“‘Working in a soup kitchen is great for a writer or any artist. There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise. You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing,’” writes Annie Dillard to John Freeman in “Such Great Heights” by Freeman in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a scene in a short story in which a character with creative inclinations feels like he’s not being a helpful member of society. How does he shake himself out of it? Does his chosen course of action help his productivity as an artist? What does this change reveal about his place in the world of the story?
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.
A black bear wanders into a backyard in Florida and tries out lounging in a hammock. A sloth is found stranded on a highway in Ecuador, clinging to a guardrail for dear life, and is rescued by transportation officials. A rabbit gets catapulted up onto a roof during a windy storm in Northern Ireland and is saved by firefighters. Write a scene in which a character—human or animal—finds himself in a situation where he is a fish out of water. Does he explore the new and foreign environment surrounding him, or is he in need of rescue?
In the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Tom Spanbauer talks about using the “redemptive voice,” which “can have the effect of a third-person omniscient voice...but also the very important added benefit of having a personality, actually being a part of, and speaking from, inside the story.” Write a short story in which your narrator’s voice is both informal and informed. How will you take advantage of a point of view that can travel through time and space?
In The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi catalog the fictional places of world literature. From Italo Calvino’s invisible cities to Umberto Eco’s abbey in The Name of the Rose, Crusoe’s island to the vast worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia, the volume explores how so many worlds of the imagination have come to influence our own. For an exercise, write your own guide for a fictional locale of your creation or one that you’ve recently encountered in reading. Consider what most characterizes this space: Is it the unique architecture of a structure, a brutal climate in harsh terrain, or the unique customs of an isolated people?
"A love story can never be about full possession.... Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart," writes Jeffrey Eugenides in his introduction to the anthology My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, From Chekhov to Munro (Harper, 2008). "Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name." Write a short story that gives love a "bad name," first plotting the blossoming and struggle of a relationship in your story arc, and then its ultimate dissolution. What's the primary obstacle for your characters? Are your lovers hindered by geographic distance, opposing political viewpoints, or financial woes? Does the tale involve online dating and mistaken identity? Or is it finally the characters' own emotional histories that provide the biggest conflict? Perhaps at love's peak your characters will catch a hopeful glimpse of "full possession."
The importance of knowing one’s characters is well understood and near axiomatic for fiction writers. However, sometimes we think of this mostly as preparatory work done at the start of a story or novel and not for what it is: an ongoing process. One of the pleasures of writing fiction is seeing the way our characters develop and surprise us as the story evolves and works to make its meaning. For this exercise, pick a character who appears in a story or novel currently in progress. Write a letter to yourself in the voice of that character in which he or she reveals something to you that you didn’t know before.
This week’s fiction prompt comes from Andrew Malan Milward, author of I Was a Revolutionary (Harper, 2015). Read Milward’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration.
The popular saying “you can’t go home again” refers to the difficulty of matching a confrontation of one’s childhood and home as an adult with the version that exists in nostalgia-tinged memories. This week, write a scene in which your main character has attempted to “go home again” and is in for a rude awakening. What expectations and memories did she have before arriving home? Do the shortcomings of home reveal something about her personality and identity?
In Lauren Groff’s novel Fates and Furies (Riverhead Books, 2015), which President Barack Obama named his favorite book of 2015, a marriage is detailed first through the husband’s perspective, then the wife’s. His memories are fond, but hers, not so much. Take on that old adage about two sides to every story and pick a supporting character from a novel, film, or short piece, and rewrite a story from his or her point of view. You could even invent a character related to a famous one, as Sena Jeter Naslund did in her novel Ahab’s Wife (William Morrow, 1999). Experiment with how a scene or plot can be completely transformed just by a change of perspective.
Sometimes the gifts we receive may seem plain or simple at first—another book, bag, pair of pants, or electronic gadget—but end up changing our lives in unexpected ways. Write a short story in which your main character receives a gift that he is unimpressed with, but that turns out to be more than meets the eye. Does using the gift result in a domino effect of unforeseen consequences? Is something surprising revealed about the gift giver?
In Antarctica’s winter season, which takes place from late February through September, temperatures can reach one hundred degrees below zero Fahrenheit. There are about four months of complete darkness and the population typically shrinks to approximately one-fifth of its summer population size. Write a short story with the backdrop of an Antarctic winter. What unexpected circumstances might arise by being stuck indoors without sunlight with the same group of people for months in cramped quarters? What thoughts, occurrences, and behavior might be unique to the experience of living in such an extreme environment?
In many of Shakespeare's comedies, twists and turns in the story arc are caused by cases of mistaken identity. For example, in Twelfth Night, a young shipwrecked woman dresses up and pretends to be a young man in order to get a job; in As You Like It, the daughter of a duke disguises herself as a poor shepherdess; and in Measure for Measure, a duke impersonates a friar in order to spy and play tricks. Write a short story that starts with a scene in which your main character interacts with another character while in disguise. What does your character hope to gain by taking on this new persona? How must the character transform—both physically and emotionally? What are the limitations or pitfalls of the disguise? Conversely, are there doors that might now be open to this new identity that were closed before?
This week, write a scene in which your main character has an eye-opening encounter with a wild animal. Perhaps your character stumbles upon a raccoon, skunk, or opossum in an urban or suburban setting, or maybe it's an unexpected sighting of a bear or wolf in a remote forest. Does the encounter bring to the surface feelings of fear or compassion? Will the animal become symbolic for your character? For inspiration, watch Marsha de la O read her poem “Possum.”
Virginia Woolf’s The Waves explores the inner lives of its six characters through a sequence of connected soliloquies. Try writing a story using only soliloquies. Choose a scene that involves multiple characters, like a Thanksgiving dinner or a holiday party, and move between their inner monologues, building the setting and plot through each character’s unique thoughts and observations. When layered together, the different streams of consciousness will create the world in which these characters live.
In a recent conversation with President Obama, Marilynne Robinson observes that "people are so complicated. It’s like every new person is a completely new roll of the dice." This week, select a work-in-progress and add a new character to the story. Maybe it’s a stranger who gets involved in the plot, or someone from your protagonist’s past who suddenly shows up. You might decide whether this new character makes things easier or more difficult for your protagonist, or you might remain undecided as you write and see where this new relationship takes the story.
In Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature's Most Memorable Meals (Harper Design, 2014), Dinah Fried’s photographs are inspired by passages from some of her favorite classic and contemporary works of literature. Create a reversal of Fried's project by imagining the fictitious life story behind a meal. Look through some photos of complete meal spreads from different time periods, countries, and types of establishments and choose a photograph that piques your storytelling instincts. Develop a unique character, setting, and situation inspired by the food, tableware, and mood in the photograph.
Development team Bit Byterz is currently in the process of completing creation of Memoranda, a video game inspired by twenty of Haruki Murakami's short stories. The game employs Murakami's trademarks of bizarre surrealism and characters who are in search of something they’ve lost. Continue this chain of inspiration by writing a short story revolving around an object or person—or even something more conceptual—that has been lost. Allow your scenes to unfold as a series of puzzles and problems to solve, as your main character journeys to locate the lost item.
This week, create your own unique holiday, then write a piece of flash fiction about it. Include any traditions or customs that may be involved, and the story behind them. Is the main event a special feast, a bacchanalia, or a time to let loose an alter ego? Is it a day of celebration or contemplation? Explore what this holiday represents for the people who observe it.
Vladimir Nabokov said, “Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.” Try your hand at writing a spine-tingling tale. You might create a feeling of mystery or unease by introducing a creepy premise in the first sentence, or decide to lull the reader into a sense of security with a few run-of-the-mill details before unleashing an element of horror. For inspiration, read Nabokov's short story, "The Visit to the Museum."
Last week, the 2015 Nobel Prize recipients were announced, awarding a writer, scientific researchers, and peace advocates from around the world whose areas of work range from molecular cell DNA repair to political mediation in Tunisia. Write a short story in which your main character finds himself invited to the Nobel Prize award ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden. What preconceived notions might he have about the festivities and winners? Is he star-struck, mildly impressed, or ambivalent? Does he have dubious plans beyond celebrating with the recipients and guests?
Though in many ways the act of writing can be considered an exercise in control—over everything from plot arc to characters to the weather in your setting—what happens when you take a more passive position and relinquish control, allowing a story to emerge from your unconscious mind? Many scientists, spiritualists, and artists have reported on “automatic writing,” in which a person steers clear of putting any conscious intention behind the words that are put down. Try your hand by first writing about what comes to mind immediately: perhaps the changing colors and textures of autumn leaves outside, or everyday details about upcoming holidays and visiting family. Try not to pause or edit yourself. Gradually let your mind progress into an associative stream of consciousness. Take a look at what you’ve written and, using your favorite elements, write a short short story with a seasonal theme, allowing it to be nonsensical, absurd, or surreal.
Autumn leaves are a pleasurable part of the season, until it’s time to rake them up. Write a story about a character who rakes her neighbors’ lawns for extra cash. Have her deliver a short narrative about each home she visits. Delve into how these narratives relate to one another and whether they are intertwined. Do they reveal a greater story about the neighborhood that has been hidden until now? Does your narrator uncover secrets about her neighbors or her home?
Recent wildfires in California and an earthquake and tsunami in Chile are potent reminders of how destructive forces of nature can be upon modern civilization. Out of catastrophe, however, we see acts of bravery, generosity, and compassion. Write a short story that takes place in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Examine the ways in which your main character's psychological and physical strength might be tested under the circumstances.
Last week, scientists announced the discovery of a new species in the early human lineage: Homo naledi. Write a short story that takes discovery into the future by imagining a character who is of a new human species from the next millennium. What useful adaptations or physical differences might she have developed in order to survive an advanced environment? Would the progression of technology alter the need for long fingers or certain emotions?
Designed by the French robotics company, Aldebaran, Pepper the robot is able to read emotions and respond accordingly, and has the ability to learn over time. Write a short story imagining that your protagonist has somehow acquired one of these highly sought-after robots. What plans or hopes does he have for Pepper? Will having the robot turn out to be a nightmare or a dream come true?
In the recent animated film, Inside Out, the main character’s mind is steered by five personified emotions—anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness. Imagine a scene in which your main character suddenly feels one of these emotions intensely. Jot down a list of colors, sensations, and personality traits you associate with this emotion. For example, if you choose anger, you might find yourself thinking of the color red, heat, erratic gestures and movements, and loud noises. Write a short story in which this emotion completely overtakes your character’s personality, using vivid sensory details to match the atmosphere and tone.