This week, take a straightforward scene you’ve been working on and insert an awkward mistake made either by a major or minor character. You know the kind, in which you suddenly find yourself apologizing for walking in on a private conversation, and when backing out of the room, you knock over an expensive vase. Or perhaps an innocent typographical error causes an incredible uproar that, even once corrected, isn’t quickly forgotten. Use this mistake to forward the main plot, introduce a subplot, or inject some lighthearted slapstick into your narrative.
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.
Do you have a time period you routinely set your stories in? This week, choose a story you’re struggling with and reimagine it in a different decade or century. Perhaps setting your story further in the past will help you get your point across in a more engaging way. Maybe placing your main character in the future will enable him or her to accomplish a goal that would otherwise be unfeasible. Although it can be easy to become fixated on a certain era, think about the story holistically and consider how the setting can help direct your writing.
Strong characters are key elements in any well-constructed story. You may have clearly illustrated their history, occupation, likes, and dislikes, but to make them truly compelling you must have a basic understanding of these characters' psyches. Choose a story you've written and make a list of the characters you don't really know yet. Next to each name, jot down notes about what that character's aspirations and motivations are. How do these characters see the world? Who are the people they look up to, want to impress, or model themselves after? Where do these characters want to be in the next five years—or in the next fifty? Will they reach their dreams, or are they destined to get sidetracked? Let this information serve as a reference when you are deciding how a character should react in a situation, or how the plot should progress.
This week, pick a character and write a passage describing the childhood bedroom he or she grew up in. Consider the smells, the angle of sunlight through the blinds, the faint murmer of the television in the living room. What secrets are hidden under the floorboards, or etched in the closets? If the house still stands, and his or her family still lives there, have your character return for a visit.
Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.” Libraries are fascinating places, full of knowledge and mystery. Think of a library you’ve been to in the past. It could be the local library you went to as a kid to look at picture books, or a library you visited once to kill time. Take this library and use it as the setting for the beginning of a new story. Consider the librarian on duty, the regulars, the dark corners, and old books with strange, scribbled notes. What brings people to this library? What are they trying to find?
It has never been easier to learn how to cook with culinary shows on television, tutorials on the internet, and an abundance of cookbooks and food blogs specializing in all sorts of cuisines. This week, write a scene in which one of your characters has sparked an interest in cooking. Does cooking come naturally to her, or is it difficult for her to master? Does she set lofty goals, like winning a competition?
Do you remember how you used to play with toys as a child? If you sat down today with your blocks, your old train set, or your favorite doll, the way you’d interact with these toys would probably be very different than when you were five or six years old. This week, try and enter the mind of a child crouched on the living room floor, building a world fueled by imagination, and translate it into a short story. Think of the weird names kids give to their toys, and the strange logic that comes from the innocence of trying to grasp mature concepts. Good examples can be found in The Lego Movie, which came out earlier this year.
When writing, we usually employ as many senses as we (or our characters) typically experience. Take a scene you’ve already written and tally how many times touch, sight, sound, taste, and smell are used to describe the environment, characters, and action of the story. Which one do you rely the most heavily upon in your writing? Remove all of the instances in which that sense is used, and use an alternative sense in its place. How does this affect the tone, the action, or the scene as a whole?
Surrealism seeks to express the workings of the mind and imagination free from conscious control of reason and convention. This week, try to write a surrealist scene for a story you’ve been working on. To start, you could take a dream you’ve had recently and rewrite it, swapping the characters in your story for the characters in the dream. Read up on symbolism, and consider what certain types of images or events mean in dreams. Use this Dream Dictionary as a resource.
This past Sunday marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To celebrate, eight thousand helium balloons were released into the night sky over Berlin. This week, write a story that takes place in Berlin on the day of the ceremony. Perhaps one of your characters grew up with the Berlin Wall up. Maybe one of your characters is traveling across Europe and just happens to be in Berlin that day. In your story, break down some personal barriers between characters, or try to unite them on a common ground.
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder, treason, and plot.” This rhyme commemorates the failure of the plot to assassinate King James I of England on November 5, 1605. The plot’s failure was due in part to the arrest of Guy Fawkes, who was guarding explosives placed beneath the House of Lords. This week, learn about a treasonous plot that was foiled and write a short story about it. Retell the historical event as it happened, or use the facts as inspiration for an original story involving your own characters.
The fright-seekers are gearing up to get scared this week, visiting haunted houses, riding haunted hayrides, and stumbling through cavernous corn mazes. Imagine one of your characters is hired to be a monster for one of these frightful events. Why does she take the job? Does she like scaring people, or does she just need the money? What does her costume look like? Does she feel guilty about frightening people?
Is there a celebrity that you think one of your characters is destined to meet? Write a scene in which he or she has a chance encounter with this famous person. Have the two carry on a normal conversation before your character recognizes this person is a celebrity. Perhaps this star has some words of wisdom to impart to your character (or the other way around), or maybe he or she is just looking for a friend. For inspiration, watch this video in which recording artist Jay-Z meets a woman named Ellen in a New York City subway car.
Most songs have a story to tell. It could be a simple message, such as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles, or more complicated and personal. This week, think of a favorite song and write a story from it. You can invent new characters, settings, and plot points, or stick to the information provided in the lyrics of the song.
Many people believe that bigger is better, and when it comes to food, a giant-sized version of your favorite treat can be more exciting than the normal-sized version you encounter on a daily basis. But as humans, we can only eat so much in one sitting. Though delicious, a sofa-sized jelly doughnut is just not practical. This week, write a scene in which one of your characters wishes for a giant version of his favorite food. What happens when the wish comes true, and the delivery person shows up with, for example, a pizza the size of a small swimming pool?
The soothing sound of water pouring over rocks, the spray that mists your face as you stand at the bottom looking up—waterfalls have such power and grace. This week, write a short scene in which one of your characters discovers a waterfall on a walk through the woods. What’s her first instinct? Does she dive into the pool at the bottom for a swim? Or does she stand back in awe?
Ideally, people become accustomed to fire drills so that when there is a real fire, they will calmly gather their things and exit the building as practiced. After all, this is the point of such drills. But what if one person in the group consistently reacted in the opposite fashion? Write a situation in which a routine fire drill decends into chaos because one person insists, against all information provided by those in positions of authority, that everyone is in grave danger.
Does one of your characters have an obsession with their appearance? Is she the type that habitually glances at every reflective surface in order to catch a glimpse of herself? Does this behavior have a negative effect? This week, write a story in which this character can no longer examine her appearance. Perhaps she goes on a camping trip, or decides to take down all the mirrors in her house. Think about how this change in circumstance can impact the character’s mood, confidence, and outlook on life.
Think back to your childhood, to the stories you remember being told. Was there a particular story you wanted to hear over and over again? This week, try and remember that story, and choose one of the characters from it. Take that character and write an entirely different story centered around new obstacles. For example, if you choose Pippi Longstocking, write a story in which she is raising her own family, or has become the captain of her father's ship after his retirement.
As everyone recovers from, and reacts to, the shocking announcement that the popular cartoon character Hello Kitty is not a cat but a human girl, take a moment to think about how leaving certain details ambiguous could enhance or detract from a character's impact in a story. Do you have any characters that have elements of their backstory, or ambiguous qualities, that are never explained? If you have a character whom you feel is hiding something for whatever reason, write a scene in which this secret is revealed.
Some people, once they find a place they like, really make themselves at home. This week, write a story about a regular at a local bar, restaurant, or coffee shop. Why has this person latched on to this particular place? Does he or she always order the same thing? How do the other patrons feel about this person? Try to have all the action in the story take place inside the establishment.
Usually if someone's in love, they know it. Love is an all-encompassing emotion, often casting a person's life in a pleasant, rosy glow. But as with most emotions, love can be confusing. This week, write a story in which your character doesn't realize she is falling in love. Do her friends notice the development and try and make her see what's happening? Does she remain completely oblivious, or does she adamantly deny any affection towards her love interest? Is she even aware of her love interests' feelings towards her? Consider the fine line between close friendship and romantic love, and how difficult it is to tell whether that line has been crossed.
News and social media channels are buzzing about the recent outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. This week, write a story in which one of your characters is a doctor responsible for treating patients that have contracted a highly contagious virus. Think about how she handles the risks involved, and what emotions she’ll struggle with. Maybe there is a lack of proper medical equipment or limited space in hospitals and treatment facilities. Is there information on this virus, or is it something doctors have never seen before?
Farming as an occupation isn't nearly as common in the United States now as it was a century ago, but there are still some people who feel compelled to live a simpler, more self-sufficient lifestyle. This week, write about a character of yours who comes to the decision to give up her more modernized way of living and commits to living "off the grid"—growing all of her own food, raising livestock, collecting sunlight for electricity (or forgoing electricity altogether). How difficult will this be for her to pull off? Is it still feasible for people to live this way in the twenty-first century—especially city dwellers and suburbanites—or is this type of lifestyle too strenuous and time-consuming for the average person to manage?
There are few things more pleasant than finding a beautiful spot on a sunny afternoon to have a picnic lunch. That's if everything goes according to plan. This week, write a story about one of your characters planning an important picnic lunch. The occasion could be a family gathering, a first date, or a holiday celebration. How does this character handle the task? Do things end up going smoothly, or does everything fall apart? Maybe another character needs to step in and offer assistance, or maybe something beyond anyone's expectations occurs and the plans change completely.