially meaningful curiosities go unseen. Try freewriting about an object that might typically be overlooked. Maybe it’s a toothbrush, or the zipper on a jacket, or a stain on a sidewalk. What does it look like? Where did it come from? How was it made? How long has it been there? What has it seen? At a certain point, description may give way to imagination, which could lead to the beginning of a new story.
Max Brooks’s fantasy novel Minecraft: The Island (Del Rey, 2017), about a main character who must learn to survive on an island, is designed to reflect the experience of playing the Minecraft video game; in fact the narrative can be re-created in the actual video game. Write a short story that incorporates a video game, real or imagined, perhaps taking inspiration from other game-related novels such as Dennis Cooper’s God Jr. (Black Cat, 2005), in which a father is preoccupied with a scene in his deceased son’s favorite game; Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Crown, 2011), in which the teenage protagonist seeks to discover the secret hidden inside a game by its creator; or Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf, 2016), in which the main character is addicted to video games. Can you draw any parallels between the journey of being a player in a game and the character arc that develops over the course of your story?
Miranda July’s short story “The Metal Bowl” is about a marriage and a secret that one partner brings to it, but the narrative ends up depending on the eponymous metal bowl. July’s story joins a tradition of short stories that hinge on a single (often surprisingly mundane) object, such as Lydia Davis’s “The Sock” and Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Accordion.” Try writing your own short story or scene in which a nondescript object plays a crucial role.
In the New York Times Magazine’s piece “The Dinners That Shaped History,” Jessica B. Harris, Bee Wilson, and Brenda Wineapple each write about an eventful meal that changed the course of history, including Harris’s account of a rowdy dinner party in Paris hosted by Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire in 1908 which reportedly transformed Henri Rousseau from unappreciated joke into legitimate painter. Write a short story that revolves around a meal that has drastically unexpected and far-reaching results. At what point during the meal does it become evident that something extraordinary is brewing, and can any of the guests foresee the momentousness of the occasion? How does the food serve as a reflection of, or foil to, the history-making consequences of the meal?