The ping of a spatula. The rattle of dirty plates. A dropped spoon. Place the main character of your story or novel in a diner. Write a paragraph detailing the many sounds this character hears. Then have this same character receive devastating news via an anonymous letter delivered by the waitress. Write another paragraph about the sounds the character now hears. The two paragraphs should be very different. Tragedy changes us instantly in so many ways.
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.
Sit down at your writing desk and look around you. Many of the objects nearby have a utilitarian purpose: Your coffee mug holds coffee, for instance. Other objects, however, possess emotional significance: your grandmother’s portrait over the couch, the painted conch shell you use as a paperweight. Perhaps that same coffee mug says, in faded and defeated letters, “World’s Greatest Parent.” In writing, objects in a character’s personal sphere should reflect something about the character’s emotional DNA. Start the exercise by making a list of meaningful objects within your character’s reach—wherever they may be. Then build their world into the scene. A coffee mug should never just be a coffee mug.
It’s easy for writers to fall in love with their own characters. We created them, after all; they are part of us. But remember that characters are human beings and all human beings have flaws—sometimes terrible ones. Insecurity, loneliness, addiction, violence, and even pure evil are not easy to write about. However, flaws can also be the most compelling characteristics of our characters. Flaws create conflict, tension, and drama as our characters slug their way through challenges and heartache. In many ways, weakness can be a character’s greatest literary strength.
In honor of Independence Day, take another look at the great document that was signed by Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the others on July 4, 1776. Reread that most famous sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Use it—or rewrite it—in a short story that takes place at dusk on July 4, 2076. Happy Tricentennial?
Depending on one's point of view, long sentences are either a writing hazard or a literary virtue. From Joyce to Faulkner to Lowry, authors have long been showing off their prowess at stringing together clauses in seemingly endless narration. Try writing a scene, in which one character says goodbye to another, using sentences as long as you can muster.
The author of four story collections; two novels; and two memoirs, including the one for which he is perhaps best known, This Boy's Life, was born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama. Check out Wolff's Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (Knopf, 2008), read some of his work—don't miss "Hunters in the Snow" and "Bullet in the Brain"—and see where it takes you. Celebrate Tobias Wolff's birthday by starting a new story.
In Herman Melville's classic story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853), the character of the eponymous scrivener repeatedly says, "I would prefer not to," in response to requests at the law firm where he works. Take it a step further: Come up with a signature response of your own and try writing a short story in which it is the only sentence one of your characters ever utters. See where it takes you.
In her book An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery, Janna Malamud Smith writes about a photography exhibit she saw in the late 1970s that consisted of Abe Frajndlich's pictures of photographer Minor White, who died in 1976. "In the photographs, Frajndlich shows White dressed up in different costumes representing other lives he might have lived," she writes. "What, the exhibition asked on White's behalf, would it have been like to have had more than one turn? Who else might I have become? What other work could I have done?" Choose a minor character from one of your stories (one that is giving you trouble, perhaps) and give him or her the Abe Frajndlich treatment: Write a series of paragraphs in which you imagine different lives for that character.
"As a reader, I have a favorite canon of ranters that runs from Dostoevsky to Thomas Bernard to the Philip Roth of Sabbath's Theater," says novelist Claire Messud in a profile by Michael Washburn in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. "I love a ranter." Read some of the work of the authors Messud mentions and write a rant of your own.
Imagine you are your main character (or just write from your own perspective). What do you really, really want? Now, start talking about that object of desire. Don’t keep saying, “I want X, I want X, I want X.” Rather, just talk about the thing you want, in all its desirable specificity. Let yourself get caught up in all that wanting.
This week's writing prompt comes from Eileen Pollack, whose most recent novel, Breaking and Entering, was published in January 2012 by Four Way Books. She wrote about desire and writing for Fiction Writers Review.
In Writers Recommend, Amy Shearn extols the virtues of coffee and its importance in her daily writing routine. Write a dialogue in which two characters are deprived of something: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, sweets—or perhaps something as seemingly banal as cellular service, television, or the Internet. Now give one character his or her fix, leaving the other without, and rewrite the dialogue.
Choose a minor character from a story or book you’ve read recently and have that character write the author a letter, beginning: “Dear Author, nice try, but here’s what you missed about my life....” Now turn your attention to one of your own stories. Think of a character in a work-in-progress whom you'd like to get to know more deeply. Have the character write you a similar letter: “Dear [your name here], nice try, but here’s what you missed about my life....”
This week’s fiction prompt comes from Aaron Hamburger, author of the story collection The View From Stalin’s Head (Random House, 2004) and the novel Faith for Beginners (Random House, 2005). He currently teaches at the Stonecoast low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.
Write a story in which a minor incident occurs—the main character is bitten by a cat, loses her keys, gets a flat tire, accidently breaks something—that symbolizes something larger. Use the incident and how the character deals with it to both move the plot forward and explore a larger significance.
Believable, fully developed characters serve to engage readers and strengthen your stories. Choose a character from one of your stories-in-progress or imagine a character about whom you’d like to write. Compose a character sketch based on a day in the life of this character. Explore every detail of what this person does and why throughout one day. What are his or her morning rituals and routines? How does he or she go about choosing clothes? What does this person eat? What does the inside and outside of his or her car look like? How does he or she walk and what does it say about this person? Where does he or she go and why? Use this sketch to inform the revision or writing of a story.
There are two men sitting in the booth of a diner eating dinner together and talking. A woman sits outside in a parked car, watching them through the window. Who are they? What is their relationship to one another? What are the men discussing? What is the woman thinking? What does she do next? Write a story that opens with this scene and explores these questions.
In Writers Recommend, author Alix Ohlin writes: “When I’m in direst need of inspiration, I do what I call ‘sentence stealing.’ I find a sentence from a writer I admire and write it down. ‘In the beginning I left messages in the street.’ Or, ‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ Then I write my own version of the sentence, focusing only on its rhythms: by which I mean, replacing a noun with a noun, a verb with a verb. What’s left is a ghostly echo of the original sentence with no relationship to its actual content. And I follow that new sentence wherever it takes me, down the road to an unfolding story.” Using Ohlin’s method, write a story of your own.
Think about a person from history—Anne Boleyn, Martin Luther King Jr., Cleopatra, Abraham Lincoln—whose story you find compelling. Write a summary of this person's life, charting the ups and downs that made it remarkable. Using this summary as a plot, write a story that is set in the present and features a main character from your imagination.
Take a draft of one of your stories and cut it up into sections no longer than three to four paragraphs each. Reorder these sections and revise the story accordingly, writing transitions and discovering connections that lead to a new cohesive structure.
From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus to Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, there is a long tradition of fiction about monsters. Write a story of your own in which a monster is the main character. The monster could be based on another monster from literature or popular culture or it could be one from your imagination.
You walk into a dimly lit room at a party where you’ve arrived with a friend. The walls of the room are lined with reptile cages. Across the room you see someone you recognize, and when you turn to your friend he or she is gone. What happens next?
Write a contemporary adaptation of a fairy tale using first-person narration from the point of view of the villain.
Dialogue, when it’s working well, moves the story forward and more fully develops your characters. Keeping this in mind, write a scene for a story that is only dialogue between two characters. Let what the characters say reveal the plot and their personalities and motives.
Choose a short story by a writer whose style is very different from yours. Type out the story, reading it out loud as you go. Then analyze the opening of the story: Does it begin with dialogue? An anecdote? Setting? Begin a story of your own, modelling its opening after the one you've read and incorporating its style and rhythm.
Write a scene for a story with two characters. One character has kept a secret from the other, and the other has recently discovered it, but not yet revealed her discovery. Have the characters engaged in an activity—shovelling out from a snowstorm, preparing for a party, looking for a lost ring. Use the dialogue and the action to express the tension between the two, without having them directly discuss the secret.
Write a story of 1,000 words from a main character's perspective about the moment his or her life took a significant turn. Keep the description about the moment sparse, focusing on what happened versus how it happened. For an example, read Denis Johnson's short story "Car Crash While Hitchhiking."