Writing Prompts & Exercises

The Time Is Now

The Time Is Now offers three new and original writing prompts each week to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also curate a list of essential books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend for guidance and inspiration. Whether you’re struggling with writer’s block, looking for a fresh topic, or just starting to write, our archive of writing prompts has what you need. Need a starter pack? Check out our Writing Prompts for Beginners.

Tuesdays: Poetry prompts
Wednesdays: Fiction prompts
Thursdays: Creative nonfiction prompts

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“We talk a lot about bodies: from their right to safety and respect to how they take up space, from their sizes and shapes and shades to what each is able to do, it’s a conversation that’s both constant and ever-evolving,” write editors Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile in the introduction to Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves, forthcoming in July from Catapult. In this wide-ranging collection of personal narratives, writers take on the subject of the body through various lenses; for instance, Natalie Lima documents the ways men fetishize her size and Melissa Hung reflects on how swimming eases her chronic headaches. Write a story in which your protagonist is made aware of their body. How does this new awareness affect the way they carry themselves in the world? Does their relationship to their own body change, and if so, does the language you use to describe your character change too?


Pride Month is celebrated each year in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The first Pride March in New York City was held in 1970 and has since become an annual civil rights demonstration as well as a celebration of the queer community. Cities all around the world, including Athens, Berlin, Taipei, Tel Aviv, and Zurich, now host extravagant parades and parties throughout the month. Write a story that occurs during a Pride celebration in which things take an unexpected turn for the protagonist. Will your characters be swept away in a parade or end the night somewhere they’ve never been before?


With all the turmoil in the world, it is sometimes easy to forget the kindness shared between strangers and loved ones. Reader’s Digest recently asked their readers to share stories of everyday kindness, which included donating gifts and buying groceries for someone in need. This week, inspired by these firsthand accounts of compassion, write a story of your own in which a moment of human kindness is shared between characters. How does this act of goodwill help, if even for a second, to relieve the pressure from your characters’ lives?


Allegra Hyde’s climate fiction novel, Eleutheria (Vintage, 2022), takes place in the near future, bringing readers into a familiar dystopian world. In a recent interview on Late Night With Seth Myers, Hyde explains why she chose this time period: “By having it in the near future, I could think through what’s going to happen, and more importantly, how we might problem solve, how we might mobilize.” This week, write a story set in a time not too distant from today with familiar details that slowly stray from reality.


In a profile of Emma Straub for the Cut by Kate Dwyer, the author and bookstore owner discusses her new novel, This Time Tomorrow (Riverhead Books, 2022), which follows a woman who, on her fortieth birthday, unexpectedly travels back to 1996 and relives her sixteenth birthday. This week write a short story that uses time travel to explore a character’s youth. Why does your protagonist end up in that specific time period, and how will this experience shed light on their present-day life?


In “Can Motherhood Be a Mode of Rebellion?” an essay published in the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes about Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change (Harper Wave, 2022) by Angela Garbes, a book analyzing the state of caregiving in America, and reflects on the experience of hiring a nanny for “a job so crucial and difficult that it seems objectively holy.” This week think of a job that is often unappreciated or unacknowledged and write a story from the perspective of a character who works this job. How can you render their perspective through detailed observations of the world around them?


With cool spring weather comes allergy season, the time of year many become suffused with itchy eyes, runny noses, and relentless sneezing. This common ailment is exasperated by the rainy season and blowing winds that spread pollen, and global warming is creating an even longer pollen season, according to many published studies. Write a story in which a protagonist struggles with allergies in springtime. How will this detail carry importance in the plot’s development? For inspiration, read Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Death of a Government Clerk,” which begins with the protagonist sneezing.


In an excerpt of Noor Naga’s new novel, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English (Graywolf Press, 2022), published on Literary Hub, one of the main characters, an Egyptian American woman who moves to Cairo to teach English, discusses her relationship with her mother through a question and answer structure of vignettes. Rather than straightforward queries with direct replies, the questions are specific and personal—for example, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, should your mother be punished?” and “Is it arrogant to return to a place you’ve never been?”—setting up a tension that elevates the stakes for the character’s emotional arc. Taking inspiration from Naga’s novel, think of three questions that relate to your protagonist’s conflict, then answer these questions through first-person vignettes. How does this exercise help you understand your character, as well as challenge the traditional structure of a story?


Crocuses, daffodils, irises, tulips, bloodroot: Spring is the time when blooming flowers arrive to symbolize, if only briefly, the rebirth of the natural world and the chance for new beginnings. The English bluebell, for example, blooms in April and May, flashing wild indigo before dying when the temperature rises. Crocuses are known for their sudden blooming, with no prior signal, sometimes peeking up through snow before lasting only about three weeks. Taking inspiration from the relatively brief life of flowers, write a story in which a protagonist finds a new direction for living, sparked by the presence of spring blooms. How will your protagonist grow out of the long winter? What can we learn about your character using the yearly persistence of blossoming flowers as a guiding metaphor?


“What is revealed by the early manuscripts of classic novels?” asks Hephzibah Anderson in an article published on BBC Culture, in which first drafts of famous novelists like Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are examined. Woolf’s manuscripts reveal a writer radically rethinking the end of her iconic novel, Mrs. Dalloway, while Proust’s drafts show liberally crossed-out and annotated sections as well as a key rethinking of a central image: the madeleine, which originally began as a slice of toast and a cup of tea. This week try a different strategy for a first draft and write a story out of order. Jot down three crucial scenes from a story you’ve been wanting to begin. Then, at random, pick one and write a draft of that scene. How does this help relieve the pressure of drafting a whole new story from beginning to end?


From New York socialite con artist Anna Delvey to Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the fraudulent health technology company Theranos, to Simon Leviev, who allegedly conned millions of dollars from women through the dating app Tinder, these actors of true crime have dominated the subject of several television shows, documentaries, and movies. Inspired by these dangerous tricksters, write a story with a con artist as the protagonist. What do they think and sound like? Do they have an unrecognizable accent or use popular social media platforms to connect with their victims?


“When I think about the writers and books I have worked with, it’s the dialogue about shape that I most remember. A draft of a story in which a kind of sonic boom goes off at the beginning demands an answering boom at the end,” writes Rebecca Saletan, vice president and editorial director of Riverhead Books, in “A Thing Meant to Be: The Work of a Book Editor” published as online exclusive for Poets & Writers in 2018. “Rather than trying to launch six complicated characters at the outset, how about introducing them one by one, like a juggler putting balls into the air?” This week find an old draft of a story and reshape its structure. How does this exercise force a new perspective on the story’s elements?


In “The Art of Reading Philip Roth: Turning Sentences Around,” published in the September/October 2006 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Andrew Furman provides an analysis of the prolific writer’s work and legacy. “[Roth] seemed to know early on that to be a thoughtful Jewish writer in the twentieth century was to pose a series of ‘What if’ questions,” writes Furman. “What if Kafka survived tuberculosis, and then the Nazi death camps?” or “What if Anne Frank survived typhus in Bergen-Belsen?” This week, write a short story based on a “What if” question. Whether through a historical figure or your own life, what alternate reality can you see through to fruition?


“Under the wonderful influence of the painkillers coursing through me, I felt, in my iron-framed bed, like a balloonist floating weightless amidst the mountainous clouds towering on every side,” writes W. G. Sebald in Rings of Saturn, reprinted by New Directions in 2016 and translated from the German by Michael Hulse, in which an unnamed narrator speaks from a hospital bed about a trip he took walking across the landscape of Suffolk in England a year before. In the novel, Sebald’s narrator ruminates on a variety of subjects, including Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the skull of seventeenth-century physician Thomas Browne, French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s relationship to sand, and the sudden death of his friend. Write a story in which the protagonist never physically moves, but mentally travels through a variety of seemingly disparate subjects. Be it art, world history, geography, or music, how do the anecdotes connect to your subject’s personal conflict?


The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves and starring Robert Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz, premiered at the top of the box office this past weekend adding to the popularity of neo-noir films over the past decade. Coined in the 1970s, the term “neo-noir” refers to the expansion of the classic film noir genre of the 1920s and explores many of the same themes: a dilapidated city overrun by crime and corruption, a brooding antihero, a femme fatale, and the looming specter of the protagonist’s inner demons. Recent examples of neo-noir films include Nightmare Alley, Looper, Drive, and Nightcrawler. Write a short story using the conventions of a neo-noir film. What inspiration can you draw from this genre as well as real-world events for your dramatically lit and brooding story?


In the latest installment of Craft Capsules, Allegra Hyde, author of Eleutheria, forthcoming from Vintage in March, writes about “face pareidolia,” a scientific term for the phenomenon of humans seeing faces in inanimate objects. Hyde finds evidence of this behavior used as a literary technique in a range of works from Homer’s The Odyssey to Alexandra Kleeman’s novel Something New Under the Sun (Hogarth, 2021), in which water is given “a human-like motive, which heightens the drama of the overall description.” This week, write a story that employs the personification, either literal or metaphorical, of an inanimate object. Whether it’s the clouds in the sky or a desk lamp, how does this human impulse to see ourselves help us better understand the world?


Angel Dominguez’s Desgraciado (the collected letters), published in February by Nightboat Books, comprises a series of letters addressed to Diego de Landa, a Spanish friar who attempted to destroy the written Mayan language in Maní Yucatán in the sixteenth century. This hybrid epistolary collection navigates the shared trauma and history of colonization while creating an intimate correspondence that returns agency to the descendant of a people de Landa tried to extinguish. “Dear Diego, I write to you because there’s nothing else to do; nothing to be done, and yet we must go on. Go on living, go on writing,” Dominguez writes. Draft a story in which a character corresponds with a figure from history. Whether through letters, dreams, or ghostly visitations, what would your protagonist ask this historical figure, and what would drive this quest for answers?


For those in the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures are beginning to warm up indicating the coming of spring. This period in February, in which there can be a week of mild weather with birds chirping and plants blossoming followed by a deep freeze, is what climate scientists call “false spring.” Write a short story set in the interstices of seasons. For example, in the cold week at the end of summer signifying the coming of autumn, or just before spring. What tension can the setting of a story add to the conflict in a character?


Boxes of chocolate, a bouquet of roses, candlelit dinners, greeting cards. As Valentine’s Day nears, the pressure to make a romantic gesture or celebrate the day looms with storefront decorations and advertisements. However, high expectations mixed with packed restaurants and a shortage of flowers can lead to disastrous and disappointing evenings. Write a story that takes place on Valentine’s Day, or the days leading up to it, in which a romantic evening goes awry. How can you amp up the stakes of the story early on to help build up the tension of the disappointing day?


“I wanted to make a character who is sometimes good and sometimes bad, yet neither comicially nor tragically so. She’s just misguided, self-absorbed, and wrong,” writes Destiny O. Birdsong in her Craft Capsule essay “Ain’t We Got Enough Problems?” In the essay, Birdsong discusses her relationship with an unlikeable character in her forthcoming debut novel, Nobody’s Magic (Grand Central Publishing, 2022), and how she grew to love her. Inspired by Birdsong, write a story focused on an unlikable protagonist that reveals some of your worst fears about yourself. Show the character’s vulnerabilities as well as their misdeeds so the reader can go on the journey of understanding them.


In Laura Gilpin’s popular poem “The Two-Headed Calf” from her award-winning collection, The Hocus-Pocus of the Universe (Doubleday, 1977), hope is briefly found in the doomed life of a calf. In this moving, two-stanza poem, the juxtaposition of suffering and hope is distilled into a final moment in which the young animal can see “twice as many stars as usual.” Write a short story in which the protagonist is inspired by a unique animal. Whether it’s a prizewinning pig or an albino alligator, how does your protagonist see themselves in this rare creature?


January 14 marked the fifty-ninth anniversary of the original publication of Sylvia Plath’s haunting novel, The Bell Jar, which was first published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” The novel, which wouldn’t receive its wide acclaim until 1971, two years after the death of Plath, opens with one of the most iconic first lines in contemporary literature: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” This week, write a story influenced by this powerful opening line. Set the tone of the story by situating the time and place into historical context, as Plath does. How can an event seemingly unrelated to the rest of your story carry the weight of the reader’s expectations?


In an article for Oprah Daily, Maggie Shipstead chronicles the seven- year journey of writing and researching her latest novel, Great Circle (Knopf, 2021). After a solo trip around New Zealand, Shipstead encounters a bronze statue of Jean Batten, the first person to fly solo from England to New Zealand, and is struck with the idea to write a book about a pilot. This week, inspired by Shipstead, consider a statue you’ve come across and write a story inspired by this encounter or the person commemorated. How will the statue come to bear significance in the story?


Edgar Gomez’s debut memoir, High-Risk Homosexual (Soft Skull Press, 2022), begins with a secret: “Moments after I was born at the Mount Sinai Medical Center of Greater Miami, my parents were handed a document, which I stumbled upon years later, curled and yellow at the edges, inside of a shoebox in a corner of my closet.” The book’s first sentence sets up the tension between the narrator and his family as Gomez recounts coming of age as a gay, Latinx man. Write a story that begins with a character finding a secret object—whether it be a hidden note, a photograph, or an unopened box. Who does the object belong to, and what feeling does this discovery conjure in your protagonist?


Go to the gym. Read more books. Save more money. Eat better. Wake up earlier. New Year’s resolutions begin as good intentions meant to introduce positive change in one’s life, but of course they can be difficult to sustain. Often characterized by vowing to continue healthy practices, change an undesired trait, or accomplish a new goal, resolutions bring with them hope but often turn to disappointment as these once-a-year aspirations fade with each passing day of the new year. Write a story about a character who is at a crossroads and makes an urgent resolution to change their ways. What are the circumstances that necessitate a need for change? How does your character go about accomplishing—or failing to meet—this pressing goal?