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.
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.
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.
Our characters reveal themselves through their actions—not only in dramatic scenes that involve death, injury, or heartache, but in small, subtle ways too. Show how a character in your fiction eats. Is the character’s demeanor ravenous and paranoid or slow and sophisticated? How your character eats, appreciates, and relates to food reveals much about his or her upbringing, emotional state, and intellectual disposition.
Pets are playing an increasingly important role in the lives of many people and families in our society. Pets offer companionship, unconditional love, or simply represent a welcome living force in our imperfect homes. Write a scene where an animal or pet stops a character from feeling lonely, stressed, or on the brink of madness. Explore the complex, but very deep and real, relationship between animals and people.
Life is stressful. How our characters handle—or don’t handle—stress reveals much about them. Write a scene in which your protagonist is stressed due to a death in the family, a financial crisis, or an unraveling relationship. Place your protagonist in a grocery store at the express lane for customers with fewer than 10 items. Have a lady, pushing a cart full of groceries, jump in line just before your protagonist. “Sorry, but I’m in a hurry,” she explains. Write six hundred words.
As children our imaginations ruled the land. However, years of life, love, and loss erode our creative shores and the rustling trees and vibrant animals that inhabited them. The unstoppable dinosaurs and steaming teacups in our small hands suddenly become pieces of plastic from a toy store. Write a short story through the eyes of a four-year-old child. Go on an adventure.
People are complex. So are believable characters. Much of what comprises our characters stems from the writer’s knowledge of the universe and writing’s miraculous universality. Think of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Jane Eyre, and Oscar de León—or your own favorite characters. What about these notable literary figures gives them life and humanity? Write a paragraph that defines the complexities of each character you are developing. Tack these paragraphs to the wall beside your desk, and use them as guidelines for your characters whenever their voices are muted by the harsh winds of creativity.
Dialogue is about economy of words. Less means more. Dialogue should reveal characters through tension. Write a scene in which your protagonist must convince a stranger to divulge his or her social security number. The context is irrelevant. Use the conversation to show readers who, exactly, this protagonist is. At the end of the scene, have the stranger whisper the number into the protagonist’s ear.
Resist the temptation to build characters according to stereotypes. Character development must reflect the complexities of real people. Even Pure Evil buys his favorite niece a pony for her birthday. Learn to love your villains as people, and they will reward you as characters. Write a scene where the most despicable character in your fiction does something deeply touching and loving. Then send them on their evil way.
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This writing axiom extolled by Kurt Vonnegut underscores the importance of human desire. However, desire often stems from human frailty: the need to fill or compensate for something we lack—a mothers’ love, approval from society, the ability to forgive ourselves. Write about what your protagonist's desires; this is where the story begins.
Human beings are unpredictable. We can snap, betraying decades of impeccable behavior and moral living. A devoted wife cheats with her son’s tennis coach. A respected policeman steals M&Ms from a convenience store. A shy boy kicks a cup from the hands of a homeless woman. Human frailty is an important part of humanity, and our characters. Our attempts to hide indiscretions often lead to unfathomable tragedy. Write a scene where your protagonist snaps. Show, don’t tell.
Juxtaposition creates tension, contrast, and intrigue. Think of two objects that don’t belong together next to each other: a cat skeleton and a shrimp cocktail, an antique coffee grinder and a wet scuba mask, a spare car tire on a floating iceberg. Once you choose your items, write the story that brought them together.
Sometimes we are emotionally imprisoned by the ones we love. Overbearing parents, paranoid spouses, and needy children can make us—and our characters—feel trapped in an intolerable life. Write a scene where an antagonist in your writing leaves a loved one behind and begins life anew. Use details to express relief, guilt, and anger.
People change in life, so must your characters. Write a paragraph about your protagonist at age eight discovering a wounded sparrow on the sidewalk. Next write a paragraph about the same protagonist at age forty-two encountering the same sparrow. How are the reactions different? Write a third paragraph about why your character changed. That is the story of your protagonist.
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.
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.