Write a scene for a story, using third-person narration, that opens with your main character having just done something despicable. Despite what he or she has done, find a way in writing the rest of the scene to make your character sympathetic without letting him or her off the hook.
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.
Choose a story that you've finished or a story by another author and use the last line of it to begin a new story, using the same characters and/or introducing new ones.
In honor of Robert Walser's Microscripts, write a story (in as small as print as possible) on previously used paper, allowing whatever use the paper previously served (letter from a family member, etc) be the inspiration for the new story.
Ruminate on the past year, remembering both your achievements and your failures. Write a story about one of your failures or regrets from the perspective of someone other than yourself. Consider rewriting the past, to transform this incident into an achievement by changing the facts around it or by changing the way your protagonist perceives it.
Choose a place from your childhood—the house your grew up in, your grandparents' home, or another place you visited often—and draw a map of it, with as much detail as possible. Let the map ignite your memory about what happened in this place and who was there. Write a scene for a story based on a fictionalized account of one of your memories, using this place as the setting and your map as source of description.
Write a story that opens with your main character doing something that is completely antithetical to his or her personality. Let the story be about how this character came to do what he or she did.
Write a story structured around a series of vignettes based on the descriptions of imagined photographs. For an example, read Heidi Julavits's "Marry the One Who Gets There First: Outtakes From the Sheidegger-Krupnik Wedding Album," included in The Best American Short Stories, 1999 (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
Browse the greeting card section of a local store, looking for an occasion card or one with an image that attracts you. Based on the image or the occasion of the card, write a letter from one imagined character to another. Send the card to its intended recipient, c/o your address. When you receive it in the mail, use it as the entry point to a story.
Write a scene from a story set at the Thanksgiving day table. During dinner have one of your character's reveal a secret or news that doesn't go over well among his or her family or dinner hosts. Consider why he or she decides to reveal the news on this day among this company. What happens next?
Conjure someone from your past with whom you've lost touch, perhaps someone who you never even knew that well or who you don't remember that well. Write a story in which you imagine that they make a sudden appearance in your life. What are the circumstances of their arrival? What do they need to tell you? And how does it relate to your shared past?
Choose a specific place and a time in the past: the North Shore of Staten Island before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was built; the Back Bay area of Boston in the 1850s; Phoenix before air conditioning was invented; Seattle in the 1970s. Research this location, gathering as much information as you can about how it once was and how it has changed. Review public records, read newspaper articles, and peruse archival images. Local chamber of commerce sites and the Library of Congress's website are good places to start. Write a story set in the past in your chosen location, using the details you've uncovered to make it as authentic to that time as possible.
Write a story based on the following line: "I have bad news for you. You've been kidnapped." Be sure to incorporate the line into the dialogue of the story.
My guiding philosophy of writing, maybe even of life, is that the path to the truth runs through shame. So dig through your memory banks and write about the most shameful episode you can remember. The challenge here is to provide the reader the basic dramatic context, then to slow down and move moment-to-moment during the worst of it. This need not be for general consumption. It's more an exercise in radical disclosure.
Today's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Steve Almond, whose most recent book God Bless America: Stories was published this week by Lookout Books.
Pick a short story by another writer and use its ending as the beginning for a new story of your own.
Imagine a character whose job—such as a banker, thrift store cashier, babysitter, college president—typically implies certain traits about this person and a certain lifestyle. Write a story in which this character's life outside of his or her work is drastically different from what is typical. Explore in your writing why this is so, using it to inform the plot and to create tension in the story.
Write a scene for a story with two characters involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Use news stories about the movement in order to gather details to create a realistic setting.
A major catastrophy has occurred that has changed the way we live and the environment in which we live. Write a story that conveys this post-apocalyptic environment without describing what has happened, using the setting and characters to suggest it instead.
Read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Wells Towers’s story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Both stories integrate the ancient and the contemporary in surprising and disturbing ways. (For another example read Matthew Sharpe’s novel Jamestown [Soft Skull Press, 2007]). Draft a story that does the same thing, blending the past and the present into the fictional elements of plot, setting, dialogue, and character.
There is someone inside a house at night who is startled by a knock at the door. Outside the door are two people. Complete this scene by considering the following questions: Who is the person inside the house? What is he (or she) doing when he hears the knock? Does he know why the pair are at the door? Who are the pair? What do they want? After completing the opening scene, write the story of what happens next.
Using one of your own stories or one by another author, rewrite the story from the perspective of one of the minor characters.
In honor of the birthday (August 30, 1797) this week of Mary Shelley, author of the classic Frankenstein, a novel she based on a dream, write a horror story, using material from your most memorable nightmares, should you need it.
Your assignment is to go wild. Let the sacred and profane language spill from you without censor. Find the wildest part of your personality and give it full vent for five pages. Forget about obedience of language, of character, of form. Forget about what is proper. Write the feral sentences you've been afraid to say in public. Have no shame for a spell. Free yourself from the confines of a well-behaved syntax, of expected word choice. Here's my hell-bent, uninhibited narrator from Busy Monsters, Charlie Homar, after making a rather asinine decision involving a firearm: "My mission shat upon by the Miocene logic and cruel outcomes afflicting all those with pluck but no punctilio, with hearts that run on gasoline: okay, I overreacted, I admit it." Never rely on the available jargon. For five nonstop pages, surprise yourself with the ecstatic language you know is in you.
This week's fiction prompt comes from William Giraldi, author of the novel Busy Monsters, published by W. W. Norton in August.
A man and a woman in a room. This is Salina, Kansas. He wears cufflinks on his white shirt sleeves, a silk tie. She seems preoccupied. She holds a glass in her hand. Write their story in three hundred words. Use the word "salvation" and the word "light." Make one of the pair the central character and construct the story from his or her point of view.
This week's fiction prompt comes from novelist John Dufresne, author, most recently, of the book Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months (Norton, 2010).
Go to a thrift store, explore an attic, or exchange with a friend three unfamiliar items: a piece of clothing, an object you can do something with—such as a coffee cup, a screw driver, or a letter opener, and a photograph or postcard. Wear the piece of clothing, use the object, and place the image in your work space where you can see it. Then write a scene about a character who is wearing the piece of clothing, while using the object, and has a memory filled with conflict conjured by the photograph or postcard.
Go for a walk, paying careful attention to your surroundings, until you find something that doesn't belong. It could be a piece of garbage on the street, a coin, an animal, a car battery in the woods, anything out of place. Tell the story of how it got there.