In her story “My Wife, in Converse,” Shelly Oria delivers a narrative about a relationship in eighteen short sections, including one section that’s only nine words long. This fragmented approach allows the story to unfold and reveal so much about the characters while using a relatively small number of words. For a writer, an approach like this can be liberating: not every scene needs to be neatly explained or expanded. This week, try writing your own short story in eighteen sections, and listen for the conversation that develops between them.
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.
Though indoor shopping malls hit a peak in the mid- to late-1980s, financial services company Credit Suisse reported earlier this year that about a quarter of the enclosed malls still existing in the United States will be shut down within the next five years. Write a short story that takes place in what was once a popular shopping mall. Is it completely in shambles or just eerily empty? Has the mall been repurposed, as some have been, into entirely new spaces such as micro apartments, hospitals, offices, churches, greenhouses, and sports arenas? How does this affect the characters, their livelihoods and community?
John Berger begins his classic book Ways of Seeing with the sentence: “Seeing comes before words.” He argues that, “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” In a sense, the stories we write depend upon what we choose to focus on; by looking at something, we bring it to life. Yet it’s possible to fall into patterns of attention in which our vision becomes predictable, and potentially meaningful curiosities go unseen. Try freewriting about an object that might typically be overlooked. Maybe it’s a toothbrush, or the zipper on a jacket, or a stain on a sidewalk. What does it look like? Where did it come from? How was it made? How long has it been there? What has it seen? At a certain point, description may give way to imagination, which could lead to the beginning of a new story.
Max Brooks’s fantasy novel Minecraft: The Island (Del Rey, 2017), about a main character who must learn to survive on an island, is designed to reflect the experience of playing the Minecraft video game; in fact the narrative can be re-created in the actual video game. Write a short story that incorporates a video game, real or imagined, perhaps taking inspiration from other game-related novels such as Dennis Cooper’s God Jr. (Black Cat, 2005), in which a father is preoccupied with a scene in his deceased son’s favorite game; Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Crown, 2011), in which the teenage protagonist seeks to discover the secret hidden inside a game by its creator; or Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf, 2016), in which the main character is addicted to video games. Can you draw any parallels between the journey of being a player in a game and the character arc that develops over the course of your story?
Miranda July’s short story “The Metal Bowl” is about a marriage and a secret that one partner brings to it, but the narrative ends up depending on the eponymous metal bowl. July’s story joins a tradition of short stories that hinge on a single (often surprisingly mundane) object, such as Lydia Davis’s “The Sock” and Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Accordion.” Try writing your own short story or scene in which a nondescript object plays a crucial role.
In the New York Times Magazine’s piece “The Dinners That Shaped History,” Jessica B. Harris, Bee Wilson, and Brenda Wineapple each write about an eventful meal that changed the course of history, including Harris’s account of a rowdy dinner party in Paris hosted by Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire in 1908 which reportedly transformed Henri Rousseau from unappreciated joke into legitimate painter. Write a short story that revolves around a meal that has drastically unexpected and far-reaching results. At what point during the meal does it become evident that something extraordinary is brewing, and can any of the guests foresee the momentousness of the occasion? How does the food serve as a reflection of, or foil to, the history-making consequences of the meal?
“Jane Googles ‘Edward Rochester.’” In a humorous post on the New Statesman, Amelia Tait lists “how 25 of the world’s greatest tales would be destroyed by dastardly tech,” including Jane Eyre. This week, choose a scene from a classic story and write a new version in which you introduce an anachronistic piece of technology into the plotline. How does the modern invention highlight the ways in which interpersonal communication and conventions are tied to the speed and ease with which knowledge is accessed? Does something like Instagram, autocorrect, or a smartphone help, hinder, or transform your characters’ ultimate goals?
Earlier this year, scientists published a finding that all of the spiders in the world together consume a total of four to eight hundred million tons of prey every year, which is more than the estimated weight of all humans in the world. In its report of this study, the Washington Post offered the nightmare-inducing headline, “Spiders Could Theoretically Eat Every Human on Earth in One Year.” Write a short story that could adapt this headline as its title and considers a confrontation between human being and spider, whether one-on-one, or perhaps a freakishly larger-scale battle. Can you find both humor and horror in the scene?
In “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, author Laura Hulthen Thomas describes a phone call in which her elderly great-aunt recounted Thomas’s great-grandmother engaging in recklessly brazen behavior. Hearing this tale gave Thomas the courage and inspiration to recommit to writing during a period when she had almost given up on it. Write a short story in which your main character has a phone conversation with a relative who offers up a long-ago and unexpected memory about a family member. How does the story change the character’s perspective on life and trajectory? What kind of an effect might the revelation of a bold sense of adventure in one’s familial past have on someone feeling hopeless and apprehensive of taking risks?
Earlier this year, Ernest Hemingway’s first short story was discovered in Key West, Florida, spanning fourteen handwritten pages of a notebook. The untitled story, written when Hemingway was ten years old, is a fictional travelogue through Ireland and Scotland that includes both researched facts and imagined scenes and characters. Write a fictional travel story that mirrors Hemingway’s epistolary form and incorporates letters and diary entries, or other invented documents.
It was recently discovered that a Viking warrior who was buried in present-day Sweden more than a millennium ago and long presumed to be a wealthy man, was actually a woman. Since the grave contained a sword, an axe, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, signifying the individual was a professional warrior, most researchers assumed the body was male. This week, think of a male character from a favorite short story, and write a new version of the story in which the character is a woman. Which elements of the story will you keep the same and which do you change?
“Trust your dialogue. If you don’t, make it stronger. Then, once your dialogue is strong, bring in action beats that amplify the speaker’s message, not messy gerunds that clutter it,” writes Wiley Cash in “The Art of Active Dialogue,” a micro essay in our Craft Capsules series. Cash examines the ways in which using purposefully planned action beats can give written dialogue a more powerful impact. Write a short fictional conversation between two characters, perhaps inspired by a recently overheard dialogue. Play around with Cash’s tips, ensuring each line is character-specific, using strong active words, minimizing gerunds, and experimenting with placing action beats and dialogue lines in separate sentences.
Plant blindness is a term used by botanists and horticulturists to describe contemporary humanity’s general inability to see the plants and trees in our daily environments as more than just decorative background. Many gardening and plant experts and enthusiasts encourage educational courses or casual tree identification walks as activities that can begin influencing the way the majority of people view and value plants. Write a short story in which a character who once had plant blindness develops a new awareness of greenery. What moment or situation provokes the change? Does the change manifest itself in dramatic and monumental ways, or in more subtle shifts of behavior and beliefs?
In the past fifteen years or so, dozens of lighthouses no longer needed by the United States Coast Guard have been auctioned off to the public. Buyers have found a variety of new uses for their lighthouses, such as converting them into hotels or vacation homes, or even a concert venue. Write a short story in which your main character comes into possession of a decommissioned lighthouse. Where is it located and how does she decide to make use of it? Does it end up being a blessing or a burden? How can you play with the metaphorical potential of the lighthouse in an unexpected way?
The campus novel is a work of fiction that revolves primarily around an academic campus, most often a college or university. Some fall into the category of coming-of-age stories, such as Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, while others are more focused on faculty, such as Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Campus novels offer the opportunity to explore characters within the hierarchical structures and pressurized environment of a closed educational system and the contrasting perspectives of teachers and students because of differences in age, power, class, and social and cultural values. Write a short story that focuses on students and/or teachers in a high school or college setting, perhaps integrating elements of comedy and satire like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Jane Smiley’s Moo, science fiction like Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, murder mystery like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, sports like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, or supernatural Gothic horror like Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed.
In “How Deep This Grief: Wrestling With Writing as Therapy” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Ian Stansel recounts not being able to write about his sister after her death, but realizing that he could write for her and try to write a book that she would love. Part of Stansel’s writing practice involves choosing someone he knows, often a family member, to stand in as the “ideal reader” that he keeps in mind while working on specific projects. Write a short story and use someone you know as an imagined ideal reader. Does having one specific person as your imagined reader inspire you to draw certain ideas, motifs, traits, or themes to the surface?
Total eclipses throughout history have been the cause and inspiration for countless tales of strange or mysterious occurrences, including odd behavior exhibited by confused animals: birds flying erratically, spiders destroying their webs, frogs and crickets chirping, whales breaching, and bats appearing. Write a short story that takes place over the duration of a total solar eclipse, in which an animal’s reaction to the sudden darkness is the catalyst for an unexpected turn of events.
The Atlas Pursuit is David Wise’s debut novel in which a fictionalized version of actress Patricia Neal hires a private detective to help her unravel a mystery. The novel uses true details from Neal’s life, including the fact that she was once married to author Roald Dahl, who was a British pilot and spy during World War II. In order to solve riddles and unlock chapters of the interactive digital book, readers can use online research supplemented by visits to public New York City landmarks connected to Neal and Dahl’s lives. Think of several public landmarks located in your city, and integrate them as clues or red herrings in a short mystery story. How does zeroing in on the small, specific details of familiar landmarks imbue your story with a layer of suspense or tension?
Though many of us look forward to the higher temperatures and longer daylight hours of summer, studies show that particularly hot and humid days often coincide with higher incidences and expressions of anger, frustration, and irritation. Many elements may factor into this correlation, including people spending more time outside in crowds, an influx of adolescents and tourists during the summertime, increased heart rates because of the heat, and discomfort from dehydration and lack of sleep. A feeling of helplessness or lack of control over the weather may also contribute to snappish behavior. Write a short story in which your main character struggles to keep calm on one of the hottest days of the year. What is the catalyst that drives your character to lose patience or keep cool?
“And for me, while fiction is necessary, I prefer it to be timeless rather than timely,” says Arundhati Roy in “Worth the Wait,” Renée H. Shea’s profile of the author in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, try out an exercise to make your own fiction more timeless. Search through your writing for an excerpt in a short story that includes markers of a contemporary setting, perhaps in its mention of modern objects, technology, or usage of slang. Then revise that section of the story by transforming the contemporary elements into description or dialogue that incorporates more timeless language.
According to the residents of La Unión, a small farming community in rural Honduras, at least once a year the skies rain fish, a phenomenon explained by locals with a variety of scientific, religious, and superstitious theories and legends. Locally regarded as a miracle, the day after a spectacular and torrential storm, the ground is covered with hundreds of small, silver-colored fish. Write a short story that takes place in a setting where a similarly surprising and perhaps inexplicable phenomenon exists year after year. Does your main character fall on the side of science or superstition? Does she respond with skepticism, wonder, or indifference? How does this experience affect her life?
“But now I think I hate those fairy tales.... Not really the tales, but how they end. Three words that ruin everything. ‘Happily ever after,’” says an old man in Victor LaValle’s new novel, The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau, 2017). Write a short story that revolves around this notion that the phrase “happily ever after” can involve something more complex, or even ruinous, than what’s seen at first glance. You might choose to write a continuation from the established ending of a well-known fairy tale, or concoct a brand new story in which the idea of a happy ending is just the start to ruinous consequences.
July 2 is the anniversary of the vanishing of Amelia Earhart during her 1937 quest to be the first female pilot to fly around the world. Earlier this month, the History Channel revealed a photo found in the National Archives that some have speculated shows Earhart and her navigator on a dock in the Marshall Islands sometime before 1943, adding to the list of theories, conspiracies, possibilities, and probabilities that have long surrounded her disappearance. Write a short story that imagines the sudden unearthing of another piece of this puzzle, perhaps putting a fantastic, outlandish, or eerie twist on Earhart’s disappearance. Who discovers this potential evidence? What unexpected direction does this lend to Earhart’s story?
In the 1982 comedy film Fast Times at Ridgemont High—based on Cameron Crowe’s 1981 nonfiction book of the same name—several of the main characters are depicted working summer jobs at various fast food joints in a Southern California mall. Write a short story that revolves around a high school student’s first summer job. What kind of unfamiliar characters or unexpected situations does she encounter? Does her inexperience lead to humorous or embarrassing misunderstandings? Use this new working experience and environment to explore a transformation in your character.
Our willingness to forgive can be challenged by hurt feelings, guilt, and sometimes, our egos. It is not an easy task but in writing, we can explore different perspectives and outcomes. Write a story in which a character is trying to forgive someone. What are the circumstances that bring your character to this point of forgiveness? Is there an expectation that this act of forgiving will change their relationship for the better? To hear stories of people struggling to forgive others and themselves, listen to this episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour.