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.
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 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."
Write about a main character for a story, focusing on his or her occupation. Freewrite for five minutes about this character, considering the following: What is his or her job? How did the character get it? How long has he or she held it? What does he or she like and dislike about it? Set your freewriting aside, then research details about this occupation, taking notes along the way. What kind of language would a person with this job use? What kind of equipment? Where would the office be located? Who would be the boss? What would the job title be? Use your freewriting and your research to inform a story about this character.
Choose two people who you know well and write a detailed character description of each one. Next, change their gender, name, and physical traits. Begin a story with both characters standing on the platform of a train station, waiting for a train.
Choose one of your favorite classic books and make a brief outline of the plot. Write a story, set in the present, adapted from that classic story, using your outline and the classic book's main character to guide you. For example, write a version of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre set in Los Angeles in 2013. Who would a contemporary Jane be? Under what circumstances would she go to live and work in the home of a widower? If she fell in love with him, what would happen?
We each have our own approach to writing stories—some writers compose quickly and broadly, leaving the sentence-level refinements for later, while others labor over each sentence until its worded just right before moving on. Identify which kind of writer you are. Then revise a story you’ve been working on, applying the approach you don’t normally take.
Freewrite for ten minutes about the most significant events that happened in your life during the past year. Choose one of these events and use it as the basis for a story. Write about it from an imagined character's perspective and/or change how the event transpired.
Write a story about the following scenario: One woman knocks on the door of another woman's house. She wants something. She lies to get what she wants. Who is she? Does she get what she wants? How does the woman who answers the door respond? Do they know each other?What happens next?
Write a story using second-person narration. For an example of the use of second-person narration, read the opening lines of Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City.
Write a work of flash fiction, a story that contains the classic elements—a main character who faces a conflict that is resolved—but one that is only three hundred to one thousand words in length. For guidance, read David Gaffney’s advice in the Guardian or visit the literary magazine Flash Fiction Online.
Write a story that is a retelling of a classic myth set in contemporary times. How do the characters change? What is the effect of a contemporary setting? Does the story end the same way? For inspiration, read Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red.
Write down snippets of conversation that you overhear throughout the day. Choose a few compelling lines and write a story based on this dialogue, letting it direct the story line and the characters you imagine.