Fanny Longfellow, wife of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, tragically perished in 1861 when her dress caught on fire. The combination of long dresses, flammable materials, oil lamps and the open flames of fireplaces and candles—in addition to the chemicals and toxic materials used in the manufacturing of many types of clothing—increased the frequency of fashion-related ailments and accidents in the nineteenth century. Write a spooky short story in which a character’s downfall is brought about by her wardrobe choices. Read about lead makeup, toxic socks, hatters poisoned by mercury, and arsenic dyes in this National Geographic piece on “Killer Clothing” for further inspiration.
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 the first time in the United States, bees—seven species that are native to Hawaii—have been placed under protection on the endangered-species list. Write a short story in which a seemingly commonplace animal species suddenly becomes endangered or extinct. Do your storytelling instincts take you to environmental activism, a futuristic sci-fi universe, or an adventure in the wilderness? Or perhaps, to an apartment scene in which this news seems, for the time being, to have no bearing on the characters?
Last week, after a swarm of almost one hundred small earthquakes in the Salton Sea region, California’s Office of Emergency Services issued an earthquake advisory to Southern California residents warning of the potential of a larger earthquake occurring on the San Andreas fault. Write a short story in which the main plotline’s background includes the looming threat of a major earthquake. How does this create tension in the atmosphere and bring out different personality traits in each character?
This week, write a scene in which the main character is watching the presidential debates on television with another character and a confrontation arises over a disagreement of opinions. Have these characters just met, or are they old friends? Do their differing politics come as a surprise to the reader, or to each other, or are they expected? Politics aside, what does the disagreement reveal about the characters’ respective personalities, emotional states, and motives in relation to the narrative? Consider incorporating this scene for a short story you’ve written in the past or are currently working on in order to deepen a relationship.
In Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Ichabod Crane attends an autumnal harvest feast, where he listens to local townspeople recounting ghost stories. Later that night, on his fateful ride home, he encounters the Headless Horseman. The ending of the story is left open to interpretation: Is the Headless Horseman a ghoulish spirit, or is it actually Crane’s rival in love, dressed in disguise and further exaggerated by Crane’s haunted, overactive imagination? Write a ghost story in which you play with this ambiguity between the mundane and the supernatural, perhaps manipulating the observations and emotions of your main character, the stability of the story’s setting, or the sequence of events that unfolds. How does blurring the lines between human folly and otherworld menace imbue your storytelling with a sense of dread or horror?
In mid-July, a young man caught an alligator gar—an extremely unusual, sharp-toothed, prehistoric-looking fish—while fishing from a lake in Schenectady, New York. He took a photo of the megafish to post on social media, and then let it go, in accordance with his catch-and-release policy. His mother subsequently shared the post, and her colleague then contacted the U.S. Geological Survey, which in turn contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, whose agents confirmed that it was an invasive species. This led to the mayor of Schenectady offering a one hundred dollar award to anyone who managed to catch the fish. Write a short story that unfolds in a similar fashion, beginning with the small action of one individual, which then puts into effect a chain of events involving a whole town.
Americans spend more money per year on lottery tickets than on sports tickets, movie tickets, books, video games, and recorded music, with lottery players split between those who play for money or for fun. Write a short story with the focal point on a character buying a lottery ticket. How would she spend the prize money if she won? What does the lottery reveal about your character’s perspectives on luck and money? Whether your character plays often or rarely, whether she wins or loses, what makes this specific lottery purchase remarkable in the context of your story?
“I remember very vividly where I was when I saw my very first big Surrealist exhibition...It was sort of a Tarzan-and-the-giant-spider moment. I absolutely see it as a hinge. There’s a pre-that-picture me and a post-that-picture me. And I’m very glad to be the post-that-picture me,” China Miéville says about the Max Ernst painting “Europe After the Rain” in a New Yorker article. Write a short story in which a character encounters a work of art that changes his life in a similarly noteworthy way. What resonates with the character to have such a lasting impression? How does his life change post-that-picture?
In “Return and Repeat, Culminate and Continue: On Crafting the End in Fiction” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jennifer De Leon draws a connection between the sestina poetry form—in which six words are repeated throughout—and John Gardner’s “return and repeat” method of ending a fictional piece by returning to key elements of the story. Find a short story you’ve written in the past and select six important aspects of the story, such as characters, words, and images. Write a new, alternate ending by reiterating or revisiting these motifs on the last page.
Last week, a young man from Virginia used suction cups to climb up the exterior of the sixty-eight-story Trump Tower building in midtown Manhattan, drawing the attention of eyewitnesses as well as millions more who watched live streaming videos on social media. Write a short story in which a character pulls off a risky and unusual stunt in an effort to communicate an important message to someone. Is the outsized gesture effective? What does his choice of action reveal about his personality? Are there unintended consequences involving the spectators?
Setting up a lemonade stand in the neighborhood has long been a popular way for kids to have fun in the summertime, and learn some basic skills about operating a business. Write a short story in which a lemonade stand plays a pivotal role. Is your main character one of the kids, or one of the customers, or perhaps just a passerby for whom the sight of the stand catalyzes another inciting action?
This week, find a short story you wrote in the past and reread it, making note of new observations about the characters and their actions, as well as pacing and style. Then, write a sequel to the story that either takes place immediately after the ending of the original or far off into the future. Use the experiences and wisdom you yourself have gained in the window of time since writing the original story to imbue your characters with newfound maturity, insight, and energy as they face fresh challenges.
In 2012, New Zealand courts granted legal standing to the country’s third largest river, the Whanganui River. The agreement, signed by the government and the local Māori people, allows for the river to be recognized as a person in the eyes of the law—similar to the granting of corporate personhood to businesses—and for its rights and interests to be protected by appointed guardians. Write a short story in which your main character’s primary opponent is a body of water, forest, or other natural entity, which may manifest in a plot that involves environmental and cultural concerns, or perhaps more mystical and fantastic elements. What emotions, voices, and relationships will you explore in your depiction of this man versus nature story?
Over the past two weeks, the popularity of the new mobile video game Pokémon Go, which incorporates cartoon characters into the real world using GPS maps, has resulted in conversations about many related issues and consequences—from privacy and surveillance, to sore legs and outdoor exercise, to city engagement and the future of technology. Write a short story that takes place in a world in which all citizens have integrated augmented reality software, games, and apps into their everyday lives. Does the story’s main conflict arise from a societal shift due to the new technology or from the lack of human interaction?
In “Superpowered Storytelling” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Benjamin Percy refers to Tony Earley’s quote: “Every story is about the thing and the other thing.” Percy explains by citing two examples of fiction in which the story is about a character working a job, and an added layer about that character in a developing relationship. Write a short story in which the exterior plot follows the day-to-day actions of your main character at work, while the interior landscape is about her evolving relationship with a secondary character. How can you manipulate the details about the job to serve as a metaphor for the relationship?
A high school in Maine recently celebrated the forty-year anniversary of a Twinkie that has been on display on campus, still intact, since 1976, when a science teacher unwrapped one of the snack cakes and set it out for a spontaneous lesson on chemistry, food additives, and decomposition. Write a short story in which your main character makes a comparably spontaneous decision or gesture, and then fast-forward forty years later to reveal how that seemingly small action becomes far-reaching, or perhaps even life-changing.
Fireworks were first invented in the seventh century, during the Tang Dynasty in China, and were traditionally set off at special occasions—such as births, deaths, weddings, birthdays, and holidays—to channel good luck and scare away evil spirits with their bright lights and loud sounds. Write a short story that takes place at a celebration with fireworks. Do the pyrotechnics heighten the scene with a sense of wonder and drama? What do your characters hope to exorcise or gain, as they watch the fireworks display?
As important as it can be to develop regular writing routines, it can also be valuable to break out of them and discover new modes of inspiration and productivity. Try to actively disrupt your own process and write a short story that takes your habitual approach and turns it on its head: If you usually draw up precise outlines, jump immediately into the start of your story with some stream-of-consciousness writing. If you usually write at night, alone at an office desk, try writing during the day, outside on a public park bench. Instead of a pen or computer, write with a pencil. Get creative with your process. How does the change in the time of day, surroundings, or physical act of writing affect your ability to develop new ideas about plot or character? A little variety could go a long way.
Researchers recently announced the discovery that the metal blade of a dagger belonging to King Tut was made from a meteorite, imbuing an element of the cosmic into the legacy of an already mysterious historical figure. Write a short scene in which a meteorite lands in the vicinity of your story’s setting. What are the consequences—in terms of affecting the plot or tone—of introducing this unearthly element into your story?
This week, write a scene in which your main character experiences a series of coincidences over the course of a single day. Perhaps he sees the same stranger twice in one day, or finds that he is wearing the exact same outfit as someone he encounters. Is he eager to derive meaning from the occurrences, or does he dismiss them as possessing no significance? What is revealed about his personality by the response to these coincidences? Will he be proven wrong?
As personal information and financial transactions become increasingly digitized, more and more reliance is placed on online accounts and password-protected websites, thus the number of accounts any person maintains is growing each year. At the same time, studies report that most people reuse the same five or so passwords, and the most popular ones remain the same, year after year, such as: password, 123456, football, baseball, and qwerty. Write a short story in which your main character finds a list of important passwords. What does the combination of passwords and accounts reveal about the person who created them? Is there a pattern that leads to the discovery of additional information? If there are consequences for your character's unexpected access to someone else's private data, how do they play out in the context of your story?
If you’re having trouble starting a scene, try taking it out of the story and writing it as a screenplay. Made up of only the most essential pieces of expression, action, and dialogue, a screenplay can act as a kind of blueprint for a scene, helping you to make sense of the complexity and movement while forcing you to cut away whatever isn’t necessary. Once you understand the scene at its core, try plugging it back into the story, adapting it to the style of the prose, and giving it more body, like clay onto an armature. You can also try this on a scene or story you admire, adapting it into a screenplay to get a sense of how the author crafted such a powerfully dramatic moment.
In “The Deepest Place” by Kevin Nance in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Adam Haslett says of his new novel, Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown, 2016), “it’s the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written,” referring to the intensity of the emotional truth laid bare on the page. Choose an emotional event from your past and transmute it into a fictional scene. Create new, imagined consequences that nonetheless reflect the true anguish of the moment. How can turning fact into fiction construct a distance between the life and the work that offers a new take on an intense situation?
Cult books, as with films that are considered cult favorites, often contain elements of the extreme, bizarre, or subversive—their power to inspire and persuade seemingly just on the edge of propriety. This week, choose one of your favorite cult books, or browse through this top-fifty list for ideas. Then, write a story about a character who stumbles upon this cult book for the first time, and after speeding through it from cover to cover, is suddenly empowered toward a new course of action. What is the single most influential element of this book for the character?
“Can we really mold a narrative around something that defies narrative itself?... How can we re-create an experience that eludes the conscious mind?” In “This Is Your Brain on Fear” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, J. T. Bushnell asks these questions as he explores the relationship between narrative storytelling and the often fragmentary, uncertain nature of memory and observation when people experience trauma. Write a scene of high stress, fear, or trauma for a first-person narrator that makes use of “selective description of external details.” Resist the temptation to fill in the blanks or describe the passage of time in a linear way. Explore the way the human brain processes events, and incorporate your findings into your storytelling.