Write a scene for a story that takes place at the Thanksgiving day table during dinner or in the kitchen during preparations for the meal with two characters who are are angry at each other but not addressing their conflict directly.
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.
Write a scene for a story in which one character finds an intimate inscription in his or her partner's book. Who is it from? What does it mean? When was it written? And how does the first character find out the answers to these questions?
In his essay “Don’t Look Back” (Poets & Writers Magazine, November/December 2012), fiction writer Benjamin Percy argues against including backstory when writing short stories. “It’s almost always unnecessary," Percy writes. "A reader intuits the history of a character by observing that character act in the present.” Choose a story you’ve written and delete all of the backstory that you’ve included. Then revise it by describing the main character and having that description convey the backstory instead.
Using magazine clippings; photographs; found or created notes, letters, and postcards; and other items, construct a story from ephemera. Put the items in box and add to it as the week goes on. When you feel that you've compiled enough, write the story relying on the ephemera as a guide.
Choose one of your stories that needs revision. Create a timeline that includes each year of the main character's life, fleshing out details that support who he or she is. After you've finished, return to the story and revise it in terms of this more fully developed understanding you have of your main character.
Buy yourself five postcards. Write one question on each postcard and send them to yourself every other day. When you receive the postcard, write for twenty minutes, responding to the question. Use these responses as the ingredients for a story.
In the profile “Emma Straub’s Life in Letters” (Poets & Writers Magazine, September/October 2012), author Emma Straub reveals that the genesis for her novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures was an obituary she read about a woman named Jennifer Jones. After reading the obituary, she wrote a fictionalized account of her life. Follow Straub’s example: Read the obituary section of a newspaper, and write a story with a main character loosely based on what you find.
Write a story composed entirely of letters from one character to another who never replies. The characters could know each other or could be complete strangers. For an example, read Claire Vaye Watkins's story "The Last Thing We Need" in her collection Battleborn (Riverhead Books, 2012).
In R. V. Cassill’s classic book Writing Fiction (Prentice Hall Trade, 1975), he describes “conversion,” a method for revision that he says is “vaguely comparable to transposing a piece of music from one key to another.” Try the following conversion exercise: Cut up a story into its paragraphs (using scissors). Rearrange the paragraphs, and add any connective writing needed to support the new structure.
One of a writer’s most powerful tools is sensory perception. As an exercise, deprive yourself of stimulation. Sit quietly in a dark room, turn off and hide your electronics, and avoid becoming distracted. Try this for an entire day, or whatever time span you can manage. After leaving yourself alone with your thoughts for some time, write a story inspired by your musings. Try starting with a single sentence that may have risen to the surface during your day.
Write a story with two major threads, each with two characters. For example, the first could be a man and a woman driving in a car–where are they going? what happens along the way? what are they discussing? The second thread could be about two boys in a canoe–do they get along? what is the relationship between them? what happens to cause tension between them? Switch back and forth between each thread, spinning each of the stories. Find a way to slowly weave the stories together: Do the two sets of characters cross paths? Are they somehow related? Is one story something that happened in the past of a character from the other story?
Tell a story through the journal entries and/or correspondences of the central characters. Note how the switch between different perspectives and the reliability—or lack thereof—of the characters affect the way the plot is revealed to the reader. For inspiration, read Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story.
Compose a story by making a fairy tale or old folktale contemporary. Aim to retain the basic plot of the original tale, but have the characters' tensions and fears reflect twenty-first-century encounters and conflicts. For an added challenge, offer an alternate ending or tell the narrative from an unexpected perspective.
Write a short story in which a museum is the setting for the central conflict. Consider the following questions: What kind of museum is it? Why are the characters there? Do any of the museum's objects trigger a turn in the story? Visit a local museum or peruse one's holdings online to find inspiration.
Write a story in which one of the following objects triggers a flashback: a child’s keyboard, a bag of Werther’s Original Caramels, a taxidermied animal, a bar of lavender soap, or an old travel brochure.
Write a story in which you present no detailed descriptions of the characters, major or minor. The information the reader gleans about the characters in the story—their motivations, their gender, their personalities, even their looks—must be conveyed entirely through what they say. Observe how this reliance on dialogue changes the way you go about structuring the story.
Revise a story by rewriting the story in the opposite order from which it first appeared. Start with the ending, and find your way back toward the original opening. Restructure the story so this new order makes sense.
Write a piece of flash fiction in the style and form of a recipe. In composing the preparation steps, reveal bits of the fictional recipe-writer’s life. Try to give the reader a sense of the person behind the recipe by giving an emotional dimension to the instructions. For inspiration, read Steve Himmer’s “How to Make Potato Salad.”
Write a story in which only five minutes pass between the beginning of the story and the end. Experiment with the ways in which you can draw out these five minutes, through interior monologue, flashbacks, switching between different points of view, and other storytelling techniques.
Write a story in which the central relationship is between a human and a machine. The machine can be a common household item, such as a toaster, or something imagined and altogether more sinister.
Writing fiction in the first-person plural is notoriously tricky. Challenge yourself to write a short story—or a section of a short story—from the first-person plural. Read Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” for insight on how a collective narrator can enhance a story and/or produce unexpected effects.
Write a story in which the protagonist is "perfectly ordinary" (however you choose to define "ordinary") in every way except for one obvious trait. Follow how this one trait sets in motion the story’s central conflict or turn.
Write a story that begins with a description of a distinct scent. Devote at least one paragraph to describing the smell, whether it’s the layered aroma of a well-cooked meal or something distressingly malodorous. Allow this opening description to lead you to a larger scene or a revelation about one of the story’s central characters.
Last week the New Yorker’s fiction department serial tweeted Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box,” which appears in the magazine’s science fiction issue. Egan structured her story in prose bursts of 140 characters or fewer—the limit for a single tweet. Challenge yourself to write a story that could appear in small installments by shortening the length of the story’s paragraphs to one or two sentences. Try to advance the story with each terse paragraph.
Think of a dramatic situation in which there is one main character. If you need to, steal a situtation from the news, such as "Man Dangles Child Over River" or "Woman Follows Couple Home From Mall." Based on this situation, write a sketch of the main character that explains how and why this person did what they did. What is it about his or her personality, past, and relationships that has brought him or her to this moment?