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?
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.
“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.
Kevin Barry's novel Beatlebone (Doubleday, 2015) imagines John Lennon taking a mini pilgrimage to an island he's purchased off the west coast of Ireland. Led by his driver, Cornelius, they jump from one strange encounter to another as they try to avoid the paparazzi and make it to the island. Write a story in which the main character is someone famous in popular culture. Research the character, try to inhabit them far beyond the public persona, and send them on a journey that reveals the person beyond the limelight.
If you haven’t heard of it already, a “promposal” is a request for a date to high school prom through a dramatic gesture often involving witty puns and surprise declarations of affection in public, all recorded on camera and shared widely on social media. Write a scene in which a secondary character carries out an elaborate “promposal.” Is it angst-ridden and cringe-worthy, or humorously slapstick? Does the success or failure of the act offer foreshadowing for the atmosphere of the entire story?
Skywriting is often used for advertising or special occasions, such as a birthday or a marriage proposal. A small plane expels smoke as it flies in a specific pattern resulting in words that appear to be formed out of clouds for the world below. Write a short story in which two characters in two different locations glimpse a mysterious message written in the sky. How will the message bring your characters together?
Many people experience seasonal allergies during spring caused by the increased amount of pollen and grass present in the air. Write a short story in which one of your characters is affected by seasonal allergies. Is it a condition that proves to have surprisingly dramatic consequences, or one that simply adds a layer of pathos, humor, or realism to the story or character?
On March 8, 1941, Sherwood Anderson, author of the American classic Winesburg, Ohio, died from peritonitis. An autopsy later revealed that a swallowed toothpick was to blame. Craft a story in which a seemingly benign object, like a toothpick, ends up as the catalyst for some great change or tragedy. The object can be the focus of the story, as you track its movements through space and time, or it can appear in a brief moment, only to rise back up with great consequence. Think about how the tiniest details can give a narrative a new spin.
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice shrinks after drinking a potion labeled “DRINK ME,” and then later balloons in size after eating a cake labeled “EAT ME.” Write a story in which your main character is simultaneously confronted by these same two options and consequences. Which one does he choose? Does the sudden transformation in size help or hinder him as the story progresses? What aspects of his personality are brought to the forefront and magnified as a result?
Twenty years ago, Scot Rossillo started making rainbow bagels at his bagel store in Brooklyn, New York. In the last few months, with media attention, the popularity of the rainbow bagels has skyrocketed, even resulting in the temporary closure of one of his shops for renovations to keep up with the overwhelming demand. Write a story about a character who has been working on her own creative project for years—toiling in relative obscurity—and suddenly becomes an overnight sensation. How does she handle the increase in attention and demand for her work? What kind of new and unforeseen pressures might create conflict for her, and what kind of sacrifices is she willing—or not willing—to make?
Toward the end of last year, French publisher Short Édition unveiled short story vending machines in eight public places around the city of Grenoble in southeastern France. Users can choose either one, three, or five minutes' worth of fiction to read—ideal for waiting or commuting—and one of six hundred community-submitted stories is dispensed for free from the cylindrical orange vending machine on receiptlike paper. Try your hand at writing a short story that can be read in one minute; then write a three-minute story; and finally a five-minute story. How does manipulating diction, tone, and style make sense for different story lengths? Explore the use of dialogue and a limited number of characters necessary to accommodate the restricted length.
The Academy Awards, National Book Awards, James Beard Awards, Grammy Awards, Nobel Prizes, and Super Bowl MVP Awards all recognize and celebrate the achievements of their recipients annually with great fanfare. Write a short story that begins with the main character winning a major award. Describe the award, real or imagined, and whether there is an accompanying prize in addition to the honor and acclaim. Does your character prove to be camera-shy or fame-hungry? Does the award ultimately change her circumstances for better or for worse? Are there surprising consequences?
2016 is a Leap Year, meaning February gets an extra day on Monday, February 29. Push this one step further and invent—instead of an extra day—an extra month. Where would this thirteenth month fall in the calendar? In what season? Would it be named for an event or a person? Write a story that takes place within this month, using the invented details to enhance the story’s plot and tone.
“‘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?
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.