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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11.2.22

In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, autumn means catching the colorful, vibrant, and fleeting fall foliage, prompting many to take in the majestic display. Resources like the Smoky Mountain National Park’s Fall Foliage Prediction Map can help travelers locate areas in the United States where leaves are starting to change color, are at their peak, or past peak. Using this map as research, write a story in which your protagonist ventures out to a region where the leaves have changed their color. How does this bright, dramatic scenery affect your character’s mood and choices?

10.26.22

Over the past few weeks, some climate activists have taken up controversial methods of protest by pelting iconic paintings, such as Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and Claude Monet’s “Haystacks,” with mashed potatoes and tomato soup. The protests were recorded and posted on social media by activists in Germany and the United Kingdom to help draw attention to concerns of the ongoing climate catastrophe and its effects on future generations. This week, write a story from the perspective of someone who plans and performs a public protest inside a museum. What work of art helps represent their message?

10.19.22

The traditional tarot deck can be divided into two sections: the minor and major arcana. The former focuses on quotidian details, while the latter reveals the bigger picture of one’s life. Composed of twenty-two cards, the major arcana tells the story of life’s endless cycles, beginning with the first card of the Fool, symbolizing naivety and new beginnings, and ending with the last card of the World, representing all of life’s major achievements and stages. As we move closer to ushering in a new year, write a short story that begins with the end of one cycle in your character’s life and concludes with the beginning of a new one. What does the journey between these two life stages look like? Explore the inner life of your protagonist as they find their way toward a new path.

10.12.22

Have you ever tried to tell a story in reverse order? In the latest installment of our Ten Questions series, E. M. Tran discusses the challenges she faced while writing her debut novel, Daughters of the New Year (Hanover Square Press, 2022), which moves backward in time. “I had to shift my mindset,” says Tran. “Tension and narrative movement can still accumulate when you go backward. It just looked different, and I had to really get comfortable with that when I was writing.” This week, write a story that moves backward in time. Start with the ending and guide the reader back to the origins of your character’s journey.

10.5.22

What can we learn from a single conversation? In Richard Bausch’s short story “Aren’t You Happy for Me?” the protagonist Ballinger speaks to his daughter Melanie over the phone. The conversation, which increases in stakes and tension as it progresses, centers around both parties needing to share life-altering news: Melanie is pregnant and planning to marry an older man while Ballinger and his wife are planning to separate. The story is told with very little narration and is almost entirely written in dialogue. This week try writing a story that takes place over the course of a phone call. Consider what is said and unsaid in the dialogue and how this creates tension between your characters.

9.28.22

In a recent episode of the science podcast Ologies, host Alie Ward speaks with Cole Imperi, founder of the School of American Thanatology and a leading expert on death, dying, and grief. Ward talks about her experience with her father’s death and asks Imperi about the Kübler-Ross model, also known as the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Imperi discusses the common misconception that these stages are experienced by all in a linear order, and that in fact, many may not experience all the stages and some may switch from one stage to another and return to one again. This week, write a story in which a character grieves over the loss of something or someone. Use the Kübler-Ross model as inspiration to plot out your character’s development.

9.21.22

In an essay featured in the September/October 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Evison writes about the banning of his 2018 novel, Lawn Boy, and the morning he found out that parents were protesting the inclusion of his novel in a Texas high school library. Evison awoke to several threatening messages on his social media accounts which included one that read: “There’s a special place in hell for people like you. I hope you burn.” This week, write a story from the perspective of a writer whose book is banned and targeted by a group of parents and local politicians. In what unexpected way is your protagonist’s life changed by this sudden fame?

9.14.22

The Venice International Film Festival in Italy is the world’s oldest film festival and is a marker for the year’s most celebrated accomplishments in cinema. There is always glitz and glamour on the red carpet, but this year the media focused on rumors of tension between the costars of the film Don’t Worry Darling, harkening back to old Hollywood and the gossip and alleged rivalry between stars such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Marilyn Monroe. This week write a short story in which gossip creates tension between your characters. How will your characters react once they become the talk of the town?

9.7.22

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention, in which natural and cultural sites around the world are considered and added to a list to protect and preserve their heritage. There are currently over one thousand legally protected sites, which include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Mount Fuji in Japan, Canaima National Park in Venezuela, and Victoria Falls in Zambia. Explore the UNESCO World Heritage list and write a story that takes place at one of these protected sites. Read through the site’s history for ideas on how to weave this setting into your story.

8.31.22

In a recent thread on Twitter, author Rebecca Makkai begins a discussion on words that make prose awkward in fiction, starting with the use of “as” in a sentence such as: “‘Hey there,’ I said as I got up as I turned on the lights.’” Other awkward words Makkai lists include “temporal hinge words” like “after” and “while,” the overuse of “that” in a sentence, and the use of gerunds, especially as dialogue modifiers. The last tip Makkai offers is a useful one: “I promise you, if you control + F through your work just on the words ‘as’ and ‘that’ and take out 90% of them, you’ll be so happy.” Try using this advice to revise a draft of a short story you’re working on. Remove some of the narrative devices listed in Makkai’s tweets and see how the rhythm of your story’s language changes.

8.24.22

In an essay published in our September/October 2022 issue, Valeria Luiselli writes about her selection process as guest editor of The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners, the latest installment of the anthology series. Luiselli speaks about the significance of the prize changing the “American author” rule to accepting all English-language writers appearing in North American publications regardless of citizenship, as well as work in translation, and how this opens up “the unknowable, the unpredictable, and the strange” within these short stories. She writes: “That is precisely what good stories feel like: Within the setting of complete familiarity, the flowering of the extraneous.” Inspired by this description, write a short story that follows an unpredictable path. Try, as Luiselli describes, to draw out extraneous outcomes from familiar circumstances.

8.17.22

The beginning of the fall season is marked in late September by the autumnal equinox, which signals the shortening of days and lengthening of nights, and by the harvest moon. Although dependence on the moon has waned in modern society, farmers once looked to the bright, early moonlight to help harvest their summer crops. In many East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, the harvest moon is still honored through annual celebrations that include moon gazing, eating moon-shaped desserts, and lighting lanterns. Inspired by this rich history, write a story in which a protagonist relies on the harvest moon. How will you build the stakes for a story that depends on a lunar phenomenon?

8.10.22

In an article for the New York Times for Kids special section for July, Josh Ocampo interviews sixty-eight kids over the course of three summer days on Coney Island in Brooklyn. The iconic neighborhood is best known for its festive boardwalk along the beach, annual hot dog eating contest, and amusement parks, home of the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone roller coaster. The article features quirky, silly, and sometimes serious responses to what they’ve experienced at the classic New York spot, such as taking their dog on the Ferris wheel, wearing a hat instead of sunscreen on their face, and how seagulls steal their hot dogs. Consider writing a story from the point of view of a kid spending the summer at a popular amusement park or beach boardwalk. What fleeting dramas take place during this hot and vigorous season?

8.3.22

In an essay excerpt published on Literary Hub, which appears in Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature (Graywolf Press, 2022), Charles Baxter writes about an exercise he would assign to his students in which they are asked to compile ten facts about one of their characters, encouraging them to consider “particularized details.” He writes: “For example, you can say, ‘She likes chocolate,’ but almost everybody likes chocolate. It’s better to say, ‘The only chocolate she will eat is imported from Mozambique.’” Try out this exercise and compile ten things you know about a new, invented character. Then, write a short story with this character at the core. How do these details inform the personality and actions of your protagonist?

7.27.22

“My novel, An American Marriage, involves a husband and wife with an unusual challenge: Eighteen months after exchanging their vows, he is arrested and incarcerated for a crime he does not commit,” writes Tayari Jones in “Finding the Center” from an installment of our Craft Capsule series published in 2018. In the essay, Jones writes about the process of choosing the protagonist of her award-winning novel: “I discovered a fundamental truth of fiction and perhaps of life: The character with the most pressing material crisis will always be the center of the story.” This week, write a story in which you explore two sides of the same conflict between two characters. Whether by dividing the story into two parts, or weaving both perspectives together, how can you differentiate their individual stakes and perspectives?

7.20.22

Literature is fueled by its villains as much as it is by its heroes, and oftentimes, the villains make more compelling characters due to their flaws, convincing arguments, and twisted aspirations. Shakespeare’s villains are infamous for their layers of complexity. For example, Lady Macbeth, as she sleepwalks in Act V of Macbeth, hallucinates and sees her own bloodstained hands revealing both her guilt as much as her cruelty: “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” she says. Then as she reflects on plotting to kill King Duncan says: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” This week, write a story with a compelling, complicated villain at its core. How will you turn this villain into a three-dimensional character?

7.13.22

This past Sunday marked Marcel Proust’s birthday, the French novelist, essayist, and critic whose list of work includes his iconic seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. In the first volume, Swann’s Way, the protagonist dips a madeleine cake in his tea, takes a sip, and is overcome with a sensation of joy he traces back to a childhood memory of sharing a snack with his aunt Léonie. Proust has been named the originator of the term “involuntary memory,” which, according to Psychology Today, is “now understood to be a common mental recall experience that happens without any effort.” This week, write a story in which a character experiences a moment of “involuntary memory.” Either through food or an unexpected encounter, try immersing the reader in this memory which uncovers a secret in your character’s life.

7.6.22

In Flannery O’Connor’s classic story “The Geranium,” an old, Southern man moves to New York City to live with his daughter and sits at the window looking into the apartment across the street where a potted geranium is set out on the ledge for sunlight every day. Although the story’s conflict involves the man’s racism and culture shock as a rural Southerner living in a big city, the story’s climax comes to a head when the geranium falls off the ledge and crashes six floors down into the alley. Write a story in which a character becomes obsessed with a neighbor’s life. What is transfixing about the neighbor’s daily routine that spurs on self-reflection for your character?

6.29.22

According to Merriam-Webster, the “dog days” are “the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere.” As the month of July begins this week, many may begin to experience extreme heat and the stress that arrives along with it. Write a story set during the dog days of summer. Perhaps your character is faced with a big decision on the hottest day of the year or is on an exciting summer trip. How can the harsh weather add pressure to your character’s behavior?

6.22.22

In a Q&A with Neil Gaiman by Michele Filgate from the July/August 2013 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the prolific author reflects on his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow, 2013), which is written from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. In his responses, Gaiman considers children’s unique perspective on life and how “kids really do know things that would terrify adults. I think it’s only a certain amount of amnesia that allows adults to function.” This week write a story with a child protagonist who has seen something life-changing. How do they cope, what are their private thoughts, and what are they willing to disclose to the adults around them?

6.15.22

“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?

6.8.22

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?

6.1.22

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?

5.25.22

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.

5.18.22

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?

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