Dieting is the most common New Year’s resolution, and the most difficult to stick to. Sure, we essentially know what’s healthy and what to avoid overindulging in, but when a doctor or nurse tells you to change your eating habits it weighs much heavier on your conscience. Does one of your characters have a diet that is putting his health in jeopardy? Try writing a scene in which that character is told by a healthcare professional to overhaul his eating habits. How does this character react? If this character can no longer have some of his favorite foods, how does this affect his mood and his day-to-day routine?
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.
Reality television might not be that in touch with “reality," but it is still a source of entertainment for many people. Whether or not you enjoy The Real Housewives of New York (or Beverly Hills, Atlanta, etc.) or any other shows of that nature, there might be something to learn about characterization through watching these people battle it out on screen. This week, create a character that you think would be perfect for one of those types of shows. Then put your character in a scenario in which he or she must go through a dramatic, emotional struggle publicly, in front of millions of viewers, with another person or group of individuals. The key is to really amp up the drama and imbue the scene with as much nail-biting tension as you can muster.
This week, have your character either lose or find an object, pet, or set of directions. Explore how this event opens up unexpected possibilities for your story. Will two characters meet for the first time because of this mishap? Will your protagonist be late arriving somewhere as a result?
Parades are usually exciting occasions for children and a source of aggravation for commuters. This week, write a story or scene centered around a parade. Try to show contrasting reactions to the event. Draw from your own memories of parades at different times in your life.
Motels are frequently depicted in novels, TV, and film. This week, write a scene that takes place in a motel. Perhaps it's a seedy, roadside fleabag; a clean, well-maintained establishment with a dark history; or simply a familiar setting for a dramatic turning point in your narrative. You can weave it into a short story or use it as a starting point for a new piece. It can be inspired by your own experience or entirely imagined.
Seemingly random occurrences can often drive plot forward. Of course, the author curates these random acts—the accidental encounter, the winning lottery ticket. This week, try introducing an element of chance into a story whose plot you've struggled with. It can be as small as a coin toss, or an unexpected event that changes your protagonist’s plans. Be open to wherever it takes you.
"Spring is the time of year when it is summer in the sun and winter in the shade,” wrote Charles Dickens. As we prepare for a long-awaited spring, it’s interesting to reflect on the role that spring plays in literature. This week, try to write a scene that incorporates a spring tradition. It can be something as ancient as a maypole festival, as commonplace as “spring cleaning,” or it can be a new tradition, made up for the purpose of your story. If you need some inspiration, research how different cultures welcome the spring months.
The prospect of shopping excites some, while others find the experience tedious or even stressful. This week, write a scene in which your character is faced with a big purchase, perhaps one that requires some prior research. Is your character impulsive or thorough? Does he or she approach the experience with excitement or unease? What does your character ultimately end up purchasing?
“My business is to create,” wrote William Blake. This week, write a story whose protagonist is also in a creative enterprise. Your character can be an artist, or he or she can be involved in a field your typical reader may not initially think of as creative. Try to find and describe this creative impulse.
Some of the most revealing scenes in fiction occur when characters gather for an event. The Super Bowl offers an opportunity for friends, whether they are sports fans or not, to do just that. This week, write a scene in which your protagonist is watching the Super Bowl. Is he or she playing host? Begrudgingly attending an ex’s party? Which team does he or she root for? What happens during the commercials? Sporting events provide wonderful opportunities for tension and elation. How will your characters engage with this event?
Think of a deceased historical figure and make a list of his or her qualities and attributes. Then try to conjure a modern version of this person in a five-hundred-word story. For instance, a character based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau might be on a walking tour of a city; a character inspired by Marie Curie could be working in a lab. Make this figure your own by weaving in imagined details and context.
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude,” said Martin Luther King Jr. Imagine a character who needs to forgive someone. Who does he or she need to forgive? What was the nature of the injury? What were its implications? Does forgiveness come easily to your character, or is retaliation a more natural impulse? Does your character try and fail to forgive initially? See how your character’s desire to forgive creates obstacles and ultimately fuels your plot.
Effective listening is imperative to effective writing. Listening carefully while sitting on a crowded subway, drinking coffee in a lonely diner, or asking a stranger for directions can lead to new characters, settings, and story lines. It is also important to listen to your own characters. Make a list of ten questions to ask a character you are developing. Listen to your character’s answers, diction, and inflection, and write down what you hear and see in your imagination. Most people, including fictional characters, will tell you who they are. You just have to ask.
“In literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others.” This quote from French author André Maurois underscores the importance of knowing who you are as a fiction writer. As in love, readers can’t genuinely fall for an author’s work unless the writing is sincere, open, and truthful. Clear your head. Forget about your significant other, your editor, and your audience. Place your protagonist and antagonist in a location familiar to you, and write six hundred words about their interaction. The characters are people unto themselves, but your mind creates the attitude, style, and tone of the world in which they live. In fiction, the writer is nowhere, and everywhere, at all times. This is the authorial being that readers come to love.
The promise of a new year is laden with expectations. Much of the conflict and drama that propels stories forward stems from a character’s passions and expectations. Some of those expectations are achieved, others bring heartbreak and despair. Write a scene in which your protagonist deals with unfulfilled expectations. Describe in detail his or her reaction, whether it is expressed by a simple downward gaze or a violent tirade. Contending with failed expectations reveals much about the inner worlds of our characters.
This is a difficult week for fiction writers. Like athletes, writers must maintain a disciplined daily regimen to ensure their creative muscles are strong, productive, and functioning at peak levels. The holidays, however, can derail even the most committed writers as our lives submit to the drama of meddling family members, long lines at airport security, or a lovingly made apple pie dropped on the front steps. Give yourself the gift of time this holiday. Take twenty minutes to disappear and write. Hide if you must. Report from the eye of the holiday storm. Create characters from the people around you. Develop fictional stories from their real experiences. Stay creative.
"I read newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction." This humorous quote from Aneurin Bevan, the architect of Britain's National Health Service following World War II, is also packed with advice for fiction writers. Newspapers—whether online or print—offer a wealth of story ideas, inspiration for character development, and engrossing portrayals of humanity and inhumanity. Read the local section that highlights everyday people confronting the ordinary trappings of life. Choose a person, event, or experience that captures your attention. Begin your next story there.
Tension is critical in fiction. Tension is the difference between a story about a boy flying a kite and a story about a boy flying a kite in an electrical storm. Tension often is created through conflict—which means your character must want something desperately: an apology from a lover, respect from a father, a cup of water on a crowded lifeboat. Revisit your writing and read it carefully for tension, which keeps readers engaged and propels the story forward. If you stop reading, check for lapses in tension.
“I still maintain that the times get precisely the literature that they deserve, and that if the writing of this period is gloomy the gloom is not so much inherent in the literature as in the times.” This quote from author William Styron, who died in 2006 at age eighty-one, addresses the role of tone in fiction. People are the products of their times; they are influenced by the economic, political, and cultural climate that surrounds them. Write five hundred words that bring to life the mood of the society your characters inhabit. A bloody sunset, a tarnished silver fork, or a character’s stoic posture can make vital intangible forces accessible to your readers.
Details are critical to character development, especially when describing a character’s face. A glass eye, a crooked nose, or thin lips can convey more meaning than exposition or action. Describe the face of your protagonist, and then describe the face of your antagonist. What qualities do they share? How are they different? Write so that a comparison of the characters’ faces provides both symmetry and juxtaposition that symbolizes the nature of their relationship.
Sleep deprivation can make any person act strangely. A barking dog, a leaky faucet, or a loud and unruly neighbor can own the night, turning pleasant people into frazzled malcontents. Write five hundred words about a protagonist who is prevented from sleeping by an outside force, and describe how this character handles the stress and resolves the challenging situation.
Class is often characterized by how an individual treats others when no one is looking. Without interference from societal judgment, family expectations, or peer pressure, people often act very differently—revealing much about their true natures. Some become selfish and ruthless. Others shine with empathy and magnanimity. Place your protagonist in such a situation. Allow your character to take the lead. As a writer, it is your job to follow and relay what happens. Write five hundred words.
Fiction writers know that conflict drives plot. Tension and drama imbue life into our characters and propel their stories forward. Human nature, however, craves tranquility and clarity. Write five hundred words describing your protagonist at peace—truly one with the universe, even if only for several seconds. Perhaps your character is sitting on a park bench and staring at a bruised cloud, or on a crowded subway car listening to the rails below, or walking out of a cemetery with a beer in hand. Peace is unique to everyone.
Halloween evokes the power of tradition, superstition, and society. Our children dress up as heroes, goblins, and villains and scamper along our neighbors’ sidewalks, lawns, and driveways beseeching candy. Write six hundred words about a confrontation between an adult homeowner and a group of children. Allow the colors, tones, noises, smells, and feel of Halloween to inform—if not define—your writing. Be funny. Be scary. Be creative.
“Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction,” storyteller John Cheever once stated in an interview. Place your protagonist in an unexpected situation—trapped in a chimney, confronted by a ghost, or suddenly penniless. Unforeseen conflict reveals hidden character flaws and virtues. Don’t self-edit. Though it may not make the final draft, experimental writing deeply informs both style and character. Writing is the act of failing forward every time you sit down.