John LeCarré’s novel A Perfect Spy begins by introducing the protagonist Magnus Pym and tracking his movements across “a south Devon coastal town” on his way to a Victorian boardinghouse, where he is addressed by an old woman who says, “Why Mr. Canterbury, it’s you.” In this deft use of dialogue, LeCarré illustrates the essence of the classic writing technique “show, don’t tell,” revealing that Pym has visited the boardinghouse before and is traveling under a pseudonym. Write a story in which a protagonist’s identity is hidden, and only revealed through subtle clues in dialogue and physical gestures.
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. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.
“Short short stories hold the obvious charge of compressing narrative in a rather extreme way, but what I initially loved about writing the form was the possibility to attend to reverberation,” writes Peter Kispert in a recent installment of Craft Capsules. “I noticed how a detail could echo out more apparent, and controlled, than in the longer works of fiction I had been drafting.” Kispert dives into his experience reading Amy Hempel’s “Going,” a three-page story from her collection Reasons to Live (Knopf, 1985), and how the unconventional narrative blew “the world wide open in the best way.” Write a short short story of up to three pages that compresses a narrative through controlled, powerful details.
Edward Carey’s illustrated novel The Swallowed Man, published in January by Riverhead Books, takes on the celebrated fable of Pinocchio, retelling it from the perspective of the living puppet’s father Giuseppe—better known as Geppetto—beginning inside the belly of a whale. “I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten,” he writes. Though the novel does not occur entirely within this unconventional setting, it both foreshadows and establishes the stakes for the story that is about to unfold, gripping the reader from the very first sentence. Write a story that begins in an unusual setting but slowly unfurls and tells the reader how and why the protagonist is found there. Try using a first-person perspective so the narrative impulse is filled with determination and urgency, as in Carey’s novel: “Before the last candle dies, I’ll tell my tale.”
“Is this a voice that I can sustain throughout this novel? Will it continue to be, and also most importantly, can it sustain my curiosity?” asks Chang-rae Lee when discussing how he developed the characters of his latest novel, My Year Abroad (Riverhead Books, 2021), in a virtual event for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. “You don’t want a voice that’s absolutely the same throughout.” Write a story from the perspective of one speaker that shows the character changing through their voice. Focus on how your character sees the world in order to show their evolution.
The Memory Police (Pantheon, 2019) by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, opens poignantly with the main conceit of this dystopian novel—that commonplace objects begin to disappear. “I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first—among all the things that have vanished from the island.” From the use of the passive voice in “was disappeared” to the intimacy behind the doubt in the first person narrator’s memories, Ogawa provides tension, a setting, and tone from this first sentence. Write the first five hundred words for your own Orwellian story or novel that establishes the new rules for an alternate reality, in which things are not as they appear.
From 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke short story, to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, artificial intelligence is as much an evolving science as it is a powerful pop culture presence, inspiring countless works of literature pondering what the future might look like. In the introduction to Michael Woodridge’s A Brief History of Artificial Intelligence: What It Is, Where We Are, and Where We Are Going, out this month from Flatiron Books, the author reveals that he is “writing a popular science introduction to artificial intelligence,” in order to “tell you what AI is—and, perhaps more important, what it is not.” Write a story with an AI character in a significant role. How will its presence inspire the trajectory of your story’s characters?
Douglas A. Martin’s Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother, reissued last year by Soft Skull Press, explores the life of the only son in the Brontë family and the brother of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, who wrote the literary classics Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey. Eclipsed by his early death from alcohol and opium abuse, the genre-bending novel uncovers Branwell’s failed relationships, talent, and possible homosexuality, as well as conjures the moody landscape and milieu of the era through arresting language. Write a story that steps into the life of an overlooked character from fiction or literary history. What do you imagine as their true personality? Does it differ from what has been previously known?
“The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire” is a monthly interview in which five authors with new books are asked the same seven questions, one of which is, “If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?” Answer this question yourself and then write a story where you imagine a character having this profession. Does your character live out a childhood dream of yours? How does a profession influence the way a character interacts with their surroundings?
New Year’s Day is often a time in novels in which tensions erupt or a new life is envisioned for a character facing a transformation, such as in Middlemarch by George Eliot, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Write a short story, or a scene in a longer work, in which the protagonist reflects on the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. What new life do they embark on? What changes, or doesn’t change, for them and their desires?
In Olivia Rutigliano’s essay “Thirty Years Later, Home Alone Has a Lot to Say About Adulthood” published in CrimeReads, she describes the appeal of the classic Christmas movie, likening its comedy to a cartoon: “Home Alone possesses the same slapsticky buoyancy and physical elasticity of Looney Toons; no matter how many anvils are dropped on the aggressors, they’ll still spring back up a few moments later and resume the pursuit at hand.” Write a flash fiction piece in which the actions are described in a hyperbolized, almost cartoonish way. How does this challenge your sense of description?
“They listened to the news in the front room, their bodies as still as the mounted deer on the wall behind them.” In Idra Novey’s short story “Husband and Wife During the Nightly News,” a married couple go through their routine of watching the news, the husband commentating while expecting the wife to murmur in agreement, a sequence they stick to “as if the very beams of their house depended on it.” The setting of the living room adds meaning onto the ritual of their marriage, and still objects begin to take life, ending with the wife feeling as if she had “ripped off the doe’s furred skin with her teeth.” Write a story that features a character whose living area directly reflects the conflicts being faced. How can inanimate objects be used to express emotions?
Jana Larson’s Reel Bay: A Cinematic Essay, forthcoming from Coffee House Press in January, straddles the line between memoir and fiction. Larson blends essay and screenplay to investigate and understand the mysterious death of a woman found in Minnesota who local police alleged was in search of the fictional ransom money seen buried in the snow in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film, Fargo. The ambitious premise and second-person narration places readers in the shoes of the investigator, not unlike the subjective perspective of certain movies. Considering how true stories are often stranger than fiction, write a short story based on a mysterious occurrence that you experienced yourself or that stuck with you after you learned about it. How will you draw in the reader? Try narrating the story in first or second person to give the illusion of truth.
Crowd-sourced video hosting website YouTube has compiled over fifteen years of a variety of content, making it an accessible resource for historical footage. From early documentaries made in the 1990s, to remastered and colorized footage from the beginning of the twentieth century, including views of Tokyo streets in 1913, Market Street in San Francisco in 1906, and Tverskaya Street in Moscow in 1896, and footage of cities around the world in the 1890s. Using one of these videos, or one of your choosing, pick out a face and write a scene in the life of that person. What concerns are specific to this era, and which are still relevant today?
“No room in Toronto is ever used in the way it was originally intended. That’s what happens in a city always trying to reinvent itself. Like it has an itch it can’t scratch. Like it has a commitment problem.” At the beginning of Catherine Hernandez’s second novel, Crosshairs, forthcoming in December from Atria Books, the protagonist narrates a missive to his lover from his hiding place in a friend’s dark basement. In Hernandez’s description of the setting—a dystopian version of Toronto where a fascist government regime has rounded up marginalized communities into labor camps—one can see the ways in which identity can be layered or transformed through time, whether applied to rooms or cities or gender roles. Write a short story in which a change that’s occurring for the main character is reflected in some way through the setting. How might an environment evolve or change shape as a person does? Conversely, how does a person’s behavior sometimes resemble the shifting characteristics of a physical space?
Visual art can be a source of inspiration for all writers by providing what philosopher Walter Benjamin describes as an aura that one can only experience in the presence of that art piece. Although many are not presently able to visit a museum or physically stand in front of a work of art, inspired by Sharon Dolin’s installment of Writers Recommend, try a virtual visit by using Google’s Art and Culture museum page to choose a work of art from a museum that is new to you. Write a scene or story from the perspective of a subject or object in the painting, using its aura in order to build the story’s conflict or tone.
Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 suspense novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, recently adapted into a television series for Showtime, centers around a character who has set the bar for the literary archetype of “the grifter.” In a T Magazine essay, Megan O’Grady writes that Tom Ripley embodies self-authorship, which is “all about creating a convincing character within the narrative structure of one’s own aspirational thinking.” O’Grady argues that Highsmith’s novel has foretold our era of self-invention: “con artists and ‘visionaries,’ the gurus and hucksters, schemers and dreamers, the online dating scammers—all of our 21st-century buccaneers of society, politics, and commerce.” Write a story with a grifter as its protagonist, one with a self-invented identity that drifts into high society in search of prestige.
“When words elude us as adults, music can soothe or stir the mind. When sight fails, music can clarify our emotional perceptions,” writes Jenny Bhatt in a recent installment of Craft Capsules, in which she describes how music became the gateway to writing her short story collection, Each Of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). “Before writing a story’s first draft, I would pick out a song that had the imagery, mood, and lyrics that resonated with my early vision for the story’s themes and narrative style.” Pick a draft of a story you’ve had trouble getting off the ground and find a song that captures the themes and emotions you aim to present. Use the dynamics in music to help revise and reimagine the story in a new direction.
“When Franz Kafka says that Gregory Samsa woke up one morning transformed into a gigantic insect, it doesn’t strike me as a symbol of anything,” writes Gabriel Garcia Márquez in a 1981 article for Madrid’s El País, which was recently republished on Literary Hub. In support of taking writers at their word, Márquez discusses how the rooster in his novel No Ones Writes to the Colonel has been interpreted by literature teachers and that his own son was tasked with answering a question on an entrance exam purporting the meaning of the rooster. Write a story inspired by magical realism in which a fantastical element or creature is introduced that does not represent any theme or conflict. After all, sometimes a rooster is just a rooster.
“I dreamed a short story last night, even down to its name, which was ‘Sun and Moon,’” writes Katherine Mansfield on February 10, 1918, in her book Letters and Journals, about having dreamt one of her widely anthologized stories. “I got up at 6:30 and wrote a note or two because I knew it would fade.” The story, which features two children hanging around their house while a party is being prepared, reads without a set structure and follows modernist conventions using several narrative shifts. Inspired by Mansfield’s experience, keep a dream journal for the week, whether the dreams are your own or from friends. Use images, lines of dialogue, or narrative swerves from the dream to write a short story. How does mining the surrealism of dreams change the conventional ways we tend to tell stories?
In The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Graywolf Books, 2007), Charles Baxter writes about the recurring theme in fictional works of disappointment even after satisfying a great achievement, stating examples such as Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where, for example, Lady Macbeth becomes unhappy and more paranoid after having been crowned queen. Baxter asks, “What if wishes and fantasies turn out in some cases to be more powerful than their real-life satisfactions?” Write a story in which your character is driven by a single desire, but is unsatisfied and more conflicted after achieving their goal.
“[Dad] pronounced the word ‘nudity’ as though a fruit fly had just flown into his mouth—he spat as he said it. The word mainly made me think of the potatoes whose jackets my mother peeled off every evening before she dropped them into the water,” writes Marieke Lucas Rijneveld in her debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison, which won the 2020 International Booker Prize. The observations of the young narrator couple a unique perspective, one that actively accrues knowledge, with the power of setting the tone for and foreshadowing the novel’s eventual tragedy, threading through it a wire of tension and grief. As a character study, write a chapter through the eyes of a child. What is most urgent to this young mind, and how can the reader sense through the subtext what is to come?
“These, I believe, go hand in hand: destruction and the thrum of collective
singing,” writes Joshua Whitehead in the introduction to Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in September. “Hence, utopias are what we have to build, and build now, in order to find some type of sanctuary in which we and all others can live—there is no plan or planet B for us to turn to.” Taking inspiration from this call to shift from destruction and the dystopian to the utopian, consider current events, situations, or systems in society that lend themselves to dystopic thinking, and then jot down ideas of how you might transform collapse into creation. Write a short story that begins with a seemingly apocalyptic premise that you then transform into a story of finding intimacy and joy in community. What healing is possible in the process of formation?
Virginia Woolf’s modernist 1931 novel The Waves weaves together the voices of six protagonists across various stages of their lives from infancy to maturity. The first chapter begins with a swirl of dialogue that avoids narration and the chapters that follow use individual monologues to explore the internal lives and desires of each character. Create a group of characters that are joined by a particular relationship. Then, without external narration, write individual monologues for each character that distinguish their voices, desires, and conflicts. How do your characters develop both as individuals and as a group? What do they reveal and what do they hide in these interior conversations?
In Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” the short story starts with the protagonist Anders, an ill-tempered and cynical book critic, caught in the middle of a bank heist interacting with fellow customers and the robbers. In the second half of the story, Anders is shot by one of the bank robbers and the story suddenly swerves into a retelling of his memories and private desires, leaving the linear plot of the story and allowing readers in on some of his backstory. Write a short story that is affected by a major event and causes a shift in the direction of the narrative. How can you dig further into a character’s inner life after a momentous event?
In a 2003 Paris Review article recounting the research for her book Solitude & Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told With Help From His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls (Seven Stories Press, 2020), Silvana Paternostro writes about how often the Nobel laureate used facts from his life for classic works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude. The article lists various acquaintances and distant relatives who knew Márquez and offered intimate anecdotes that helped shape an organic portrait. Write a story that acts as a portrait of a single person told through the anecdotes of various characters, distant or familial. What does this narrative mode reveal about the protagonist?