Throughout his life, Henry James maintained friendships with and was influenced by painters such as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. In his 1884 essay, “The Art of Fiction,” he wrote: “The analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same.... They may learn from each other, they may explain and sustain each other. Their cause is the same, and the honour of one is the honour of another.” Write a short story that pays homage to a painting you particularly like. Perhaps there is a scene depicted or a statement made that sparks a narrative. Imagine the inspiration or cause for the painting, and then experiment with mirroring that to drive the writing forward.
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.
Beneath the streets of San Francisco lay the remains of dozens of old ships left over from the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. The ships transported prospectors hurrying to California, but eventually most were abandoned and buried under landfill as the city grew. Write a short story in which something monumental, such as abandoned vessels, secret documents, or mysterious remains, lies beneath the streets of the city. Which character becomes privy to this once hidden information? How can you be experimental or playful with the evocative image of a city built on top of layers of history?
The life-size blue whale model displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—nearly one hundred feet long and over twenty thousand pounds—recently had its annual cleaning. Write a short story with a scene in the museum during this two-day long process, perhaps describing some of the images taken of the huge animal model being vacuumed by the exhibition maintenance manager in a cherry picker. Does this scene act as a backdrop to the main drama of the story, or have metaphorical significance? Are your characters directly impacted or involved with the unusual cleaning process?
One of the elements that makes David Lynch’s TV show Twin Peaks, which returns with a third season this spring, so unusual is its dreamlike combination of melodrama, horror, humor, and cast of idiosyncratic characters. Its surrealism is emphasized by the repeated appearance of mundane yet mysterious visuals—cherry pie, coffee, logs, and owls—which take on motif-like significance in the series. In literature, authors such as Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño have also mixed the odd with the everyday to similar hallucinatory effect in their books. Jot down a list of objects that have had some sort of resonance in your life, even if they may seem like unexceptional items. Write a short story in which you insert these images throughout the text. Is there an intuitive dream logic that can help guide their placement? Do they have metaphorical potential?
In Fijian legend, a young girl falls in love with a boy from a neighboring village to the disapproval of her parents, and her tears of despair transform into red and white flowers. The hanging clusters of the elusive tagimoucia blossoms—only found regularly on one specific mountain ridge on the island of Taveuni—are the subject of a number of local Taveuni stories, several of which involve young women whose tears turn into the petals of the flower. Write a short story that revolves around an imaginary legend or folk tale about local flora. How does the story gain significance as it’s transmitted among peers and between generations? What sort of unexpected ramifications does the legend have on your characters? Who falls under its spell, and who remains immune to its powers?
The Met Gala is an annual fundraiser held in May to celebrate the opening of the Costume Institute’s fashion exhibit. The Gala is known for the elaborate attire of its guests, like the 2017 looks from pop icons Rihanna and Zendaya. Write a story that includes a scene in which a character briefly wears an elaborate outfit or costume. How might the clothing change the way they understand themselves? How might it change the way other characters view them?
One of the oldest trees in the United States—a white oak in a church cemetery in New Jersey estimated to be six hundred years old—was cut down last month after it began failing and was ultimately declared dead. According to local stories, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette met and picnicked under the tree during the American Revolution. Write a short story that revolves around a series of imagined encounters that took place under this tree. You might experiment by combining fictional moments with historical events, or write from the point of view of the tree to provide a fresh perspective.
What kind of secret should be taken to the grave? How might a secret act as proof of intimacy? For the debut of Sophie Calle’s most recent art installation, the artist spent two afternoons receiving and transcribing visitors’ secrets, and then depositing them into a monumental obelisk installed in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery. In Calle’s instructive text about the project, she writes of one previously divulged secret, “At the very moment he was depriving me of his love, this man offered me, through his confession, the ultimate proof of our intimacy.” Write a short story in which you imagine the ending to that story. What is the secret that this man confesses to Calle as they are breaking up? Why does he share it with her in their last moments together?
Can you write a story with a hook, chapters with twists and turns, pages that end on cliffhangers? In the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Vatner’s article “Serial Fiction for the Digital Age” reports on Radish, a serial-reading mobile app in which writers release fiction installments chapter by chapter for readers to download. Over the course of several weeks, try your hand at writing a long-form story in one-thousand-word segments made for serial reading. How do you manipulate the tone, imagery, and structure of each segment’s ending so that it both concludes the standalone chapter and entices the reader to continue wondering what comes next?
For many species of animals, spring is not only a time of birth and renewal, but also a time of migration. Write a story in which a character witnesses a strange animal migration. Perhaps your character is also in transition—moving towards or away from someone or something. How does this experience affect the story’s plot? For inspiration, read and watch videos about unusual animal migrations in Smithsonian Magazine.
Do we sleep to dream, or to forget? Earlier this year, scientists on two separate research teams published findings that we may sleep in order to forget, essentially paring back the synaptic connections that are formed over the course of a day’s worth of learning, and storing the important information. Write a short story inspired by these discoveries, perhaps imagining a society that has created a technology that can control this nighttime streamlining, or a character who attempts to manipulate this pruning process for her own advantage.
In classic Greek tragedies, the term hamartia, first described in Aristotle’s Poetics, refers to a fatal flaw in the main character of the drama, which causes a chain of events to unfold: a reversal of fortune from good to bad, and the eventual downfall of the character. One traditional example of such a flaw is hubris, an overblown ego and lack of humility. Write a short story in which your protagonist suffers from an unfortunate degree of hubris. Does overconfident pride blind the character to the consequences of that individual’s actions? Does arrogance lead the protagonist toward one big mistake, or several small errors that lead inevitably to tragic misfortune?
NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest had over six thousand entries this year, and was unanimously won by hip-hop and R&B band Tank and the Bangas. One of the techniques the band incorporates is a kind of lyric dialogue between Tarriona “Tank” Ball and Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph who share singing roles, much like two best friends finishing each other’s sentences. Work on a piece of dialogue between two characters who interrupt each other, or riff off of a stream of consciousness flow in conversation. How might you use this technique to build tension in a story?
Earth’s “most tenacious creatures,” according to National Geographic’s website, are small aquatic invertebrates called tardigrades—also commonly known as water bears. Among their amazing feats are the fact that they can dry out completely and survive without water, they were launched into outer space and survived, and they roamed the earth and seas long before humans and will likely outlast us. Write a short story that incorporates a water bear, perhaps finding sci-fi, fantasy, or horror inspiration in its physical attributes, or writing a narrative that philosophizes about the range of its adaptations.
In “The Emotional Realist Talks to Ghosts” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, George Saunders discusses the different stages of writing his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). The long process included attempting a third-person version of the story, as well as a play. Though neither form was quite right, Saunders says, “It made me more convinced that there was definitely a story there.” Take a short story in progress and rewrite one particular scene in two new forms—from a different narrative point of view, and in a dramatic script format. What are the main ideas that remain consistent and integral to the story throughout all three versions?
“She imagines him imagining her. This is her salvation,” writes Margaret Atwood in her 2000 novel The Blind Assassin. Write a short story in which one segment involves a main character imagining another character imagining him. You may decide to differentiate this segment by setting apart the text in italics, or explicitly stating that it is imagined, or perhaps you may decide to blur the line between real and imagined. In what ways does this line of thought help your character through a conflict or obstacle? What does this insight tell us about how he perceives himself in relation to others?
Last week, a new McDonald’s in Italy opened that features not only fast food, but also a preserved stretch of paved Roman road from the second century BCE—first discovered when construction for the restaurant began in 2014. Write a short story in which a new structure is being built and something surprising is excavated on the construction site. What does the discovery reveal about something previously hidden or mysterious in this geographical location? Is there a reason for the concealment? Will a conflict or debate arise over how to proceed with the unexpected unearthing?
Social justice movements require strong leadership, organization, and resources, often starting with a demonstration leading to more action. Write a short story in which the protagonist wants to organize a demonstration for a cause. What events lead her to this point? Who does she turn to for help? Use the backdrop of this activity to reflect on the growth and development of your character as a leader.
Researchers recently discovered a new addition to the genus of lizard species that can shed their skin and scales when grabbed by a predator, in order to slip away and escape. The Geckolepis megalepis has the largest known gecko scales, and is able to shed them with particular ease, looking like a “raw chicken tender” before its scales are regenerated over the course of a few weeks. Write a short story in which your main character is able to escape from danger by altering her physical appearance in a drastic way. Why is it imperative that she escape? How does her transformation both save her and make her vulnerable? What is her “regeneration” process?
Last month, hundreds of thousands of red Skittles were found on a highway road in Wisconsin, having spilled from a truck transporting the candy for integration into cattle feed. Write a short story that starts with a similarly striking image of something highly unusual found on a road. As the story progresses, continue escalating the mystery and oddity of the situation. Does the story end with a satisfactory resolution, or does it leave the reader with lingering questions?
Craft a piece of flash fiction based on the art of the rant: What exercises you? That is, what gets you in high dudgeon? Who pisses you off? Be specific: not just “I hate that guy,” but a riff on the last three times he cut you off in mid-sentence, the poisonous glow of his smile, and the unfortunate fact that he’s your brother-in-law. Now invert the previous exercise: How would he rant against you? Provide plenty of ripe details along with an incident or two.
This week’s fiction prompt comes from David Galef, author of Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook (Columbia University Press, 2016).
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explores bibliotherapy, “detox” book recommendations to help treat issues like stress, procrastination, and bereavement. The founder of the Book Pharmacy in Berlin suggests that “there are ‘detox classics,’ including epics like The Odyssey, and ‘detox-by-distraction’ bundles of crime, romance, or fantasy.” Write a short story in which a character visits a “book doctor.” What might prompt this sort of treatment? Which books are prescribed, and do they work as a cure? Are there any side effects?
Within some cultures in Africa, Australia, and India, there exist strict rules which regulate the type of language permissible to use with one’s in-laws—for example, married women in Ethiopia who speak the Kambaata language and follow the ballishsha rule are forbidden to use any word that starts with the same syllables as the names of their parents-in-law. Often the solution is to use synonyms, euphemisms, or more generic terms. Write a scene in which two characters must have a conversation while abiding by a law that restricts particular words. Why is this law in place, and how do your characters deal with it? What power dynamics are involved? Are there hidden messages within the dialogue that cause a misunderstanding?
Wraps, bubble tea, pork belly, kale, elaborate hamburgers, macarons. Different years are prone to different food trends, with the popular items appearing everywhere from fine-dining establishments, to fast food joints and snack trucks, to packaged goods and home cooking. Incorporate a trending food item from a certain time period into a short story. How does the insertion contribute a specific sense of time and place into your piece? What does it tell the reader about your characters’ lifestyles?
Last year the Atlantic reported that researchers using computer systems to analyze the emotional trajectories of protagonists in nearly two thousand works of English-language fiction found that there are just six basic storytelling arcs: “1. Rags to Riches (rise), 2. Riches to Rags (fall), 3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise), 4. Icarus (rise then fall), 5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise), 6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall).” Think of a story that you often tell in your own life, perhaps a childhood memory that involves schools friends or a family occasion, or an adventurous incident that happened on a trip or vacation. Does it seem to align with one of these basic plotlines? Write a short fiction piece that maps the major elements of your story onto a different, unexpected arc.